This idea aims to address systemic problems in our current approach to voting for political parties to decide national policies and priorities.
The idea proposes an alternative data-driven approach based on voting for ideas, not people.
Our current approach to general elections is to ask the electorate to pick between a few clubs of people who each represent a single set of ideas. This approach brings some problems, including;
• Voter’s political views are more nuanced than can be represented by a single political party. Voters can be forced to ‘hold their nose’ about certain party policies or positions when selecting a party. This take-it-or-leave-it approach means that elections simply show how the electorate swing between a few big parties. By asking voters to pick between a few big parties, we do not gather the data needed to deeply understand the electorate’s view of individual ideas or how those views break down by geography, demographics and other factors.
• As well as their role in serving the nation, political parties are incentivized to be re-elected. This incentive can drive suboptimal policy and decision-making, as well as the misrepresentation of facts. Political parties frequently over-promise by publishing manifestos which are not fiscally balanced.
• Too many people’s votes are driven by personal interpretations of the candidates, over and above a rich understanding of their policies and ambitions. We have seen characters elected because the public find them funny, even while acknowledging their incompetence.
• Election results can only represent the views of the electorate who made the effort to go to a polling station, or to register in advance for postal voting. Turnout rates are impacted by weather conditions on election days and voters’ living distance from polling stations.
The above problems can be addressed by a detailed ideas-based voting system that can be accessed from home. The UK today can develop the required technical security and infrastructure to support this proposal. For example, millions of us have been safely submitting our tax returns online for years through a system that identifies each unique user and securely processes personal and sensitive financial data. The security and efficacy of an online system for voting has been proven. Estonia is the country that is furthest along in the journey to switch to an online approach for general elections. Estonia piloted their electronic system in the 2005 municipal elections (which was declared a success by Estonian election officials) and have used an online system for parliamentary elections since 2007. Since the online system was implemented, the percentage of the electorate choosing to vote online has progressively increased at each general election.
The exciting benefit of a technical system – over a pen and tick box – is the ability to capture numerous data points per voter in order to build a rich picture of their views. A software solution can offer much more granularity than a tick next to a name. A software solution could capture voters’ preferences at the level of ideas or policies, rather than people. Through a simple survey mechanism, voters could state their priorities and preferences for areas of public spending over others. The survey interface could be designed to force-rank spending priorities in order for each voter to ‘balance the books’. This mechanism would prevent voters from defining an unimplementable fantasy of ideas (which are too often promised in manifestos that are published in our current political system).
By voting at the level of ideas, not people, we capture a ‘manifesto’ of ideas per voter. Big data processing can identify detailed trends in opinions across demographics and geographies. Such trends can then be interpreted to represent the views of each population segment, and collectively represent the views of the nation. This big dataset – which I will refer to as the ‘Electorate’s Manifesto’ – can be used to inform the most suitable policies for the nation. The interpretation of these trends is significantly more precise than the current rough-shod interpretation of the ‘meaning’ of election results – given that votes are currently cast in the broad brushstrokes of political parties.
We do not require a political party to interpret the ‘Electorate’s Manifesto’ into the policies and action plans to be implemented. A more diverse group (for instance civil servants, policy researchers, policy thinks tanks, and experts from key national institutions) would bring neural diversity and focused expertise. A wider range of views and knowledge – as compared to a political party – is required for the analysis, review and refinement of the ‘Electorate’s Manifesto’ into a set of implementable policies and action plans. Another benefit of using unelected individuals is that they are immune from the political pressure to be re-elected that can drive poor policy and decision-making.
When considering this idea, we should stand back and look at the UK’s current approach to deciding what policy and spending to implement, and how. Does the concept of political parties feel antiquated in 2021? – We ask voters go out to pick between a few clubs of people who each represent a single set of ideas, who ‘debate’ ideas by shouting across the aisle in the House of Commons, and who are incentivized to get more votes.
With big data to deeply understand the electorate, and the right analysis, scrutiny and expertise to interpret the electorate’s views, we could eventually move away from voting for political parties all together.