Why “voting system”?

In the earlier entry on the BC referendum, I quoted a passage from the ballot question. It uses the term, voting system.

Yes, “voting system” rather than “electoral system”. Why? What the voters are being asked to decide is clearly what we political scientists mean by electoral system. Is there something objectionable about that term to the general public?

I do not ever use the term, voting system. However, if I did, I would probably understand it to mean the ballot format and other aspects of the process of casting a vote. I would not understand it to include how seats are allocated. An electoral system, as I understand it, is a set of rules that govern voting, counting, and allocation. A whole electoral system is assembly size, district magnitude, tier structure (if not “simple” single-tier), and the specific seat-allocation rule (edit: and the ballot structure). The BC proposals cover all these aspects. It clearly is a referendum on the electoral system. Yet it is officially, “a referendum on what voting system we should use for provincial elections.”

I find it puzzling, although not troubling in any sort of way. (Now, if the term starts creeping into political science, I reserve the right to object.) On the other hand, proponents of change in Canada seem to prefer to call proportional representation “ProRep” rather than PR. I can kind of understand that (“PR” means public relations to civilians). Whenever I see “ProRep” I flinch just a little. But if calling it that helps sell it, I can get over it.

12 thoughts on “Why “voting system”?

  1. Voting system? I never gave this common term any thought, but since you asked, Fair Vote Canada’s official Statement of Purpose, wordsmithed for three months and adopted by vote of the membership, says (among other things) “We campaign for equal effective votes and fair representation at every level of government . . . A democratic voting system must encourage citizens to exercise positive choice by voting for the candidate or party they prefer. They should not find it necessary to embrace negative or strategic voting . . . we must change the voting system and related laws to remove barriers to the nomination and election of candidates from groups now underrepresented . . . We must change the voting system and related laws to give rural and urban voters in every province, territory and regional community effective votes and fair representation in both government and opposition.”
    As for “ProRep” it is found only in British Columbia. West coast lingo?

  2. Back in 1992 (!), I http://www.prsa.org.au/tround/ stipulated that “electoral system” as a whole embraced (a) the “electorate structure”, ie, single or multi-member district magnitudes, per capita or otherwise apportioned, single-level or multi-level, geographical or occupational, etc, and (b) the “voting system”, ie the rules for casting and counting votes within any given electorate.
    Eg, for a nationwide presidential election the second aspect will tend to dominate but normally both are of roughly equal weight.
    Like I said, stipulative – but it has worked for me.

    • … That was in the context of pointing out that most Australian debates about ‘the voting system” are really about “the electorate structure” (single- vs multi-member, equal appportionment vs zonal weighting) because ‘the voting system” per se is basically common ground, ie some form of STV which condenses down to AV in single-seat electorates. Electoral legislation typically spells out different sets of rules for the two (eg, the Legislative Council and Assembly are prescribed by different schedules in the NSW Constitution Act 1902-1978) but it is possible in theory to do what many student unions do and simple specify “use the Prop Rep Soc of Aust Manual” whether electing a single president or a dozen SRC representatives at large.
      The only real split within Australians over ‘the voting system” in the strict sense (ie, in my stipulated sense) is over (a) how many preferences should be required as a minimum and (b) whether voters must actually think about their preferences or whether they can outsource the grunt work for a party machine to carry out by proxy. But in debates over “how many preferences”, first-past-the-post is no longer seriously considered in this country, and in debates over “party tickets or not”, party-lists are no longer seriously considered in this country. It’s a family feud over differing types of AV-STV.
      That hasn’t changed since 1992 but I’ve had about as much success in this terminological battle as the “shall/ will” purists have had since 1930.

  3. No strong objection to Gregor’s taxonomy. I have found “proportional voting” is clearer (at least to Australians) since “proportional representation” is often taken, reasonably enough, to mean “allocation of seats among regions and districts in proportion to population”.

    • Yes, that is a fair point. I have had students so many times say that the US has proportional representation, because… look at the House, as compared to the Senate.

      • In the US context, “proportional representation” is also used (much less rationally) to mean “allocating Presidential Electors one per congressional district instead of all at large Statewide”. I suppose it then plugs into the “House vs Senate” sense that MSS notes.
        The German Constitution (uniquely, I think) uses the term in both senses – proportionality among States by population, and among parties by voting support – when discussing how the Landtage are to appoint their presidential electors.

      • I think you mean “proportional representation” is used utterly without accuracy and without shame to try to gerrymander the presidency.

  4. Short answer: my friend Paul Musgrave tagged me as such. Longer answer: it seems to be common outside the electoral-systems circle, both among academics/political scientists and “lay” specialists.

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