Votes, seats, and exit polls: UK 2019 edition

Two political scientists, Pippa Norris and Patrick Dunleavy, have accused the BBC and others of “systemic media bias” on the recent UK election night for not emphasizing the voting outcome and instead focusing on the seats. Their claims appear at the LSE blog. Of course, I am very much inclined to agree that votes and seats both matter–I’ve (co-) written two books that have both words, votes and seats, in their titles, after all! Thus I largely agree with Norris and Dunleavy’s bigger point that media coverage in majoritarian electoral systems tends to exaggerate the notion that a party that wins the seat outcome has a “mandate”. As I said in my own election post-mortem, the “mandate” claim is a stretch, at best, and very much depends on how the electoral system manufactures majorities–not only for Conservatives overall but also for the SNP among Westminster constituencies within Scotland.

Nonetheless, the claims in the LSE blog piece are somewhat hard to swallow. The main argument is that at 10:00 p.m., when polls closed, only the seats were mentioned. The votes did not come till 5:00 a.m., they claim. Anthony B. Masters has already shown that is not actually true, in a really excellent rebuttal. I won’t repeat Masters many points regarding misleading evidence that the LSE blog authors present to make their case.

The deeper issue here is that the exit poll is bound to be more accurate for seats–the initial projection almost nailed the result for the UK as a whole–than for votes. The voting estimates are subject to more error, because of uncertainty about turnout. Moreover, seats are the currency of power. Votes are relevant as a “currency of legitimacy” (as Jonathan Hopkin put it on Twitter), which is important for the subsequent narratives and intraparty soul-searching for the losers. That is, however, very much the kind of stuff that can only happen once the full results are known (not that it stops the media talking heads from engaging in speculation all night long). Basically, it is just very odd to slam as “biased” the media for reporting what was proven to be an actually accurate projection of the one thing the poll was designed to do and that matters most on election night–who won the most seats, was it a majority, and if so, how big?

Besides, as Masters notes in his rebuttal, it is not even true that votes were not being reported all night long. They simply are subject to more revisions as the picture gets clearer because, as noted above, the vote estimate is subject to more error.

Finally, I’d note that it could be much worse. In US elections, the topic of votes hardly comes up in the media, particularly for congressional elections. Even if you stayed up till 5:00 a.m. on election night (not that I ever have), you would not hear what percentage of the House votes each party had.

2 thoughts on “Votes, seats, and exit polls: UK 2019 edition

  1. I think the blog post identified a problem, but not the reason. The post is in its way as uninformed as the BBC broadcast.

    The British do not do progressive tallies. Party scrutineers have an idea, but no official figures, of what is happening at the count. The first hard numbers are announced in the quaintly adorable ceremony where the returning officer declares the result.

    Progressive tallies matter. In Kenya, and a number of other Eastern and Southern African countries, progressive tallies are mandated by the constitution. Why? Because progressive tallies make election rigging much more difficult.

    In Australia the first progressive tallies are usually available within 30 minutes of the poll closing. Most broadcasters have analysts who are able to say things like ‘Those numbers are from the polling booth at Upper Middle Bogan which is always a strong booth for the Nationals’ or whatever. By an hour after close of the polls they are usually giving precise figures at polling booth level, not district level, such as: ‘This would be an 11% swing against the Nationals compared with their vote in Upper Middle Bogan last time’.

    The BBC did not provide local or national swing figures. That’s because it is very difficult under the strange practice of not posting progressive tallies before the declaration. Some of their graphics were frankly incomprehensible, like the domino stack that I suspect was made by someone with great skills at graphics and very little at elections. What they need is to rethink their counting system from the ground up instead of showing a horserace between local authorities trying to get first in the night with their declaration.


    • The lack of polling place-level results in British parliamentary elections also complicates enormously the process of estimating notional general election results in constituencies affected by boundary reviews, which out of necessity have to be calculated on the basis of local election results. Due to differences in voter turnout and voting patterns between parliamentary and local elections, the latter figures have sometimes proved to be less than reliable parameters for that task, particularly in marginal constituencies.

      And while I completely agree that votes are the “currency of legitimacy” in FPTP systems, many insist on determining its value purely on the basis of self-serving partisan considerations. This was certainly the case with a Scottish Conservative MP, who insisted the 45% of the vote won by SNP last December 12 gave the party no mandate to push for a second independence referendum even though the party won 48 of 59 Scottish seats in Westminster. Yet he appeared to have no issue with the Conservatives claiming a mandate for Brexit on the basis of a majority of eighty seats won with 45% of the vote in Great Britain proper.

      Meanwhile, after the recent federal election in Canada, which delivered a majority reversal for incumbent PM Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party, I came across people on Twitter who evidently had no problem questioning Donald Trump’s legitimacy on account of his having lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but sought to insulate Justin Trudeau from similar criticism on the dubious claim that political system differences (parliamentary versus presidential) somehow precluded such criticism.


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