A-M u s i n g s: The Winner Takes It All

If you believe that Democracy has anything to do with “one man, one vote” (sorry ladies, it’s just a saying) then the Creole Language might help put you right; I’ll get back to that in a minute, but for now let’s talk about proportional representation, which is the main rival to plurality-majority voting, the system that is used in Saint Lucia.

Proportional representation is the voting system predominantly used among advanced western democracies. For instance, in Western Europe, 21 of 28 countries use proportional representation, including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

The basic rule of proportional representation is simple: the number of seats that a party wins in an election is proportional to the amount of its support among voters. So if you have a 100-seat legislature and one party wins 50% of the vote, they receive fifty of the hundred seats. If a second party wins 30% of the vote, they get thirty seats; and if a third party gets 20% of the vote, they win twenty seats.

As a rule, proportional voting systems provide more accurate representation of parties, better representation for political and racial minorities, fewer wasted votes, higher levels of voter turnout, better representation of women, greater likelihood of majority rule, and little opportunity for gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favour one party – a not uncommon practice in many states, though the smaller the population, the easier it is to manipulate.

Over 80% of the proportional systems used worldwide utilize some form of party-list voting. It remains the system used in most European democracies and in many newly democratized countries, including South Africa.

Each party puts up a list or slate of candidates equal to the number of seats available. Independent candidates may also run, and they are listed separately on the ballot as if they were their own party. On the ballot, voters indicate their preference for a particular party and the parties then receive seats in proportion to their share of the vote. So in a 100-member district, if a party wins 40% of the vote, it would win 40 of the 100 seats and, in a closed-list system, their top 40 candidates would be chosen.

In a closed-list system the party fixes the order in which its candidates are listed and elected, and the voter simply casts a vote for the party as a whole. Voters are not able to indicate their preference for any candidates on the list, but must accept the list in the order presented by the party. Winning candidates are selected in the exact order they appear on the original list.

Most European democracies now use the open-list form of party list voting. This approach allows voters to express a preference for particular candidates, not just parties. It is designed to give voters some say over the order of the list and thus which candidates get elected. Voters are presented with unordered or random lists of candidates chosen in party primaries. Voters cannot vote for a party directly, but must cast a vote for an individual candidate. This vote counts for the specific candidate as well as for the party. So the order of the final list completely depends on the number of votes won by each candidate on the list. The most popular candidates rise to the top of the list and have a better chance of being elected.

Suppose 100,000 votes were cast for 10 seats, this would mean each seat was worth 10,000 votes. If a party got 37,000 votes, it would receive 3 seats with a remainder of 7,000 votes. After the first allocation of seats is complete the remainder numbers for the parties are compared and the parties with the largest remainders are allocated the remaining seats. Ultimately all the parties end up with the number of seats that as closely as possible approximates their percentage of the vote. Scarcely a vote is lost.

In St Lucia, if one party receives 2,000 votes and another party receives 2,001 votes, then the majority party wins and 2,000 votes remain without a voice. The Creole word ‘vwa’ means both ‘vote’ and ‘voice’ – in St Lucia, many can vote but only the victorious have a voice.

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