We must find ways to introduce preference voting into UK politics because it encourages people out of the binary, and tribal way, we’re conditioned to think. Integrated into a well-designed event, it encourages people to consider other points of view. This, we believe, will lead to people identifying common ground, which they can build upon to create solutions that work for everybody.

Recently Talk Shop held a webinar on this topic. What follows is an introduction to preference voting, and the wisdom that emerged in the Webinar.

What it is

Preference voting simply involves people putting a range of possible solutions or policies in order of preference. These preferences are turned into points. If I vote for four options, my top preference gets four points, my second choice three, and so on. The points are totalled to find the winner. 

The benefits of preference voting

First, it encourages civility. Take the 2016 Republic presidential primaries. Donald Trump might have been less rude to the other candidates if he had wanted the second or third preferences from electors for whom he was not the first choice.

Second, its use in policy-  and decision-making leads to win-win solutions that suit all parties. That same incentive, to secure the second and third preferences, encourages people who support one policy to understand what others need and want, and then to adapt their proposal accordingly. Sometimes, people advocating for two different options come to see so much common ground that they merge their proposals.

Also, preference voting has wide application. Lucy Pilling of the Liverpool Guild of Students described their use of a preferendum – a referendum with more than two alternatives. Talk Shop’s experience includes: an NGO; a professional football club; a local authority; parish council clerks; and a Transition Town. 

A short case study

A two hour event explored “How much power should local councils (parish and town councils) have in the 21st century?” Six possible responses were presented.  During the event, two of those options merged, as did three others. The final conclusion drew on elements of all five:  

Principal authorities and other public service providers should have a statutory duty to devolve the delivery of services to the local council.  This duty should be supported by devolving financial resources, quality control, accountability and training.

Preference voting and citizens assemblies

Rhuari Bennett of 3KQ commented that such a process was in tune with the emotional journey that assembly members go through. They move from being passive to active and from being a set of individuals to a collective, a community.  To have say five groups each advocating for one particular option is very active indeed. They have to:

  • work out how to ‘sell’ their option to other groups
  • send out scouts to see how those other groups view their proposals
  • discuss how to make their proposal more attractive in the light of feedback, while retaining its essence
  • perhaps negotiate a merger

The process of adaptation and merger, incentivised by the voting system, helps to create that sense of a community coming together.

Paul Thistlethwaite of Thinking Box described how preference voting could be done in real time during an Assembly or other meeting, using the app developed by the de Borda Institute in Belfast. (We should note that not everyone is happy with the form of preference voting that de Borda uses, which penalises people who don’t vote for all the options.)

Want to read more?

Talk Shop’s format that is based on preference voting is called Crowd Wise. Read our briefing here.