Review of "Majority Voting as a Catalyst of Populism - Preferential Decision-making for an Inclusive Democracy"

There are campaigners for a worthy cause who carry on week after week and even year after year. They pop up with an apposite comment whenever there is an event which provides them with an opening. Peter Emerson is one such campaigner and his current book sets out his case and recounts an amazing round trip from Northern Ireland to China and back, mainly by train, partly by bicycle and even some of it on foot. He manages to get into North Korea and, remarkably, succeeds in holding meetings on electoral reform in every country.

Over twenty years ago Peter Emerson established the de Borda Institute as a vehicle for the study and advocacy of the preferential voting system that he has advocated ever since. Its name comes from an eighteenth century French mathematician, Jean-Charles de Borda, who devised a voting system particularly aimed at bringing a consensual result that would be recognised as such in divisive situations. It is hardly accidental that Emerson is based in Northern Ireland, a region deeply divided by its history.

Essentially a decision taken under the Modified Borda Count (MBC) involves the individual voter's preferences being given the relevant number of points that accords to each preference. In decision making this allocation of points demonstrates the strength of support for the most preferred option and thus makes it more widely acceptable. In elections in a multiple vacancy seat, the Quote Borda System (QBS) allocates seats accurately and, it is argued, more acceptably. This system has essential similarities with the Single Transferable Vote, the system to which the long-established Electoral Reform Society is dedicated, but Emerson's de Borda Institute sees the much to be desired objective of the Borda methodogies as an all-party coalition government devoid of divisive party affiliations and certainly without any party whips. He states it explicitly in relation to areas suffering from political violence:

As is recognised by some in Northern Ireland and in other conflict zones .... the political choice of an economic policy or of a transport plan need not depend so immediately on an MP's confessional faith. Rather, decisions should depend upon the participants agreeing to express and discuss their preferences.

What is required, therefore, is a willingness amongst politicians and political scientists, firstly, to question the adversarial structure which is simple majority rule, and secondly, to consider a win-win polity founded on more inclusive voting procedures.

It sounds splendid but such a polity does not provide for the need for a group with some commonality of view of what kind of society it wishes to encourage and to legislate for. How else can there be any process of change, or any instructions to a civil service on which it can base an administration? Certainly Emerson is correct in wishing to expose politics that all too often lead to strife and even to violence but the answer to that must surely be better politics not no politics. As I know from my experience in thirty-five new and emerging countries on five continents, a democracy resulting from any electoral process will be ephemeral if the parties are based on tribe, region, religion, charismatic leader, an ancient "totem" or a liberation movement. To produce a sound basis for a political structure with a workable government and an effective opposition the parties have to be based on at least a semblance of political philosophy.

Peter Emerson expounds his case powerfully and certainly will not be at all inhibited by my criticism. His book applies his beliefs to the circumstances of each country he visits and he is impressively knowledgeable on each. His exposition of the Borda methodologies is supported by a great deal of mathematical equations, much of which, alas, I am not competent to follow. His book deserves serious consideration by all who are concerned at the dangerous political circumstances now evident in far too many countries and with the need to realise that a country's electoral system and, in consequence, and, more importantly, its decision-making system play a significant role in the way parties can manipulate power.

Majority Voting as a Catalyst of Populism - Preferential Decision-making for an Inclusive Democracy, by Peter Emerson, pub. Springer, 2020, 
ISBN 978-3-030-20218-7