We asked the experts what they thought of Senedd voting reform plans – the verdict is in
A “huge improvement” but one that would still be considered “undemocratic” in some countries – Senedd reform plans have won mixed reviews from international experts in election systems.
Amid increasing controversy over the move to a system based on closed proportional lists, Nation.Cymru asked experts from six countries using different systems for their perspective on the plans.
Some praised them for striking a balance between proportionality and accountability, while others warned the system would hand too much power to political parties.
Wales would be among the majority of countries in the world to use a closed list proportional system but in a minority in Europe – just four of the 27 EU member states use that system for their national elections.
“It’s not an uncommon system but it’s not a system that’s popular for countries which go into electoral reform nowadays or over the last few decades,” explained Dr Gert-Jan Put of Leuven university in Flanders.
“Most countries move towards some kind of open variant of the list PR system.”
Catalonia and Spain are among those that do use closed lists. “An important consequence in Spain is that candidates are quite irrelevant, while party ID and ideology play a crucial role,” explained professor Ignacio Lago Peñas of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.
“Party structures become crucial as they decide the order of candidates and therefore who is elected.”
By contrast, “open list makes candidates more accountable to voters”, according to professor Åsa von Schoultz of the University of Helsinki. “The system gives the opportunity to voters to decide both which parties and individual politicians that will represent them.
“To remove power from voters and hand over the control to parties would be very difficult for Finnish voters to accept. Many Finns consider a closed list undemocratic.”
Although she added that “open lists have been associated with clientelistic relationships between voters and politicians” in countries with “weaker parties and a less solid democratic heritage.”
That won’t ease the fears of those who believe closed lists would “concentrate power in the hands of a few party managers”, as suggested by Conservative Wales Office Minister David Davies.
That view is shared by the Liberal Democrats and the Electoral Reform Society, who say open lists are “undeniably more democratic than a system in which who is elected is determined by their placement on a list created by party leaderships.”
But Thomas Gschwend, a professor of politics at Mannheim University in Germany, where closed lists are also used, said top-down control isn’t inherent in the system.
“The crucial question is who is making up those lists,” he said. “Is it the central party headquarters or the local branches? It would be much better if candidates are nominated locally in those constituencies – MPs will still be responsive to their local constituency. If this is the case, then I like this proposal.”
That link was cited as the primary reason for opposing the reforms by Rhondda Labour MP Chris Bryant, who said they “will make MSs much less connected to local people.”
Professor Ben Reilly of the University of Western Australia, who co-wrote the book on electoral system design for the Swedish-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, agreed “voters will obviously not have the same limited geographical district or closeness to a local member.”
The trade-off under proportional representation is that they will have “a representative who they feel closer to politically instead,” he said. And Reilly added that the choice of six members in each of the 16 constituencies was the proven “sweet spot”.
That’s in contrast to Flanders where constituencies have as many as 32 members. “If you ask me or any voter from my district, who is representing you and how are they defending your interests, that’s very difficult to answer,” said Dr Put.
“The Welsh proposal is a nice number. It’s a nice trade-off between proportionality but also having some kind of geographical representation and accountability.”
‘It’s working here’
Many believe the best way to reconcile those factors is through the single transferable vote system, used in Ireland and Malta, which sees voters list individual candidates in order of preference.
However, a majority on the Senedd committee set-up to consider reforms expressed concern that “voting by ranked preferences was an unfamiliar system in Wales and that the method of translating votes into seats would be seen as complex and difficult to explain.”
Professor Gail McElroy of Trinity College Dublin dismissed that concern, saying: “Voters don’t need to know the ins and outs of it. The notion that voters aren’t up to it…it’s not that Irish voters are inherently brighter than Welsh voters. It’s been working fine here for the best part of a century.”
Ireland has twice voted no in referendums on electoral reform. “Voters love STV,” said McElroy. “It does give voters a huge degree of power over who gets elected.”
That has contributed to preventing the rise of the far-right in Ireland and assisted independent candidates, she said. “This ability to elect independents, you could argue, is a safety valve. It allows people to express a protest vote, that anti party vote, without it causing chaos.”
But she added that “closed list PR has a lot to be said for it” and would be a “huge improvement from first past the post.”
A more representative parliament would be a key benefit of using closed lists, according to Gschwend. The proposals already include a legal obligation for parties to have a gender balanced list and he said they would also help people from minority backgrounds to get elected.
“Minorities have a harder time if you vote for one particular candidate,” he said. “You have a much better chance of getting minorities in parliament if you place them on a party list.
“Most people believe that if a parliament is more diverse, it makes better decisions.”
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