Voters should have a number of options on abortion


In a democracy the people decide. That's the theory. Decisions should represent public opinion or, when dealing with controversial issues, society's best possible compromise. As with conflict resolution, therefore, the outcome should be everyone's highest average preference.

In Ireland, alas, parliament relies on the for-or-against vote and, because the government usually has a majority, most decisions are effectively the sole preserve of Cabinet. Occasionally the people decide in a referendum, but only by endorsing or rejecting an earlier decision.

Certain countries, however, enjoy a more pluralist democracy. Norway uses multi-option voting in parliament, Sweden has used multi-option referendums on pensions and nuclear power, and New Zealand held a non-binding, multi-option vote plus a binding referendum when changing its electoral system.

There are many different possible pension policies, energy strategies and electoral systems and, while none is perfect, many are serviceable. Similarly, on abortion several options might be considered practicable, and the Green Paper set out seven themes plus a few variations. Nevertheless, and despite submissions from the de Borda Institute (see deBordaInstitute) and four other organisations, the All-Party Committee decided that there shall be no multi-option voting on abortion, neither in Dail Eireann nor in the State at large.

On this point, the committee appears to be unanimous. In a word, the politicians do not trust the people to reach a compromise; instead they debate among themselves to find their own compromise, and only then ask the people to judge yes or no.

The implications for the abortion debate are serious enough. The unwritten agenda, however, goes deeper, for it seems the politicians may not want to find the common consensus on such matters as neutrality and electoral reform.

The two-option vote, the committee first suggests (page 40), gives "the voter the right to say Yes or No". Surely it would be better if the voters had the right to state their preferences on a range of options. After all, in a multi-option debate any two-option vote is, ipso facto, a restriction on the voters' freedom of choice. And in Ireland, where voters are well used to expressing their preferences, multi-option voting would be both reasonable and practicable.

Secondly, it continues: "There is a majority one way or the other." I'm not sure if the good people of Florida would agree, let alone the Welsh after their 1997 referendum on devolution, the Quebecois after theirs in 1995 on independence, or we Irish after ours on divorce. The majority in each case was a mere handful: 50.4 per cent, 50.6 per cent and 50.3 per cent respectively.

There could be little confidence that such small majorities were in fact correct. Moreover, a majority vote often fails to identify the best compromise and instead falls to one side. Hence many parliaments and countries are split into left and right, republican and democrat, etc.

Thirdly, it suggests "a preferendum might result in an option which had never obtained the support of a majority being nonetheless adopted", ignoring the example of New Zealand where the outcome of the non-binding, multi-option vote was then subject to a majority vote ratification.

Fourthly, and incredibly, it says the referendum "has worked well in practice", although we know "the Government is conscious that. . . prior to the 1983 and 1992 referenda, the debate became bitter and polarised," (Green Paper, page 126).

The committee next suggests it is unclear who should draw up the options. Well, in New Zealand a commission was asked to draw up a list of possible electoral systems. Such an independent body could minimise the committee's final concern, namely that the outcome might be unduly influenced by a judicious choice of options.

A commission, an all-party committee or the Oireachtas itself could, using public consultation, draw up a list of, say, five options. Voters would then give five points to the option they liked the most, four points to their next favourite, and so on. The winning option would be that which collected the most points, i.e. the option with the highest average preference.

Now an average, by definition, involves everyone. And democracy is for everybody, not just 50 per cent and a bit. Of the many voting procedures which can be used in decision-making, this points system, or Borda preferendum as it is called, is probably the most accurate and the most inclusive.

In some parliamentary committees and in the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, certain trends towards a more inclusive form of democratic decision-making are already evident. Such trends will not become dominant, however, until both in national polls and Dail votes the divisive, two-option majority vote is replaced, or at least supplemented, by a multi-option points voting procedure.

Peter Emerson is director of the de Borda Institute, which campaigns for fair elections. The institute's most recent publications include Beyond the Tyranny of the Majority and From Belfast to the Balkans