Saturday, 27 April 2013

"...except for all those other forms..."

With the honeymoon of the early election announcement over, and a long way to wait until the campaigning starts in full force, we are now well and truly in the limbo of nothing much happening. If there is nothing to write about, I won't belabour (or beliberal) the point by writing space filler, so this blog might go into kryogenic storage for a few weeks. However there are a few more things I plan to discuss first, so that won't be happening for a month or so at the bare minimum. This week, however, we'll be taking a pretty laid back, psephologically light approach after the number crunching of the last fortnight.

Some of you may have noticed that this upload did not magically appear on Friday. The reason for this is that I am now working full-time, so I'll be doing most of my writing on the weekends. I'll be aiming for Saturday evening uploads, so you can peruse my latest posts on lazy Sunday mornings, as you recline in your suave smoking jackets and muse distractedly over your coffee and a crossword or two.

This. This is my new target audience.
Unfortunately, on occasion, delays may mean a Sunday morning update. Or, on certain particular occasions - e.g. next week - I may strive for a Friday upload. But, as women and men of leisure I hope this will not overly inconvenience you. If you want, you can check in after your Sunday post-lunch polo match to ensure there is a new upload. Or you can just ask your valet to keep checking for updates.

This post's title is taken from Winston Churchill's famous speech after being voted out of office: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

I do not automatically agree with the more common paraphrasing of this quote: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." I am not convinced that democracy is the best possible system of rule, or even that it is necessarily the best system proposed so far. I will, however, agree with the words of Winnie; there has not been a better system of government successfully imposed in recorded history, if we judge it on its ideals, its practicality, its treatment of the people and its shortcomings.

Australian democracy is, I feel, the worst example of democracy, "except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." I do not believe it is perfect, I do not believe it is the best possible form of democracy, and I do not believe it is even the best proposed form of democracy. I have spent the last two weeks criticising compulsory voting and suggesting alternative theoretical electoral systems. But we are very lucky to have such a robust, reliable and something-else-beginning-with-r system, so this week I am going to look at what is so good about Australian elections, and applaud the AEC for the fantastic work it does.

Those Who Cannot Remember the Past are Condemned to Repeat HIST1001:

ATHENS: Everyone should be well aware that democracy started in Ancient Greece. The Athenian system was simple. The Legislative Assembly (which passed the laws) was composed of all eligible citizens. There were also "elected" officials. And by "elected", I mostly mean "selected by lottery".

Old School Responsible Government

It is fun to imagine the election officials of Ancient Greece as elderly women in bingo halls. There were systems in place to attempt to limit incompetence (e.g. most positions were part of larger councils, and positions could not be held more than once (or twice in the case of boule)). Only 10% of officials - mostly those in charge of finance and military - were elected in the sense we recognise today.

The short comings of this form of democracy are obvious - even if you happen to fluke an entirely competent government, you could have corrupt, fanatical or extremist officials enforcing (or not enforcing) the law. Also, every eligible citizen needs to organise, understand and pass the laws of the land. And eligible citizens did not include women, slaves, people under 20 years of age, foreigners or anyone without land.

SPARTA: Less well known is that the mortal enemies of the Athenians were also democratic. Their voting system was a range voting system, the same basic idea that I proposed here. Range voting lets you voice your support qualitatively. You can offer a little support or a lot of support for each candidate (or, in my system, negative support) so that the voices of those who actually care drown out those who don't.

Athenians, including apparently Aristotle, considered this to be vulgar, barbaric and childish. Mostly because instead of using ballots (as I proposed) or pebbles (like the Athenians (the Greek word for pebble - psephos - is the origin of the term psephology)) winners were determined by how loudly the audience shouted for them. The loud-guy-behind-you-on-the-bus must have been an important demographic in Sparta.

ROME: Once the Greek city states had killed each other off, then been killed of by foreigners, then finally conquered by the Roman Empire, democracy really began to spread. The Roman Senate was the start of representative democracy, where people voted for rulers rather than the laws themselves. This freed many people up for other important duties including capturing foreign slaves, masacering foreigners, and watching foreign slaves being massacred for sport. The Romans perfected many of the basics of modern democracy, including corruption, gerrymandering, concentrating power in the hands of the wealthy and overthrowing the system to become supreme ruler.

POST-ROME: The fall of Rome ushered in the Dark Ages, which were very politically complex. By the middle ages, much of the world was ruled once more by tyrants, monarchs and the church. There were some exceptions, however. In many cases this was only democratic in the sense of a few high-ranked warlords being beaten into submission and accepting (rather than electing) a ruler. Later - for example in the Italian republics or Papal elections - politics continued under the guise of democracy, although even a cursory glance at the history of these states will reveal corruption on a level that would make Old Rome blush. Think of the Medici, or the Borgia. Less is known of the Slavic Veches, but these were also be dominated by the rich and powerful.

