Know How Your Vote Counts
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Know How Your Vote Counts

Knowing your electoral system is as important as knowing your candidate.

By Ranjan Crasta

Published on :

It’s election time in Delhi and the media’s gone into overdrive reporting on the campaigning of various parties for the elections. And if you’re not familiar with the way elections work in India you’re going to be mighty confused, because the way elections work differs from country to country. The two main forms of elections are the first-past-the-post system and the proportional representation system. As voting mechanisms differ from country to country, so do these systems. Some countries even use combinations of some form of first-past-the-post and the proportional representation system. Sounds confusing? Not for long.

The first-past-the-post system, simply put, is one in which a candidate is entitled to a seat if he receives the most number of votes in an election. It must be stressed that the candidate needn’t attain a majority but must simply poll more votes than other contesting candidates. It’s generally based on single member constituencies where constituents can vote for only one candidate on the ballot.

This is the system which is used in the election of members to the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies in India. Another notable instance of the first-past-the-post system are in the state elections of most American states to determine the candidates elected to the electoral college.

According to Duverger’s Law, the first-past-the-post system will, in time, lead to a two-party system which will allow for a certain political stability through one party achieving an absolute majority. In India however, this is not the case as regional parties alter the equation, and a simple majority outcome is often achieved only when a party manages a simple majority through coalition tactics despite having fewer votes.

One of the criticisms of this form of elections, is that it leads to tactical voting where a voter will likely vote for one of the two frontrunners rather than the voter’s actual choice. This is because a vote cast in favour of a candidate who is unlikely to win will be perceived to be a waste of a vote, effectively voting against one of the leading candidates rather than voting for their actual preferred candidate.
This also brings another major problem into the picture—the problem of paid news which is currently rampant in India. If voters are more likely to vote for a candidate projected as a favourite then media coverage plays a massive role. Candidates with deeper pockets who are able to pay for greater media coverage will benefit while better candidates with meagre means are likely to fall by the wayside.

The popular alternative to this system is the Proportional Representation system. In this system, the number of votes received by a party is proportionate to the number of seats a party receives in parliament based on a pre-determined formula. This is an alternative to single winner constituency elections. This system generally results in a proliferation of regional parties which then overcome the bias in favour of large parties that non-proportional representation systems experience.
There are different types of Proportional Representation as well. The most common form of Proportional Representation is the party list system. Parties formulate a ranked list of candidates and citizens vote solely for parties who then dispense seats won in order of a candidate’s rank on the list – a system prevalent in Spain. In other countries, such as Sweden, parties formulate a list of candidates and the voters choose one or sometimes two candidates from the list of proposed candidates and the most preferred candidates are allotted seats. This gives voters more control over the ranking of candidates.

Some countries which use proportional representation treat the entire country as one large constituency and proportion is based on the total number of votes received countrywide. This is prevalent in Israel. In other countries, the whole country is divided into districts with a proportional number of seats based on the size of the district.

In addition to the ordinary Proportional Representation system, there is the Mixed-Member Proportional Voting also known as the “German System”. This system while not being very popular is experiencing a sharp growth in support. It is the system used in Germany and is a mix of plurality voting and proportional representation. In this system, half the assembly is elected through plurality district-based voting. The voters also cast votes for a party of their choosing. Through this, half the parliament is elected directly whereas the other members enter parliament through party lists similar to the proportional representation system.

Another unique electoral system is the one used in the United States of America. Each state is allocated a particular number of electoral college seats based on the number of Senators and House Representatives from the state in question. It is these electors whose votes determine the President. Each state is represented by two Senators elected by popular vote and a varying number of Representatives, also elected by popular vote, based on the population density of the state. While the least populous state – Wyoming – has just one Representative in the House of Representatives, the most populous state – California – sends 53 members to the House of Representatives.
The presidential candidates meanwhile battle for the popular vote in each state and the winner of the popular vote in a state wins the corresponding electoral college seats for that state. When a Democratic nominee wins the popular vote in a state, all the electoral college seats in that state are awarded to Democrat electors who in turn vote for the Democratic Presidential candidate. Which is why it doesn’t matter whether either candidate wins the majority vote as far as the nation is concerned but only that he/she wins enough states to assure him a majority of electoral college votes. This happened in the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W Bush when Gore polled more votes but won fewer seats than Bush.

There is no one form of elections that is free from fault and manipulation. It is only through understanding how various election systems work that a voter realises the importance of a single vote. This is why an informed vote goes far beyond knowing your candidate. It also means understanding the system.

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