Pluralism is possible

By Peter Emerson (The de Borda Institute)

An Irish webinar in Germany: Parliament, not selecting, but electing a coalition

Ireland’s contributions to the development of democracy have not always been the best: Bernardo O’Higgins, for example, was the world’s first dictator to get 100% in a referendum, in Chile in 1818. On the more positive side, Ireland has been a standard bearer for (the British invention of) PR-STV, despite Fianna Fáil’s attempts to revert to (the British nonsense of) first-past-the-post. Secondly, our Citizens’ Assembly both used and then recommended multi-option voting, at least for referendums.

A third instance relates to the matrix vote. Inevitably, perhaps, Northern Ireland’s binary conflict has promoted non-binary structures. Sadly, however, the ubiquitous majority vote is still the basis of ‘democratic’ government. If instead international norms were to uphold non-majoritarian decision-making voting procedures, governance everywhere could be based on all-party coalitions.

Peter Emerson giving a lecture in Lánzhōu University. The matrix vote has been demonstrated in universities in Tiānjīn and Xúzhōu.

How could one be formed? In 2017 and 2020, both Germany and Ireland spent over 100 days selecting just a majority coalition. Could not Parliament elect its Government? The matrix vote has been demonstrated in Belfast often; in Dublin in TASC, Maynooth and with The Irish Times; thrice in Potsdam University; and even in China. It is now to be used in Munich.

An inclusive debate: The Modified Borda Count

But first, how could an all-party polity function? Well, in a six-party Dáil or Bundestag, on any one controversy there might be six options ‘on the table’. In debate, these could be tweaked, amended, composited or even deleted… but only if the original proposer(s) agreed to such changes. So the options would vary, in both substance and number. If they boiled down to a singleton, this could be taken as the verbal consensus. If not, (as is more likely), the Cathaoirleach/Sprecher would produce a balanced (short) list, (as in the five-option referendum which New Zealand’s Independent Commission formed in 1992); Parliament would then vote, and the option with a sufficiently high average preference score would then be implemented.

A five-option Modified Borda Count MBC would allow the members to cast (up to) five preferences:

  • if he casts just one preference, his favourite gets 1 point;
  • if she casts two preferences, her favourite gets 2 points (and her 2nd choice gets 1 point);

and so on; so

  • he who casts all five preferences get his favourite 5 points, (his 2nd choice 4, etc.).

In other words, in a ballot of n options, the voter/parliamentarian may cast m preferences,

n > m > 1,

and points are awarded to (1st, 2nd … last) preferences cast according to the rule:

(m, m-1 … 1).

Unfortunately, some people use a different rule:

(n, n-1 … 1) or (n-1, n-2 … 0).

The MBC m rule was devised by Jean-Charles de Borda in 1770. It should not be (but often is) confused with an n rule, the misnamed Borda Count BC; the former encourages inclusivity, the latter does not.

An inclusive polity: The matrix vote

An average opinion involves every member of the Dáil/Bundestag, so this voting procedure could be the basis of all-party power-sharing. (Millions of) people elect the Parliament, ideally by PR; and the (few hundred) parliamentarians then elect the government, again by PR. We return to the question: how? And a matrix vote would allow every member to choose, in order of preference, not only those whom they want in Cabinet, but also the portfolio in which they wish each of their nominees to serve. Hence the name, ‘matrix’; the ballot paper is two-dimensional.

As with PR-STV, a party with 30% of the seats in Parliament may expect about 30% of the Cabinet, so nominates only that number, lest it splits the vote. As with an MBC, members are incentivized to submit a full ballot. So, when casting 15 preferences for a 15-member Cabinet, the 30% party member could cast 4 or 5 top preferences to party colleagues, and lower preferences to support others from other parties. Thus the matrix vote encourages Parliament to vote across the party divide – a prerequisite, it is argued, of good power-sharing.

In the count, a PR analysis identifies the 15 most popular parliamentarians; and an MBC is used to translate the preferences in the matrix into points, and to appoint each of the successful members to the Ministry for which, in the consensus of Parliament, they are most suited.

To demonstrate how the Bundestag could elect such an inclusive Government, the de Borda Institute will conduct a seminar, on-line, ‘in’ Munich on Oct 4th, one week after the next German elections. Details of the event are available here.

Peter Emerson is the director of The de Borda Institute, a Northern Ireland-based NGO, which aims to promote the use of inclusive voting procedures on all contentious questions of social choice.

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