Electoral reform and the (un)importance of simplicity

By JD Mussel

Perhaps among the most frivolous arguments one is likely to hear against any electoral reform is that a proposed system is ‘too complex’. Let me illustrate:

The 1953 Dutch State Commission on the electoral system had this (among other things) to say in consideration of a reform along the lines of the Danish system:

After further consideration of the pros and cons, the commission will not conceal that there are also reservations to be expressed against this system. We fear that a large part of the electorate, accustomed as it is in principle to a simple system, as is established by our present electoral law, will not be attracted by it, probably at the expense of the so desired political interest.

Under the ‘Danish system’ as reviewed by the commission, voters can vote either for a candidate on a party list or for the list as a whole. Seats are first divided proportionally among parties in multi-seat districts, while an ample number of ‘levelling seats’ are then distributed in a compensatory fashion, resulting in a very proportional result overall.

To be fair, the system used in the Netherlands is, on the face of it, quite a bit simpler: seats are simply distributed to parties in proportion to their national vote in one nationwide district, being allocated first to candidates having received more than a certain threshold (in 1953: half of the quota) and then according to the party-list ordering.

However, on a closer look, the Dutch system also includes nomination-districts, within which parties can, but do not have to, propose different lists (a practice which was still relatively common, although limited, in 1953, but which has all but disappeared by 2006). This does not affect the allocation of seats to parties, but can rather complicate the allocation to candidates.

But does any of that really matter? I somewhat doubt that there are too many voters in the Netherlands, or in Denmark, for that matter*, know the intricacies of the D’Hondt formula, the workings of nomination districts or even the number of preference votes candidates need to be elected in their own right.

Does this undermine the electoral process or people’s interest in politics? Of course not. As long as the system is generally responsive and the act of voting is not a complicated or confusing hassle, the complexity of an electoral system shouldn’t pose any problems. Few systems have ever really made voting difficult after voters got used to them, even in countries with illiteracy problems. Australian Senate STV before the introduction of above-the-line ticket voting was one of them, though even then the vast majority of voters still managed to cast a formal ballot despite the increasingly onerous nature of the task. In the case of the Netherlands, adopting the Danish system could actually make voting simpler, considering that the current bed-sheet sized ballot would become smaller (due to the lower district magnitude) with otherwise no changes to it; apart from the candidates, most voters would hardly notice any difference.

When it comes to electoral reform, ‘it’s too complex’ is usually little more than a red herring.

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* Although the commission would seem to imply that Danish voters are better at this than the Dutch…