7 Mar 2024

Don’t roll the dice on rolling elections

Ensuring the public's desire for deputies to have an island-wide mandate while simultaneously reducing the number of candidates are not mutually exclusive ambitions, argues William Walter

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“Irreconcilable objectives”. This was how Deputy St Pier described the public’s desire for deputies to have an island-wide mandate alongside a significant decrease in the number of candidates standing for election to the States under the Island’s current electoral structure. Both St Pier and former Chief Minister Peter Ferbrache have together tabled a proposal to the States Assembly and Constitution Committee that calls for a consideration of the “merits and viability of a system of rolling island-wide voting” in Guernsey’s future general elections. “While no panacea”, suggested St Pier, a rolling election system “may help”. This is false.

There are certainly advantages to a rolling election system, most of which were elaborated on in the Scrutiny Management Committee’s 2023 report on the election. One of these is indeed a likely narrowing in the range of candidates standing at each election. The SMC’s report estimate a figure of around 50 or so each election (down from 119 currently). Outwardly this would be a welcome reduction – after all, per the report’s survey of almost 1,000 Guernsey residents, the number of candidates and manifestos proved to be the “overwhelmingly most frequent response” in criticism of the island-wide system that made its debut in 2020. General apathy towards these unmanageable figures was also evident in voting behaviours of the electorate – on average only 26 candidates (of a possible 38) were selected by voters. A smaller volume of candidates, you would anticipate, would be welcome.

But the drawbacks to such a system far outweigh the positives. One of the cornerstones of a representative democracy is the belief that the electorate, on a majority basis, delegates responsibility for decision making to a set of representatives that it deems to be better equipped to take important decisions on its behalf. We give politicians a mandate to take difficult decisions for us. This contrasts with, say, a direct democracy where the decision-making is taken by the electorate many of whom lack the necessary time, knowledge or understanding to be able to make an informed decision. By giving our elected politicians a mandate of, say, five years to act on our behalf we allow them to make the difficult decisions for us. We trust them to take decisions that in the short term may prove unpopular, but that in the long-term will bear fruit (hopefully to the benefit of the electorate as a whole). Think Thatcherism or Reaganomics, etc.

Serious candidates who stand a credible chance of attracting some voter interest will be undeterred, while others will face a disincentive to put themselves forward
William Walter, Managing Director of Bridgehead Communications

Crucially, a system of rolling island-wide elections will erode this mandate. It will see one-third of our politicians hamstrung by the prospect of looming elections. Rather than taking the difficult decisions that they perceive to be in our long-term interest, they will be shoe-horned towards populist decision-making and quick giveaways. Our Island will be trapped in a constant cycle of short-term thinking and indecision, even more so than it currently is.

Nevertheless, too many candidates is an issue. However, remedying this issue doesn’t require wholesale tearing up of the Island-wide voting system. There are more subtle changes that can be employed to remedy the problem. One such example is the introduction of UK-style deposits whereby those wishing to put themselves forward for election are required to pay a modest deposit that is returned to them provided they receive a base level number of votes. Serious candidates who stand a credible chance of attracting some voter interest will be undeterred, while others will face a disincentive to put themselves forward.

Another further solution is less interventionist still. Under the current system there is a clear incentive for candidates to communicate quickly and simply their broad ideology to voters. To have a brand. In the UK (and in most democracies) this is achieved through political parties. While Guernsey does have political parties it seems reasonable to assume that the current system will be a catalyst to drive the growth of big tent political groupings that can accommodate a variety of beliefs, but that have some form of over-arching ideology uniting them. Think Democrats vs. Republicans in the US or even Brexiteers vs. Remainers in the UK. These will help voters to quickly and easily identify those candidates broadly in line with their thinking on key issues.

In short, ignore the bluster of overly interventionist politicians seemingly gripped by a desire for permanent electoral revolution. Minor tweaks and time are the likely remedies to the shortcomings to Island-wide voting.

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