This week’s New Yorker has kindly devoted 4,000 words to the colourful history — and pure maths — of electoral systems.
1) ”No no country would pick first-past-the-post voting today. Of democracies with no significant British past, only Nepal now elects its national assembly this way.”
2) AV is a “non-monotonic” system that can lead to topsy-turvy results; backing a candidate can, in some circumstances, make them more likely to lose. This allows for tactical voting, where you actually vote against your preferred candidate, in order to help them win.
3) AV, which was invented by an American architect, has been adopted by the Oscars. But the good folk of Burlington, Vermont, are unimpressed. They ditched the system last year after re-electing Bob Kiss, a progressive, even though the third-place Democrat candidate won the most preferences.
4) Dodgy results from AV are rare. But a mathematician has worked out that there is a duff outcome in 1 in 5 races with at least three contestants between 20 and 40 per cent of first preference votes. Almost sounds like a Labour leadership race.
The best bit of the whole piece is undounbtedly the intro describing the crackers system for electing the doge of Venice, which lasted for more than 500 years:
Whenever the time came to elect a new doge of Venice, an official went to pray in St. Mark’s Basilica, grabbed the first boy he could find in the piazza, and took him back to the ducal palace. The boy’s job was to draw lots to choose an electoral college from the members of Venice’s grand families, which was the first step in a performance that has been called tortuous, ridiculous, and profound. Here is how it went, more or less unchanged, for five hundred years, from 1268 until the end of the Venetian Republic.
Thirty electors were chosen by lot, and then a second lottery reduced them to nine, who nominated forty candidates in all, each of whom had to be approved by at least seven electors in order to pass to the next stage. The forty were pruned by lot to twelve, who nominated a total of twenty-five, who needed at least nine nominations each. The twenty-five were culled to nine, who picked an electoral college of forty-five, each with at least seven nominations. The forty-five became eleven, who chose a final college of forty-one. Each member proposed one candidate, all of whom were discussed and, if necessary, examined in person, whereupon each elector cast a vote for every candidate of whom he approved. The candidate with the most approvals was the winner, provided he had been endorsed by at least twenty-five of the forty-one.
Don’t worry if you blinked: bewildering complexity was part of the point. The election aimed to reassure Venetians that their new ruler could not have been eased into place by backroom deals.