An Overview of Methods of Choosing a Government

With the Labour Party proposing a Referendum on the replacement of the current electoral system with an Alternative Vote system, the issue of methods of choosing a government is again in the public eye.

However – despite Labour casting this as an either or issue – the methods of selection that could, and have been, used are much wider and more complex, each having advantages and disadvantages.

Single Ruler

A single person holding power for life by personal force (in the case of a military dictator), tradition (in the case of a monarch), or a combination of the two.

This has the advantage of a single vision for the future so resources are not directed to conflicting aims.

However, only one voice is heard so this disadvantages anyone who does not share the interests of the ruler; even when the ruler is benign and expends huge effort to act in the interests of all they cannot discover everything that interests the population.


Rule by every citizen having a certain characteristic; for instance, the traditional tribal council of elders based on the idea that age brings wisdom and experience.

Whilst the accessibility of membership might vary between an aristocracy (hereditary entitlement of the first-born son of a member) and a technocracy (holders of specified vocational and educational qualifications) all oligarchies disadvantage the majority of the population who do not meet the criteria.

Also, there is often only a partial correlation between ability in one area and ability to govern.

Strict Democracy

This system gives an equal voice to all citizens on every issue, so excludes no one.

However, a gathering of all citizens requiring a majority consensus on every issue would be very unwieldy, so this system produces from either great expense and delay or the devolution of power to smaller, less democratic groups.

Elected Democracy

The unwieldiness of democracy is most often addressed by the regular democratic election of a government.

Voting methods can be distinguished by three criteria: the number of candidates for which a citizen may express a preference, the number of candidates elected by each constituency, and the method of counting votes.

First Past the Post

The citizen places a single vote for the candidate of their choice.

Under a simple plurality the candidate with the highest number of votes wins whether or not they have an absolute majority (over 50% of the vote).

This has the advantage that determining the winner is quick and simple.

However, the winner might well be the choice of less than half of the electorate.

To address the issue of majority the system could require a run-off election is held if the leading candidate does not have an absolute majority.

The run-off can be:

  1. further ballots with the least popular candidate eliminated each time, until one candidate has an absolute majority;
  2. a second ballot between the two most popular candidates.

Whilst this does produce a greater appearance of popular choice run-off elections can vastly increase the cost and length of time required.

Also studies of United States primary elections show that citizens whose choice of candidate has been eliminated are less likely to vote at all in subsequent ballots, so although the percentage of votes cast is an absolute majority, run-offs are likely to reduce the number of votes cast so that the percentage received compared to potential votes is lower.

Where multiple seats are available the top several candidates win and run-offs are less likely.

Instant Runoff Vote or Alternative Vote

The citizen places the candidates in order based on preference.

The candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and each vote for that candidate is transferred to the citizen’s next non-eliminated choice. This continues until the required number of candidates remains.

This has the advantage on making each vote more likely to have an effect, as a seat will be filled by a candidate for whom the citizen has expressed a preference. The citizen is therefore more likely to vote first for the candidate they want rather than voting tactically.

However, as each citizen ranks candidates in preference, the transfer of votes results in a bias towards candidates that are least objectionable to most citizens rather than most preferable.

Calculation of the winner can also be long and complex depending on the number of candidates.

A variation on this method is for each citizen to rank only their top choices (e.g. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd).

This reduces both the bias towards least unacceptable and reduces the burden of calculating the winner.

However, it increases the chance of a vote having no effect.

In the case of a multiple seat election instead of eliminating the lowest scoring candidate until the correct number remain a qualifying quota system can be used.

Where a candidate achieves a defined number of votes they are elected and the vote for them added to the second choice until the required number of candidates have achieved the quota.

This method reduces bias towards the middle by increasing the chance a second choice will count.

However, minority candidates are still likely to be overwhelmed by major parties.

The method also results in the same vote counting for several candidates, which could be seen as some citizens having more votes than others.

Ranked Vote

The citizen assigns each candidate a score within a range (e.g. 0 –10) depending on how much they prefer than candidate.

More than one candidate can be given the same score and candidates who have not been scored are assumed to score the lowest.

The candidates with the highest scores win.

Variations on this method are:

  1. giving each citizen a set number of votes that they can use to select up to that number of candidates;
  2. giving each citizen a set number of points that they can distribute between one or more candidates;
  3. ranking the candidates in order with each place having a score, e.g. 1st=8, 2nd=4, 3rd=2, &c.

This method has the advantage that the strength of preference can be shown, so a group of citizens who strongly hold a minority view will be less overwhelmed by a large number of citizens who mildly favour the status quo.

However, the burden upon the citizen to understand the system and on the system to calculate the winner make this both more expensive to operate and more prone to error than many other systems.

Where more candidates than seats score sufficiently, a run off between those candidates is required.

Proportional Representation

The citizen places a vote for the party of their choice.

The seats are allocated to parties in the same proportion as they received votes, i.e. 50% of votes would grant half the available seats.

As this system grants representation in the same ratio as views are held generally it is often closer to strict democracy than other voting systems.

Several different methods exist to resolve the situation of proportions not dividing equally between seats. Depending on the method used this system the system slightly disadvantages either the majority view or the smallest minorities.

Once the number of seats has been awarded to a party they are filled in one of two ways:

  1. closed list – the party selects an occupant for the seat;
  2. open list – prior to the election each party issues an ordered list of candidates and the top number of candidates from that list fill the seats.


As society is a complex mix of overlapping interests more complex systems of determining preference are fairer where the citizen has the access and ability needed to understand the system.

As everyone holds a different selection of interests, systems that allow a citizen to choose more than one representative provide a more representative government.

However, the more complex a system and the greater the number or representatives, the greater the chance of errors and the higher the cost, both in forming the government and in the government making a decision.

Whilst there may not be a perfect answer, this need to balance usability and representation is often resolved by the creation of several bodies, whether it is by level as with national and local government, or across a level as with the combination of an elected House of Commons with an oligarchic House of Lords.

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