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Brexit, data science and the 2019 European Parliamentary elections

Tactical voting is not new — not in the UK, and not elsewhere. In UK parliamentary elections, voters are generally aware of which candidate in their constituency has the best chance of beating the government candidate. They are often prepared to ‘hold their noses’ and vote for a party that is not their first choice, for the sake of beating a party that they really do not want to see in government.

Tactical voting is simple — but only if the voting system is too

That is easy in a first-past-the-post system. You just look at the share of the vote in the last election, and work out which party was second. Suppose you are back in 1997, and you want to cast a vote that will give the best chance of a non-Conservative government — which frankly was how a lot of people felt after 18 years of Conservative government. If you lived in a Conservative constituency, you would simply have voted for the party that had got the second-biggest share of the vote in the previous election. Never mind whether your heart was with Labour or the Liberal Democrats, or even the Monster Raving Loony Party, voters were united behind the need to end Conservative government.

This situation is tactical voting at its simplest. Sure, the media uses some more advanced analytics to work out what ‘swing’ might be needed to oust the sitting government, but fundamentally, voters in any particular constituency are aware of what they need to do — if they wish to do it.

It is not so easy in a system that uses proportional representation, such as that for the European parliamentary elections. In the UK, MEPs are elected on a ‘list’ system. Each party puts forward a list of people as possible MEPs in a particular region. The MEPs are allocated based on each party’s share of the vote in that region. The system used to allocate MEPs is pretty complicated (if you want to find out more, there is a useful explainer here), but it basically favours medium-sized parties. The big parties get fewer MEPs than you would expect for their vote share, and small parties miss out altogether.

Until recently, this hasn’t really mattered to many people. It is fair to say that the majority of people in the UK did not really care about the European parliamentary elections at all. However, some people are starting to see this month’s European election as a way to demonstrate to the government that Europe does matter.

An ambitious agenda

The group Remain Voter has an ambitious agenda: organising tactical voting for those who wish the UK to remain in the EU. For each region, it wants to identify how Remain voters should cast their votes for MEPs to have maximum chance of beating the Brexit-supporting parties.

There are quite a number of Remain-supporting parties: the Liberal Democrats, the new Change group, now known as Change UK, the Scottish Nationalist Party, and Plaid Cymru, for example. Individual voters have very little chance of identifying how they should vote to maximise their impact without help from somewhere. This is not the kind of thing that you can work out by looking. It needs some serious analytics.

One of the board members of Remain Voter is Cheryl Hung. A software engineer by background, she is Director of Ecosystem at the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, part of the Linux Foundation. Solving big software challenges is an everyday issue for her, and she intends to use her expertise and contacts to help Remain voters to work out how to vote. She is encouraging others to come forward and help too.

This is only possible because of the changes in computing power and analytics that have taken place over the last five years or so. Analytics was once the preserve of expensive polling agencies, and therefore of the main political parties and — to a certain extent — the media. Now, however, open source software and more intuitive approaches to analytics mean that it has been democratised. It is now possible for individuals to come together to make a difference without needing a huge support infrastructure behind them.

But are voters ready?

It has been interesting to see mainstream media report on RemainVoter’s tactics. But the more important question is, how many voters will trust the science? Our work with global enterprises suggest adoption could be the trickiest issue yet.

If fascination with the the science can enable higher voter turnout, that in itself could be counted as a win for democracy. Let’s see what May 23rd brings.

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