BENGAL: A group of Bengalese rulers did democratically (and by all accounts voluntarily) elect a King in 750 AD, but as a King he was succeeded by his son and the following Pala dynesty. As such, it's not really a democracy.

VIKINGS: When not busy pillaging, the Vikings practiced a form of democracy. Viking councils elected chieftains and passed laws. One of the major draw backs was that there was no separation of powers - the councils created the laws and judged criminals. This law was them memorised and recited as needed by a particular individual, which allowed rampant corruption and gave little hope for impartiality. On the upside, these councils were called "things", which makes the wikipedia page a gem:
It is known from North-Germanic cultures that the balancing institution was the thing...
...the local things were represented at the higher-level thing...
At the thing, disputes were solved and political decisions were made.
The thing met at regular intervals...
the king realized that he was powerless against the thing and gave in. 

JAPAN: There are reports that the city of Sakai in Japan also had glimmers of democratic elections among its ruling merchant class, but was still subject to the feudal lords that ruled Japan. These elections appear to have been conducted by the elite for the elite, and although I have found very little documentation on the subject it seems likely that this was not entirely dissimilar to the type of democracy practised in the Italian Republics.

BRITAIN: Britain had a form of democratic government which arguably dated back to the Magna Carta. This was a long, slow transition from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy that continues to evolve today. British elections, like many other current elections are First Past the Post (FPTP), unlike Australia's preferential system. Imagine, if you will, a four party race for a single seat, as we showed at the start of the month.

Remember this graphic?

Now, if you will recall, the defining issue of this particular election was in relation to chicken wings. The Chicken Wing party has a controversial stance, only supported by 32% of the voters - less than a third. The rest of the parties agree on their opposition, accounting for the remaining 68%. In FPTP the Chicken Wing party wins. In other words, one unpopular party can win because several other popular parties dilute the opposing vote.

In these kings of systems, it is often said that a vote for a minor party is a wasted vote. This means you are better off voting for the lesser of two (or three) evils among the main contenders, rather than voting for the party you support the most. Another common sentiment is that if you didn't vote for the second-place contestant, you effectively voted for the winner since all you really did was deprive the second-placer of a much needed vote.

USA: Much of the American elections suffer from a similar problem. In the Bush-Gore presidential election (2000) Gore lost several important seats by a small margin, and exit polls suggest that many of those who voted for a third option - Mr Nader - would have tipped the election in Gore's favour in a preferential system. Mr Nader drew off a few Democratic supporters that would otherwise have preferred Gore, which means the presence of a left-wing candidate may have won the election for the right-wing Republicans.

Bush won in 2000 by five electoral college votes. This means that if three of those votes switched hands, Gore would have won. 49 of the states (not counting Montana or Maine but counting Washington D.C. as a defacto state) are won in a block, and the number of electoral college votes for each state are the number of senators for that state plus the number of representatives the house of representatives. Since each state has two senators and at least one house representative, every state is guaranteed three electoral college votes. This means if any state other than Montana and Maine was skewed by Mr Nader syphoning of voters from Gore then Gore could have won in 2000 and Geroge W. Bush may never have been the President of America.

This is the pro-choice, gay-rights supporting environmentalist that gave the world George W. Bush

Beneath our Radiant Southern Cross:

With exhaustive preferential voting and compulsory attendance, I'm pretty happy with the Australian political system really. I'm not to thrilled by the way people are coerced into voting when they don't care (giving the illusion of compulsory voting) but I quite like compulsory attendance. It means everyone definitely had the opportunity to cast a vote. I just think there should be an official, formalised way to declare that they do not wish their vote to be counted, rather than the skullduggery of informal voting. 

Given how much time and effort the AEC puts into ensuring people remember how to cast a valid vote each year, I wonder how many people know the system well enough to actually consider casting an invalid vote on purpose.

At this point I would like to repeat my admiration for the excellent work the AEC does. Around the country they will arrange and construct great numbers of booths out of rigid card; print and distribute electoral rolls; manufacture the randomised upper and lower house ballots and send them to the correct seats AND to any polling places where voters will be when away from home; count, and supervise the counting, of votes including postal, early and overseas votes; checking each form to determine if it is invalid and that no one forgot to include the number 37 on the white ballot when voting below the line; distributing and redistributing and reredistributing preferences (remember that some upper house ballots have over 50 names!); collating and announcing the results and packing up again afterwards.

And that is just the federal elections. The AEC will also run elections right down to workplace-level union votes and, if you were willing to pay, would probably even do a school's S.R.C. elections! And it has a top-notch education programme as well. (e.g.)

To compare, the US presidential election last year had voting machines that would not let you vote for certain candidates, people from one state could not vote if they were travelling, voting booths were divided by curtains that could be subtly drawn aside and the counting was chaotic.


Next Week:

Next week I will be striving to get a post up by Friday, despite what I said about your regular update time being moved to Saturdays. Why? Tasmanian Legislative Council elections of Saturday, dear friends. Predictions to follow!

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