The Essential Eurovision Guide to Voting Systems

Alan Renwick

Political scientists get very excited about Eurovision.  That’s partly just because most people get very excited about Eurovision and political scientists – contrary to popular belief – are not that different from everyone else.  But political scientists get excited for another reason too: Eurovision gives us lots of lots of opportunities to do fun political science.

A quick search for “Eurovision Song Contest” on Google Scholar gets more than three thousand hits.  There’s a whole cottage industry in “eurovisiopsephology” out there.  Probably the hottest issue in the academic literature concerns the evolution of voting blocs.  Numerous studies examine the Wogan hypothesis: that political voting, which was once restricted to an innocent vote swap between Greece and Cyprus, has become ubiquitous.[1]  Some studies (such as this one) back Terry up.  Others suggest things are more complex.  Writing in the august European Journal of Political Economy, for example, Ginsburgh and Noury conclude that cultural proximity matters more than vote trading.  In other words, the Greeks vote for the Cypriots because they really like the way the Cypriots sing, not because they expect votes in return.  And we voted for Jedward last year not because we feel uniquely close to the Irish but because we actually really like Jedward.

But this isn’t the issue that I want to focus on here.  Even more interesting than the question of voting blocs (if you’re me) is the question of what Eurovision can tell us about the operation of different voting systems.  Eurovision uses what’s call a modified Borda Count voting system.  This asks us to rank the candidates – or the contestants – according to our preferences and then allocates points accordingly: in the Eurovision version, our first preference gets 12 points, our second 10 points, and so on.

We can also see what the results would have been under various different systems (assuming that voters would have voted exactly as they in fact did had a different voting system been used – which might not be entirely realistic.)  This allows us to get at the question of whether the voting system makes any difference or not.

And the resounding answer is that the voting system actually makes a big difference.  Last year, as we all know, Azerbaijan won, with 221 points, ahead of Italy on 189 points, and Sweden on 185.  Had First Past the Post been used, however, Bosnia would have won, having secured more top-scoring douze points than anyone else (five of them).  Under the Alternative Vote system – which allows voters, as under Borda Count, to rank candidates, but then counts only each voter’s highest preference among surviving candidates, eliminating bottom candidates until someone gets a majority – Azerbaijan would have come out on top, as they did in the real world.  But under the Supplementary Vote – the system used for the London mayor and, in essence, the French president – Italy would have gained the crown, beating Bosnia into second place by nine votes to six.

What’s more, last year’s contest wasn’t a one-off: in fact, different voting systems would often have produced different results.  Looking across the thirty-seven years since the current system was first introduced, the result would have been different from the official one under either First Past the Post or the Alternative Vote nineteen times.  In 1981, for example, neither of these other systems would have led Europe to make its mind up for Bucks Fizz.  The skirt-ripping Brits won despite securing maximum points from only two countries, a weakness that First Past the Post and the Alternative Vote both penalize heavily.  On the other hand, AV would have brought victory to the UK in both 1975 and 1992, ahead of actual winners the Netherlands and Ireland.

So let no one ever tell you that voting systems don’t matter.  Admittedly, the rules make a difference so often in Eurovision because there are so many contestants: where votes are split across more contestants, different systems are more likely to add them up in different ways.  But different systems can produce different outcomes even when there are as few as three candidates.

Eurovision can show us more than just that electoral systems matter: it can also tell us something about the character of the differences.  As I’ve just suggested, First Past the Post is clearly more problematic if there are many candidates rather than few.  For Bosnia to have won with five votes out of forty-three – 12 per cent of the total – would not have looked very legitimate.  In contests with many candidates, some kind of preferential system is clearly needed.

One concern sometimes expressed about preferential systems is that they can lead to the choice of mediocre compromise candidates: candidates who gain many middling preferences but don’t come top in many people’s rankings.  That might well be the case in some contexts, but there’s little evidence for it in Eurovision: non-identikit acts have fared better under the actual rules than they would have under First Past the Post.  In 1998, for example, Israel’s transgender diva Dana International would have lost out to either Malta or the UK had First Past the Post been used.  In 2006, Landi, the hard rock band from Finland, would have had to share top spot with Bosnia.

If you’re really concerned about victory for compromise acts, AV is better than the Borda Count: under the latter, but not the former, it’s theoretically possible to win without securing a single first preference.  But this has never happened in Eurovision.  And AV generates some pretty worrying quirks of its own.

All of which picks up another basic principle: that no voting system is perfect.  That’s partly what makes them so endlessly fascinating.

[1] For the benefit of non-UK readers: Terry Wogan fronted the BBC’s Eurovision coverage for over thirty years.  He gave up in 2008, having concluded the contest had come to be “about national prejudices”.

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