Alternative Outcomes for the 2011 General Election

~ By Tim (Tiddy) Smith ~

Citizens spend a great deal of time deciding just who to vote for. They consider the values, integrity and policies of the candidates in their constituencies. They scrutinise candidates’ track records and even take note of scandals in their private lives. But few consider the question of how voting should take place. What kind of elections should we have? Should votes be given to candidates, or to political parties? Should each person get just one vote, or several? Should we rank candidates from best to worst, instead of simply ticking the box of our top choice?

Indeed, in May last year, the UK held a national referendum on electoral reform. The move, spearheaded by the Liberal Democrats, came as a response to over 70 years of two party rule and forced Britons to confront the stagnation in their political system. The referendum asked citizens the following question:

“At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?”

Answering “yes” to this question would have radically altered the political landscape in the UK. If instituted, the Alternative Vote would have allowed Britons to rank the candidates in their constituencies from best to worst; a system similar to this is currently used in Australia.

The result was overwhelming. 68% of voters gave a resounding “no”, and the UK retained First Past the Post, a system that deputy Prime Minister, and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg deplored as “tribalism backed by dinosaurs”. Evidently, Clegg’s views were not widely shared. Only 10 constituencies out of 440 agreed with him and voted “yes”. While the “yes” campaign did manage to triumph in the (arguably more intellectual) university constituencies of Oxford and Cambridge, this was cold comfort in the face of such a landslide defeat. And so it was that Britons lost a very rare opportunity to seize for themselves a fairer system of voting: the Alternative Vote method.

Currently, Singapore employs the very same system of voting as the UK: First Past the Post (FPP). FPP is infamous for being a rather rigid, and not very proportional, system of voting. It tends to exclude minor parties from parliament, while virtually guaranteeing that the major parties receive a greater share of seats in parliament than their total share of the vote (in the last Singapore General Election, the PAP received around 60% of all votes cast, yet received around 90% of the contestable seats in parliament).

Furthermore, depending on the sizes of constituencies, some citizens wield more powerful votes than others. For example, a vote in Yuhua SMC is about 50% more powerful than a vote in nearby Bukit Panjang SMC. In other words, 500 Yuhua voters have the same amount of political power as 750 Bukit Panjang voters at the national level. This disproportionality is a pervasive feature of FPP systems worldwide. Indeed, Singapore can rest easy. In the USA, where FPP is also used, a vote from Wyoming is about 380% more powerful than a vote from California.

Many countries, having identified these shortcomings, have stopped using FPP systems altogether. They have switched to other, more proportional, voting methods; the idea being that nobody’s vote should be worth more than anybody else’s, and that if a party receives 30% of the national vote, it should be entitled to closer to 30% of the seats in parliament. However, proportional systems have their critics. Some point out that the more proportional a voting system is, the more likely it is to allow extremist political groups to enter parliament, and this is not desirable at all. Indeed, the critics have a point here. Political extremism is no virtue, and the smaller parties that would benefit from proportional systems naturally sit somewhere along the political fringe. However, the 2011 Singapore General Election saw a plethora of sensible and moderate opposition parties excluded from parliament, parties that carried sizable amounts of the national vote. These parties are by no means “extremist” or dangerous or a threat to the nation. This suggests that the introduction of a more proportional voting system would certainly not hinder democracy in Singapore.

The following illustrations project how Singapore’s parliament would look today, had the 2011 general election been subject to some alternative electoral methods. These projections represent some of the “parliaments-that-might-have-been”. They have been calculated by taking into account the national vote and the constituency votes. The seats are then allocated according to each of the four voting methods we have surveyed: First Past the Post (FPP), Supplementary Member (SM), Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) and Alternative Vote (STV).

2011 Singapore general election outcome under FIRST PAST THE POST (FPP):

This is how the parliamentary seats are presently allocated in Singapore. Under FPP, Singaporeans are entitled to one vote, in one constituency. The candidate who collects the most votes in a constituency wins that constituency’s seat in parliament. The People's Action Party (PAP) currently occupies an imposing majority of the seats in parliament, because their candidates won an imposing majority of the constituencies in the country. The Worker’s Party occupies 8 seats (composed of 6 elected members and 2 NCMPs) and the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) occupies one seat (an NCMP). Apart from the elected members and NCMPs, there are also nine Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), who are appointed by the President, on the recommendation of a special select committee chaired by the speaker of parliament. NMPs do not belong to any political party or represent any constituency (as opposed to NCMPs, who belong to a political party).

Under this system of voting, it is possible for a party to receive a high proportion of the national vote, and yet fail to win any constituency and so fail to enter parliament. For example, although the National Solidarity Party (NSP) received the same proportion of the national vote as the Worker’s Party, the NSP received no seats in parliament as it failed to win a constituency.

Countries that use FPP: Singapore, U.S.A., U.K.

