The question we ask here is: how does voting relate to the democratic process and, more specifically, how can a ranked voting system meaningfully contribute to this process?
First, we must distinguish between the different roles of voting in a democracy: the two most important ones being voting for “people” and voting for “things”, or propositions (e.g. the Brexit vote).
The difference between these two roles can be explicated as follows:
- Structuring the voting for people entails the “who” and the “how” of voting
- Structuring the voting for things entails the “what” and the “how” of voting
The two elements of each form of voting are intimately related. We cannot meaningfully discuss the “how” (procedure) without considering both the “who” and “what”. Let me explain:
- Voting for people and the “who” questions which it entails, means that any procedure for voting can only be meaningful *as long as voters have a sufficient grasp of who they are voting for*. In cases where this does not apply, because of a lack of proximity or the increase in abstraction between representation and those being represented (e.g. on the EU level), voting might not be a good option altogether. In those cases, alternatives such as lottocracy might be preferred over voting. In cases of great proximity between those representing and those represented (local setting, team settings, etc.), direct voting *might* be the preferred option because it is transparent (direct, visible correlation between votes and decision) and is based on a thorough knowledge of the “who” one is voting for. In between these extremes (great proximity, great abstraction), ranking voting might be a very good option, especially when a voter has sufficient knowledge to distinguish between his different conceptions of who he can vote for. Or, put more simply, if a voter sufficiently knows “who” he can vote for, ranking voting might be the preferred option.
- Voting for things – propositions – is perhaps an even more complicated issue because the “how” question cannot be addressed without considering the “what” question. This has to do with an informational problem: one can only meaningfully vote on some-thing if this “thing” is properly understood. To break this down: it is for instance easier to understand a clause than an entire contract, and easier to understand an issue that is embedded in a discourse (e.g. with pro- and contra-arguments) than as a “ready-to-vote-for” proposition. To compare this with the process of cooking: one cannot understand the whole of a “dish” without understanding its parts – the “ingredients” – what they contribute to the whole and what procedures have been applied to come to the final “dish” that is put on the table (“put the cake in the oven for 30 or 45 minutes?”). What does this mean for voting procedures? First, it means that we have to conceptualise the entire process, from the proposition of clauses to the drafting of a final position. A very preliminary attempt:
- Each democratic discourse starts with determining the “subject matter”: the dish we want to cook and the ingredients and procedures needed to get there. A ranking voting might be very beneficial here, provided that proposals are well-formed and sufficiently understood.
- Once the subject matter has been decided (e.g. “we want to formulate a position on issue X”), idea generation can start. The best way to do this democratically is to empower people to propose clauses (the ingredients and procedures of “the dish”) that together, by means of amendment and voting processes, eventually form a proposal (a text), the “dish” – so to speak. For this process, voting on the separate clauses and amendments in crucial, and this can be either done by ranking or by majority voting (each clause either “passes” or “fails”). Preference of either of these two methods will be context dependent (mostly depending on the complexity of the clause in question).
- Once the “dish” has been served, the final part of the process commences, namely accepting it, rejecting it, or bringing it back into the previous procedural step (making amendments). Depending again on the complexity of the proposal, and the knowledge each member has of the eventual dish, the ingredients used for it and the procedures required, different types of voting might be preferred:
- For proposals with great complexity and significance, consensus might be required.
- For proposals with very little complexity and lesser significance, majority voting might suffice; for it is transparent and there’s a direct visible correlation between the voting and the decision.
- In between, again, ranking voting would be a good tool (giving people the opportunity to choose between the different “versions” of the dish). However, this would require sufficient knowledge and understanding of the voters, which might be difficult to achieve.
Given the great advantages of ranking voting in certain democratic contexts, we need to consider some of its disadvantages, mostly being:
- Dealing with the difficulty of degrees of understanding. If a voter understands alternative A perfectly well, but has no clue about alternatives B,C and D; how can we expect her to meaningfully rank these alternatives?
- Dealing with the opacity of ranking mechanisms. The great advantage of majority voting is that there’s a direct, visible link between voting and decision. Ranking algorithms can be greatly opaque, which could give voters the feeling that their democratic process has been “black boxed”. Making sure that ranking operations are transparent and easily understandable is therefore a hard criterion.