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How to Elect Members of the UK Youth Parliament

November 15, 2015

The Youth Parliament is a brilliant innovation, see http://www.ukyouthparliament.org.uk/about-us/, but for those of us that argue for voting reform, the arrangements for electing MYPs are slightly disappointing. Each Local Education Authority (LEA) that participates in the scheme (that is most of them) makes it own arrngements for the conduct of elections and other support. As far as I can ascertain most if not all of them use some form of ‘First-Past-the-Post’ (FPTP). The conduct of the election is the responsibility of the LEA support officer, not the British Youth Council, and not the people who run adult public elections in the area. There is no national guidance as to whether FPTP or some other system be used.

In the Youth Parliament elections in Dorset, “this year’s election took place on Monday 2 February to Friday 6 February 2015. 40 schools in Dorset took part in the election, including those attending Learning Centres and Special schools. The election has been a huge success, with a total of over 35,000 votes cast by over 17,500 students, making 2015 a record turnout for Dorset”, (see, https://www.dorsetforyou.com/ukyp ) . Two MYPs and two deputies were elected. Disappointly there were just eight candidates drawn from seven schools. One MYP and one deputy were elected from one school in Dorchester. The others were elected from two establishments in Weymouth. Schools in all other towns, such as Bridport, Sherborne, Beaminster, Blandford, Christchurch, Wareham, Wimborne… were unrepresented. This seems a little unbalanced to me.

By contrast the first elections in the London Borough of Sutton were conducted by Single Transferable Vote (STV) and the results were pretty representative. Counting the votes was hard work but was carried out by students themselves supervised by a very experienced member of the Electoral Reform Society, with the full co-operation of the support officer. Later the support officer changed and the use of STV was discontinued. The new support officer was not of course an expert in voting systems, but felt she must be in charge and adopted the simpler system of FPTP. Another motive could be that the council frowned on innovation.

If a better system is to be more generally adopted, I suggest it requires an initiative from the Youth Parliament itself. It could approve and promote one or more models of how elections could be conducted. Students and support officers in a particular LEA could innovate with more confidence and counter negative comment. Youngsters should stand up and say that if MPs insist on choosing the method by which they are elected without interference from the public, then they the young should be able to do likewise.

One excuse for not using STV is that it is complicated. That has never fazed voters where it has been applied. Yes the count takes longer but computers can help. In Scotland STV is used for electing local councillors, but the ballot papers are read by machine (optical character recognition) and counted by computer. This would involve licencing the appropriate software and securing the use of the local council’s OCR machines, but there are lower cost alternatives:

a. There are plenty of enthusiasts could provide a counting program for free. Of course it would have to be tested to the satisfaction of the UKYP. The election could be run online. Writing code to capture votes should not be too difficult. This could be run on school intranet servers and votes files trabsmitted to a central computer which would count the votes.

b. One of the Dorset objectives is, “Principles of youth elections – young people learn about what a real election is: free, fair, transparent, accountable and accessible for all.” To this end the count could be done manually by students under the supervision of a person using a computer program which tells him or her exactly what has to be done at each stage and why. It would provide not only the final results sheet but also a log file duplicating the dialogue in detail. The superviser would need little training, and need not fear making a boo boo. Again there are plenty of people capable of writing such a program and supplying it at no cost. Anyone learning about the disciplines involved in an STV count would thereby have a good appreciation of those involved in a FPTP election.

PS. For those voting reformers who favour a party list system or AMS over STV, and who say why am I focussing on the latter; the answer is simple. MYPs are not supposed to engage in party politics, and STV is the only fair system that is not based on the concept of party.

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