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You can’t just legislate ‘fairness’ in our voting system

October 31, 2019 - 10:40 -- Admin

The South Australian Liberal government failed on Tuesday in its attempt to restore the “fairness clause” which used to apply to SA state redistributions. The clause was an attempt to ensure the “correct” winner in state elections by requiring the redistribution commissioners to draw boundaries that would give a majority of seats to a party that won a majority of the two-party-preferred vote.

The clause was introduced by a state Labor government via a statewide referendum in 1991, and was then abolished by the outgoing state Labor government in 2017, shortly before they lost the 2018 state election.

The clause is based on a false premise: that you can require “fairness” between major parties in a system of arbitrary winner-take-all contests which is by its very nature unfair. If you want a fair voting system, you need to look to proportional representation systems.

Since 2002 there have been three elections where Labor has won power despite losing the statewide two-party-preferred vote.

Mike Rann’s Labor government won power in 2002 with 23 out of 47 seats, and just over 49% of the two-party-preferred vote. Labor then won the 2006 election comfortably, but then won a solid majority in 2010 despite losing the two-party-preferred vote. In 2014, Labor fell one seat short of a majority and managed to stay in government, despite polling only 47% of the two-party-preferred vote.

The Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission has tried valiantly to enforce the fairness clause (with the exception of the redistribution before the 2014 election, where the EDBC effectively gave up on trying to meet the fairness criteria), which has led to quite dramatic boundary redrawings, but the clause is based on a false premise.

Not every seat will swing in the same way at an election. So you can’t predict how a statewide vote total would play out based on the previous election’s pendulum. Not only that, but differential swings are often systemically consistent: one party will do better in marginal seats potentially due to a swathe of MPs with new personal votes or a better campaign mechanism. The lack of uniformity does not wash out.

All electoral analysts understand this when we look at a classic pendulum. It’s a useful tool but it is a blunt instrument. It certainly is not precise enough to be legislatively mandated to dictate electoral boundaries.

The fairness clause led to much larger proportions of the state’s voters moving between electorates at every redistribution, breaking the links between MPs and their constituents. It often punished successful MPs who had built up local popularity with a dismembered electorate. It also required the commission to prioritise political balance over numerical balance, leading to smaller numbers of voters in some electorates than others.

It’s impossible to produce a “fair” result under a single-member district system, because it is fundamentally not a fair system. It consistently under-represents minor parties, and the seat balance between major parties is only tangentially connected to their relative support. One party can consistently overperform their vote if their voters are distributed in a more efficient pattern around the state. If one party has a handul of electorates with massive majorities while the other has smaller majorities spread over more seats, the latter party will usually win close elections.

We see this in the case of the US House of Representatives. While there is a shameful gerrymander which has boosted the Republicans, they have also benefited from the sorting of voters which has given Democrats some colossal majorities in urban centres. In the case of South Australia, the Labor vote is simply more evenly distributed.

The fairness clause also relies on the assumption that the voting system is dominated by two parties. Imagine that Nick Xenophon’s SA Best had won a sizeable number of seats, which briefly appeared possible. How would you ensure a “fair” single-party winner when three parties are winning significant numbers of seats? You simply couldn’t do it.

You can’t have a fair result in the single-member-district system. This system by its nature under-represents minor parties and tends to produce single-party majorities. If you want a fair result, you should instead look to a proportional representation system. That would do a better job of representing the Liberal and Labor parties fairly, but it would also bring in other players. The current Liberal government wants to have its cake and eat it too: they want the system to require relative fairness in relation to Labor while locking out other players. It doesn’t work like that.