2011 Singapore general election outcome under SUPPLEMENTARY MEMBER (SM):

Under SM, each Singaporean gets two votes: an electorate vote (for their preferred constituency candidate), and a party vote (for their preferred political party). Parliament would have 99 seats: 59 seats reserved for the constituency vote and 40 seats reserved for the party vote. The candidates who collect the most votes in their constituencies win their constituencies’ seats in parliament. 59 seats are filled with constituency members. The leftover 40 parliamentary seats are allocated according to the party vote.

This means that, under SM, a party that fails to win a constituency seat can still enter parliament so long as they receive a high enough percentage of the party vote. For example, a party that wins no constituencies but receives 10% of the party vote will receive a total of 4 seats in parliament (10% of the 40 party seats). If a party wins 3 constituencies and also takes 20% of the party vote, that party will receive a total of 11 seats in parliament (3 constituency seats, plus 20% of 40 party seats).

SM is more proportional than FPP. Furthermore, SM elections tend to avoid political coalitions between several small parties, since a single dominant party is usually able to gather more than 50% of all the seats in parliament. This leads to greater political stability while also ensuring the governing party faces the scrutiny of opposition politicians.

If the 2011 election had been an SM vote, The PAP would have won 78 seats, WP would have 11 seats, NSP would have 5 seats, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Reform Party (RP) would each have 2 seats, with the SPP retaining one seat. This scenario excludes NMPs and NCMPs.

Countries that use SM: Japan, South Korea

2011 Singapore general election outcome under MIXED MEMBER PROPORTIONAL (MMP):

This is the most colourful of our projections. Under MMP, each Singaporean gets two votes: an electorate vote and a party vote. If a party receives 20% the party vote, then they receive 20% of all the seats in parliament, regardless of the number of constituencies they win. Thus, since WP won 13% of the national vote, they would receive 13% of the seats in parliament (13 seats: 6 constituency seats, plus 7 party seats to make 13). MMP means that each party receives a share of parliamentary seats equal to its share of the overall vote while also guaranteeing that local constituencies are represented by their local MPs. If the outcome of the 2011 general election had been decided by MMP, the PAP would have 59 seats, WP 13, NSP 12, SDP 5, RP 4, with the SPP and SDA both on 3.

The PAP would still be able to govern alone in this projection, as it has more than 50% of the seats in parliament. However, MMP elections often lead to several small parties having to form a coalition, as it is unusual for a single party to collect more than 50% of the total vote. This can create greater political instability, but it also encourages bipartisan efforts. In the event that a party receives more electorate seat votes than party seat votes, the number of seats in parliament is adjusted to accommodate the extra electorate members. This would entail about 20 extra seats in parliament for the PAP at the last election. However, as this scenario is especially unusual in the ordinary course of MMP elections, it has been omitted from the above projection. This projection also excludes NMPs and NCMPs.

Countries that use MMP: Germany, New Zealand

2011 Singapore general election outcome under ALTERNATIVE VOTE (AV):

Under AV, each Singaporean gets one vote, or two votes, or three votes, or even ten votes. In fact, under AV Singaporeans would get to vote for as many of their constituency’s candidates as they liked. Suppose there were two candidates in your constituency that you preferred to all the other candidates, you could rank them as first and second choices. If your first choice candidate receives the lowest overall number of votes, your vote immediately switches to your second choice candidate.

To use an example, imagine an election in which Mr. Blue receives 5 votes, Mr. Red receives 4 votes and Mrs. Black receives 3 votes. At first glance, it seems obvious that Mr. Blue has won (Mr Blue received the most votes). But under AV, if everyone who ranked Mrs. Black as their top choice ranked Mr. Red as their second choice, then Mr Red is the winner. He now has 7 votes in a constituency of 12 voters, or 58% of the vote (the vote count stops after the first candidate passes the 50% mark).

AV would not have produced a more proportional outcome at the last general election, however, because AV requires more than two competing candidates in a constituency if it is to have any discernible effect on the outcome. Since every constituency at the last general election was a two-horse race, the outcome under AV would have been disastrous for the minor parties, especially without the mitigating additions of NMPs and NCMPs.

Thus. In this projection, assuming a particular configuration of constituencies to make up for the lost NMP seats, the PAP would have 90 seats in parliament, and the WP would have 9. However, this in no way indicates how a genuine AV produced election result would look. AV encourages more parties to stand candidates in every constituency, which ensures more voter choice. The current lack of third parties in Singapore’s constituencies makes it almost im0ossible to project based on votes in the 2011 General Election and so this projection cannot be taken to be a realistic approximation of how AV would work in Singapore.  

Countries that use AV: Ireland, Australia

Tim (Tiddy) Smith is a philosopher and alum of the Institute for Humane Studies. He is currently based in Singapore with his wife, who unfortunately likes 'Glee'.