Some Assembly Required: Decimalist Voting

Some Assembly Required: Decimalist Voting

J.S.Mill and his step-daughter
A little while back — before the tail-end of the Tiger became the financial crisis, and latterly the 'economic reality' — I wrote something on voting systems. I think I've always been intrigued by the idea of proportional representation's single transferable vote. In essence, this is an attempt to solve the problem of 'one man, one vote'.

Instead of 'your guy lost, tough luck', STV in PR tries politely to ask you if you have any other preferences. It doesn't work perfectly, but then again all voting systems appear to be deeply flawed for some reason — the reason being of course, that not everyone can get what they want; especially if you need safeguards for the downtrodden.

Because the majority ought to prevail over the minority, must the majority have all the votes, the minority none? ()

As I learned from an article in The Boston Review about ten or so years ago, John Stuart Mill was an advocate of PR, he believed it would 'raise the intellectual standard of the House of Commons'.

When the individuals composing the majority would no longer be reduced to Hobson's choice, of either voting for the person brought forward by their local leaders, or not voting at all; when the nominees of the leaders would have to encounter the competition not solely of the candidate of the minority, but of all the men of established reputation in the country who were willing to serve; it would be impossible any longer to foist upon the electors the first person who presents himself with the catchwords of the party in his mouth, and three or four thousand pounds in his pocket.

The ironic prescience of this last line is staggering — this is indeed the level to which politics has been reduced (or perhaps has always maintained?).

But enough. It's the outpourings of another great mind, an anonymous 'Citizen of No Importance' from Boston no less, which has prompted this piece. The Gorham Press saw fit in 1928 to publish a work of political science by this very gentleman addressing the difficulty of creating fair representation for the people.

I call it political science, despite there being no such thing.

As Andrew Garfield tells his pol.sci. prof Robert Redford in the excellent film 'Lions For Lambs':

Political science, Doc. What's scientific outside of the psychology behind how much shit voters will swallow before they notice? The science part, it's really only about how to win. Not how to govern, not how to make anybody better, just how to win. No matter how stupid or two-faced or criminal you look.

The science our unknown Citizen (actually John Quiggan) was talking about is the Science of Elections. Generating a government is akin to writing a computer program which takes into consideration millions of variables passed to it by millions of random generators, then applying some sort of 'fairness' algorithm whereby, presto, a result!

The title of our Citizen's book was 'Decimalism'. Rather:

'Decimalism or Progressive Selection. Aristocracy Transcribed in a Fantasia of Common Sense. Offered Seriously to Those Who When the Wind Blows Southerly Know a Hawk From a Handscrew."

In this slim volume, half of which is taken up by the title, the author outlines a voting system whereby in a country of, say 100 million people, ten voters will elect one First Grade Selector. He will join nine other selectors who elect a Second Grade Selector, who in turn elects a Councilman, who elects a Supervisor, likewise Assemblymen, Congressmen, and finally a President.

Eight levels of heirarchy, one for each zero in the population. Your closest political representative has a constituency of only nine people. And his superior only has a hundred to look after (with ten under-managers), and so on.

Under the Irish Constitution there must be at least one Member for every 20,000 to 30,000 people. At present there are 166 Members representing 43 constituencies. (Let's ignore the 60 Members of the Seanad, everyone else does.)

Let's see, under Decimalism in Ireland we would produce:

  • 4,000,000 voting for 400,000 Selectors
  • 400,000 voting for 40,000 Councillors
  • 40,000 voting for 4,000 Supervisors
  • 4,000 voting for 400 Assemblymen
  • 400 voting for 40 Congressmen
  • 40 voting for 1 President (or Taoiseach)

We've yet to work out the pay grades, but that's only six levels of hierarchy, whereas the civil service has eight, I think. Currently about 10% of the total population are in the public service. We can afford large numbers.

But wouldn't voting become more interesting if you only had nine people to choose from — and if everyone were automatically a candidate? I think it's quite a novel idea.

Constituent Parts: The Handscrew

So novel in fact, that it has yet to re-appear on the internet. The only references to the Citizen's book I could find were library catalogue entries. Maybe it's time to dust off a copy and see what the Twentieth Century could have been, if only we had taken his advice. Or what the Twenty-First may yet become.

I believe he was ahead of his time. The scientific method was still much distrusted in 1928, and those rigid inherited class structures were still very much in evidence — including the idea that you deserved less of a political voice than your social betters.

Perhaps now we are ready for a logical, mathematical, social, grass roots re-imagining of the very nature of the election itself. What purpose does it serve? Do the decisions of the people we elect ultimately reflect the will of the people? Judging by the Anglo debacle, the new Blasphemy Act, the alcohol licensing laws, I think not.

It would make it much easier to get elected too. Could you be the next One in Ten?


  1. From Representative Government (1861), Chapter VII, "Of True and False Democracy; Representation of All, and Representation of the Majority Only." [back ↩]