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Run-off election could change voter habits

Published: 
Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A run-off election for Members of Parliament was one of the significant new legislative provisions offered for inclusion by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar in Parliament yesterday. As the PM described, a run-off election is one that is held between the two highest vote-getters following an election in which no candidate received at least 50 per cent of the vote. 

This scheme exists in many democratic countries and seeks to better reflect the democratic will of the people by ensuring that no representative can be elected if more people vote against them than for them.  In the traditional first-past-the-post system, if candidate A earns 40 per cent of the vote, candidate B 35 per cent and candidate C the remaining 25 per cent, then candidate A wins with what is called a plurality. 

However, if supporters of candidate C prefer candidate B rather than candidate A, they must choose between “wasting” their vote on the candidate C, or voting for candidate B to prevent candidate A from winning (assuming they know that candidate B has a better chance at winning than candidate C). This behaviour is called “strategic voting”.

The run-off election system would avoid this dilemma by allowing two consecutive ballots, one in which voters are free to select their candidate of choice, and a second in which every vote directly counts towards either the eventual winner or the runner up. 

Some argue that strategic voting caused the narrow result seen in last year’s St Joseph by-election, in which United National Congress (UNC) candidate Ian Alleyne finished in second place with 39 per cent of the vote even though three independent polls had him at 30 per cent, 30 per cent and 34 per cent of decided voters in the final weeks, and the UNC had mustered just 24 per cent of the vote in these very same polling divisions just two weeks prior.

The new system only becomes significant when there is a strong third party whose level of support is at least equal to the difference in support levels between the two major parties. For example, none of the 41 constituencies in the 2010 general election would have been subject to a run-off.  

However, in 2007, when the Congress of the People (COP) captured 23 per cent of the vote, as many as 14 of the 41 constituencies would have seen a run-off. They were: Barataria/San Juan, Chaguanas East, Point-a-Pierre, Princes Town South/Tableland, and St Joseph that went for the PNM, and Caroni Central, Couva North, Couva South, Cumuto/Manzanilla, Fyzabad, Mayaro, Princes Town North, St. Augustine and Tabaquite, in which the UNC won with just less than 50 per cent of the vote. 

Since 1995, the only other constituencies that would have been required to return to the polls were Tunapuna in 1995 and Tobago East in 2000. But other than the voters, exactly who this rule favours is uncertain. The UNC, whose support base has historically been favourable to third parties, would get a second chance to “woo” back their supporters in a run-off. However, this assumes that voters are not already practicing strategic voting. 

On the other hand, a smaller third-party like the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) that historically does better in PNM-leaning areas would have a window to convince would-be supporters to vote for them on the first ballot without fear of inadvertently putting either of the two larger parties into or out of power.

Editor’s note: Nigel Henry is lead analyst at Solution By Simulation, a data analysis firm that uses computer modelling to probe and provide insight into political, economic and other human behavioural contexts.