Democracy Center - Analysis of the projects

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Lýðræðissetrið Demokratisentret Democracy Center

Research and advice on methods of voting and election

The following is a description of an approach based on the experience gained by a fund voting project carried out in Skaftárhreppur Municipality (South Iceland). The project was prepared and carried out by the Democracy Center. The fund voting was general, i.e. all those on the voters´ list could participate. This fund voting project in Skaftárhreppur Municipality went on for one year. The first issue was presented in November 2009 and the last one in November 2010. In the first issues one could choose between using the Internet for delivering the votes offered or one could forward the ballot by mail. After the area was connected to the Internet all ballots were delivered that way. The issues voted on were as follows: 

  • A charge for refuse collection 
  • Borders of the Vatnajökull National Park within Skaftárhreppur Municipality 
  • Preschool location 
  • Issues regarding the principals of the Municipality schools 
  • Selection of rivers for electricity generation under the Master Plan 
  • The future of the Skaftárhreppur Municipality 
  • Responsibilities for meeting-houses 

Each voter received 40 votes for the first issue, and 10 votes for each issue that was voted on. Should a voter not offer votes on three consecutive issues, he would receive no votes for his fund for use in the following issue. During the time allocated for the handling of each issue, at least two more were brought up for later voting. 

A voter had the possibility to delegate his votes fund to an other (which became his representative). If this voter wanted nevertheless to participate in a special matter, he was free to offer votes which made the delegation not in force just in that matter.

The number of alternatives was not the same for all issues. They were always at least two, as in the case of the kindergarten facilities. The highest number concerned the Municipality’s responsibilities for meeting-houses, in all 32 alternatives. Originally there were five meeting-houses, one in each of the original municipalities in the area (until 1990). Each voter offered votes for the various alternatives, most for the ones most important to him and none for the ones he did not care for. Voters who had voted for the alternative that received the largest number of votes lost votes in relation to the votes offered for other alternatives. Other voters lost no votes. 

During winter and spring 2009 the Democracy Center representatives visited nearly every household in the Municipality to give comprehensive information on this fund voting project. At that time it seemed that the inhabitants were thinking of a number of other issues that ought to be voted on. Later it turned out, however, that most of those concerned the state, not local government. Issues that hardly any inhabitant would have opposed did not fit in the programme. The issues that were included were of immediate concern. There was not much interest in the first issues as was to be expected, but it was frustrating how few were interested in the last two. A person well acquainted with the local situation is of the opinion that the inhabitants had actually been quite confused regarding the sixth of the seven issues, i.e. the future development of the Municipality, and consequently they did not participate. The Municipality’s responsibilities regarding the meeting-houses was undeniably a delicate matter, considering the historical and architectural aspects as well as the question of maintenance: The voters were not prepared to make up their minds. In case the Municipality decided to discontinue its responsibilities for some of the meeting-houses, there obviously remained the question what should become of them. 

The Municipality is in a state of decay as can clearly be seen in the declining number of schoolchildren lately. Before there were any plans for fund voting in this Municipality, I had a discussion on fund voting with a deputy MP who was actually living there at the time. I told her that I thought that general fund voting would stimulate public interest in social affairs. This person provided strong support for the case during the initial phase, but unfortunately she and her husband soon left the area and moved to the husband’s earlier home area as he had lost his job in the bank branch office at the Municipality Center after the general banking default. 

When the notion of fund voting in this Municipality first emerged the chairman was the first to be briefed on the fundamental idea. He came to the conclusion that offering of votes would have favourable effects, especially as it might moderate the attitudes of the inhabitants. 

The Democracy Center website, abcd.is, contains information on the project, i.e. the general process, information on each issue including all alternatives, on the offering of votes as well as the results of the voting. It is now up to the inhabitants to decide the future of fund voting in the Municipality. The Democracy Center will not take the initiative for more fund voting in this area, but the Center is at any time prepared to provide support as well as Internet services at no cost. 

It often happens when an issue is prepared for a voting process that it is considered advisable to leave out one or more alternatives that, in fact, might seem viable, thereby conceivably reducing the voters’ possibility of expressing their preferences. Fund voting, on the other hand, has the advantage that a fairly large number of alternatives can be set up for voting. Reverting to fund voting also has another advantage: When a survey of popular opinion is required, applying fund voting measures with great accuracy the emphasis put on each issue and its various alternatives by the public. There are many approaches and tricks to express an opinion and arouse attention. Some people have the means to make use of the possibilities at hand while others have no such means. In fund voting the preferences are unerringly expressed by the offering of votes. 

The experience gained by the fund voting in Skaftárhreppur Municipality has greatly improved our understanding of the approach discussed in Democracy With Sequential Choice And Fund Voting (Section III.C.1). When applying this approach a sort of consultation committee is established (consisting of members of committees in the public sphere and the boards of various associations) for processing issues by applying fund voting. There the issues will be formulated, conceivably with a number of alternatives to begin with, and the people who shall expedite the issue are made aware of how the votes were spent. Should only a few votes be spent on a given issue, this is of interest to the ones who make the decisions. The same applies when, among the alternatives on which the greatest number of votes has been spent, there are two or more with approximately the same number of votes. 

[Translated from the Icelandic with slight alterations and abridgements] 

Sveitarstjórnarmál (Local Government Magazine) 71 (2011) 4 6-7