A recent poll by the Institute of Public Policy Research showed that support for a switch to the Alternative Vote system (AV) from First-Past-The-Post may be growing in the UK. One of many, often contradictory, polls this one is just a small part of the growing debate and speculation over the potential switch to a new voting system. Various arguments have been made by the ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ campaigns, touching on issues such as public engagement, enabling voices, empowering the people, representativeness, extreme views and minority parties. This list of discussion topics is by no means linked only to the technicalities of a voting system, however. Indeed, one might wonder whether the issues are actually a product of the voting system at all.
Poor public engagement and voter turnout have been cited as examples of a failing democracy in the UK and reasons for the lack of public engagement have been discussed. Some blame a lack of voting choice but others hold to account the perceived lack of accountability of MPs or distrust and cynicism amongst the public as well as a feeling of detachment from decision making, often linked to the limiting of public involvement to a single vote per parliament. Such public disengagement can negatively affect either voting system by encouraging poorly informed voting and agonistic politics. Indeed, some have argued that a weakness of AV is its potential to give greater power to extreme views through increased support of minority parties. This is a debatable theory rather than a fact and perhaps misses the point about our democratic failings. The debate should not be about how can we constrain, silence or deny these extreme views through design of a voting system but how can we encourage the public to engage deliberatively, exploring issues and exchanging opinions so that individuals can participate in a more informed and enlightened way. Improving governance through informing and consulting the public, encouraging deliberative and collaborative interaction and integrating public feedback into policy making are popular topics raised by many scholars. Coleman and Gotze (2001) addressed the issue, showing how engaging the public in more deliberative activity can transform political involvement from preference assertion to preference formation. They described how online spaces have the potential to facilitate mass conversation and deliberation, exchange of views and information and ultimately more considered political involvement.
While electoral reform is currently all over the UK blogosphere, there seems to be a lack of formal public deliberation about the issue. Interestingly, a series of offline debates has been held to allow citizens to deliberate electoral reform. Recorded and made available on the internet, it is notable, however, that this is not accompanied by an online debating facility to allow a wider community of citizens to discuss the issues themselves. The current focus on the voting system itself is perhaps hiding the issue that needs our attention – whatever the voting system, voters should be encouraged to form considered, well-informed opinions.
Ref: Coleman, S. and Gotze, J. (2001) Bowling Together: online public engagement in policy deliberation, London: Hansard Society, 2001