That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

How to count sweet nothings

Let’s bend our brains with an incredible logic-busting paradox.

In the UK, right now, we have Members of Parliament elected by just a plurality of votes. In fact, the great majority of them (431 out of 650) have less than 50% of the share of the vote in their constituency. That’s how it so often works in a first-past-the-post voting system with more than two parties competing.

And that figure doesn’t include voters who stay home! If you consider all the non-voters as essentially “non-supporters” of any candidate (considering non-voting to be, in essence, a vote against all), then there isn’t a single MP in the House of Commons who has the explicit support of 50% of the eligible voters in his/her constituency.

But of course, no one counts the “nothing” votes, because they were never actually cast. Right?

Now, consider this Mad Hatter logic.

The referendum on the Alternative Vote system is slated for next year, precisely in effort to ensure that every elected MP has the explicit support of at least half their constituents – this is secured through the AV’s automatic run-off. Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Harwich and Essex North, doesn’t like the idea of a referendum on electoral reform, and he’s scheming to scupper it with a novel approach to how democracy works: count the non-votes.

After all, if someone didn’t vote for it, then it’s as good as voting against it! If voters don’t vote, it shows they don’t want what’s on offer, so let’s count that as a “no” vote. Not a “non-vote,” but a “vote for no.” Essentially, non-votes should become votes. Nothings can become somethings.

Jenkin proposes that 40% of the total electorate should vote yes in a referendum on electoral reform for it to pass. Even if a majority of voters vote yes, people staying home will count as voting no, which could well push the majority down (that’s what happened in Scotland in 1979, which employed Jenkin’s 40% of total rule. 51% of votes cast were for a devolved government, but there was only 64% turnout, so the “no” plus the “non” won the day. Scotland’s Parliament didn’t come into being for nearly 20 years after that).

What Jenkin doesn’t seem to want to consider is that, if we’d counted the non-votes in his constituency as votes “against” during May’s general election, then he himself wouldn’t have secured 40% of the vote there. He’d have only secured 32%, and he wouldn’t be an MP. In fact, his constituency wouldn’t have an MP.

But, while he’s considered to have “passed” the electoral test with 32% of votes and non-votes, he wants a higher democratic threshold to apply to a referendum, the subject of which is getting fair representation in parliament.

Jenkin’s proposal to count sweet nothings is, in essence, a voting reform. Next year’s referendum is on voting reform, so you can’t really undertake voting reform before you ask voters to vote on the reforms.

Take Back Parliament have usefully published a most excellent spreadsheet of all MPs in the country with their share of the vote, plus their share of the vote divided by total body of eligible voters in their constituency. It allows us to see which MPs would have actually made it to Westminster using Jenkin’s electoral threshold – we’d have just 35 MPs!

Come to think of it, that might appeal to David Cameron and friends.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , ,

2 Responses

  1. […] from the local elections date, and referendum turnout was thus rather low, provoking people like Bernard Jenkin to then advocate that the result isn’t conclusive enough, then Clegg might be provoked to […]

  2. […] say so, a democratic system shouldn’t move to assume what they think. As I’ve said before, non-votes are not votes. Nothings are not […]

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