The bizarre incomprehension of democracy

There is a bizarre incomprehension of democracy.

I was inclined to say in the English speaking world – UK, USA, India – but there is also France, with the upcoming elections for the French National Assembly 2017. Also France has a system of District Representation (DR) rather than Proportional Representation (PR). Examples of PR are Holland, Germany and to some extent the European Parliament.

Democratic theory favours PR above DR. It is a historical mistake that countries have DR.

The UK Electoral Reform Society (wikipedia) protests about the UK general elections 2017.

Electoral Reform Society, website June 2017

Indeed, there is this difference (wikipedia) between the UK system of DR with the better system of PR. While the popular vote gives a majority to Lab + SNP + LibDem, the majority in seats goes to Con + DUP.

Seats Votes



































There is also the political dynamics of proportionality. Once a proportional system is in place then new parties will have a larger chance to get elected, and then they also have more scope to grow and to challenge the existing parties. We may observe that the UK 2017 outcome may be more proportional than in the past, but this still neglects the dynamics and the build-up of frustration amongst minorities that aren’t represented well.

The UK already has experience with the system of PR, namely for the European elections. While UKIP didn’t do so well within the UK system, Nigel Farage gained the limelight via the elections for the European Parliament.

The UK Electoral Reform Society fails too

Part of the bizarre situation is that the UK Electoral Reform Society (ERS) fails too. They favour the system of “Single Transferable Vote” (STV) and they call this a system of PR while it isn’t PR. It is rather bizarre that they do not comprehend this. The UK had a so-called “referendum on PR” in 2011, but this was actually on the system of “Instant Run-Off” (a.k.a. “Alternative Vote”).

Apparently, the UK has a hangup on DR. They think that districts allow voters to connect directly with the local politicians, and that this reduces the influence of the party bosses. This is a dubious argument. If a representative and party member is out of line with the party then the party might still sack him or her nevertheless. In PR it is easier to start a new political party and be elected (when the issue likely isn’t just local).

Thus the statements by the ERS about district representation derive from historical bias and not from clear theory and practical experience with PR.

Let me give an example how STV favoured by ERS is not PR at all, even though they claim that it would be PR.

Example that STV is not PR

Consider two districts with 30000 voters each. Each district has 2 seats, so that the Droop Quota is 30000 / (2 + 1) + 1 = 10001. Parties contending for these seats are Con, Lab, en LDP. In District 1, the Con are popular, and they present there a list with two candidates. In District 2 the Lab are popular, and they present there a list with two candidates. We consider a rather symmetrical situation as in the following table, also with the STV results.

In STV, voters vote only once, but they can assign a rank order of the candidates.

In District 1, 7503 Con1 voters give Con1 as their first choice and Con2 as their second choice. Also 7501 Con2 voters give Con2 as their first choice and Con1 as their second choice.

  1. In the first round, no candidate meets the quota. LDP1 has the minimal number of votes, 7494, and is eliminated.
  2. In the second round, Con2 has the minimal number of votes, 7501, and is eliminated.
  3. In the third round, the Con2 votes are allocated to Con1, and Con1 meets the quota and is elected.
  4. In the fourth round, Lab3 is the remaining candidate and thus is elected, though the 7502 votes are below the quota.

The situation in District 2 is analogous.

District 1 Votes District 2  Votes


Elected Con3










Elected Lab2








Let us now join the two districts, and look how STV works for the national vote.

There are 60000 voters and 4 seats, so the Droop Quota is 60000 / (4 + 1) + 1 = 12001.

The Con voters put the Con candidates of their district in the first places, and then the Con candidates of the other district. For example, the 7501 Con2 voters have the rank order {Con2, Con1, Con3}.

Because of the symmetrical structure of this example, there are some ties. Rather than using a coin, we use the alphabetical order.

  1. In the first round, no candidate meets the quota, and LDP1 is eliminated.
  2. In the second round, the LDP1 votes go to LDP2, and it is elected.
  3. In the third round, alphabetically Con2 has the minimal number of votes, and is eliminated.
  4. In the fourth round, Con2’s votes go to Con1, and it is elected.
  5. In the fifth round, alphabetically Lab2 has the minimal number of votes, and is eliminated.
  6. In the sixth round, Lab2 votes go to Lab1, and it is elected.
  7. In the seventh round, alphabetically Con3 has the minimal number of votes, 10506, and is eliminated.
  8. In the eighth round, Lab3 remains, and is elected, though with only 10506 votes.

Thus now LDP2, Con1, Lab1 and Lab3 are elected.


  • As the UK Electoral Reform Society (ERS) states that STV would generate proportional results, both {Con1, Con3, Lab1, Lab3} and {Con1, Lab1, Lab3, LDP2} would be proportional results, which however are quite different results, which destroys the meaning of proportionality.
  • With a hangup on DR, there will be little scope for fair representation of the minority LDP.
  • PR would require party representation with {37.5%, 37.5%, 25%} of the seats. Admittedly, this is difficult to achieve with 4 seats, but if the situation persists then one might change the number of seats. This uses the PR criterion rather than the STV criterion.

In these considerations, the notion of PR dominates DR.

Confusing information from Holland

Holland is a small country with some 10 million voters. One might think that its proportional system might not easily scale up to a large unit like the EU. If the EU Parliament would be fully proportional, then Germany might have too large a weight. However, there are also divisions along party lines, and proportionality still would be a fair choice.

Holland had general elections on March 15 2017, and political parties are still negotiating about a coalition government. This is bad advertisement for the system.

There is a confusion in Holland about desiring the minimal majority coalition, that bargains for an agreement that would apply for the next 4 years. It would be more rational to look for a larger majority, and rather set for a flexible agenda, so that issues can be dealt with in varying manner. See this paper of mine. It may also be better to have elections every year, so that Parliament becomes more sensitive to the popular vote. (If you would replace only 25% of the seats, then the electoral quota becomes 4 times larger, and this might be too high again.)

Most bizarre is that the Dutch party D66 wants to change the Dutch PR system into more use of districts … see here. Thus the good news about democracy in Holland is killed again by the campaigners on the D66 hobby horse.


We observe that the UK ERS protests against the failure of the UK electoral system, but we can also conclude that ERS doesn’t comprehend democracy.

We find similar confusions all over the world. The best advice is to change your national electoral system to the PR system like in Holland (or to some extent the EU parliament), yet many campaigners ride their hobby horses of wildly confusing varieties, and calling it “democracy” while it actually isn’t.

PM. A paper of mine on comparing PR and DR is here.


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