Eurovision: Does the voting system matter?

It’s time for a little eurovisio-psephology here on the Reading politics blog.  The voters have all been counted for Eurovision 2014 and Austria’s Conchita Wurst has been declared the winner.  But what if the votes had been counted differently – could the result then have been different too?  Dr Alan Renwick, Reading’s very own Eurovision voting expert, investigates.

We tend to think that the results of democratic elections are decided by the votes cast.  But, actually, there are lots of different ways of counting up the same set of preferences to produce a voting result.  And the method used can sometimes produce starkly different results.

Eurovision uses what political scientists call the Modified Borda Count system.  That’s a system that gives points not just to the act that each country ranks first, but also to second, third, and more preferences.  There are, famously, douze points for a first preference, dix points for a second preference, and so on.That’s very different, for example, from the First Past the Post system we use in Westminster elections here in the UK, where only first preferences are considered.  It is also different from the Alternative Vote system that was offered to British voters in the referendum of 2011, where multiple preferences can be expressed, but only one of these counts towards the result.  And there are lots of other possible systems besides these.

Eurovision has lots of contestants, and the higher the number of contestants (or candidates, if we are thinking about an election), the more likely it is that different voting systems will yield different outcomes.  In fact, in about half of all Eurovision contests, at least one commonly recognized voting system would have produced a different victor from the actual winner.  In 2011, for example, when Azerbaijan won the official vote tally, Bosnia would have prevailed under simple First Past the Post, while Italy would have taken home the honours had the Supplementary Vote system used to elect the London mayor been in place.

This year turns out not to be one of those contests.  Here are the top three acts under a variety of the most obvious possible electoral systems (I’m not going to describe the details of all the systems here, but Wikipedia and other sources will help those who really want to know):

1st

2nd

3rd

Actual result (Modified Borda Count)

Austria

Netherlands

Sweden

First Past the Post

Austria

Netherlands

Armenia and Sweden (equal)

Alternative Vote

Austria

Netherlands

Armenia

Supplementary Vote

Austria

Netherlands

Armenia and Sweden (equal)

Pure Borda Count

Austria

Netherlands

Sweden

Approval voting (voters able to approve 2 candidates)

Austria

Netherlands

Sweden

Approval voting (voters able to approve 3 candidates)

Austria

Netherlands

Sweden

Approval voting (voters able to approve 4 candidates)

Austria

Netherlands

Sweden

Approval voting (voters able to approve 10 candidates)

Austria

 Sweden

Netherlands

 

So the story of the counting rule this year is not particularly interesting.  But this year we do have a nice innovation in how the results are reported: for the first time, we can see separately the results of the jury vote and the popular vote in each country.  This reveals some fascinating curiosities, the biggest of which is surely that, in the UK, the popular vote ranked Poland first, while the jury vote put Poland last.  We can expect a whole industry of analysis into diaspora voting patterns to be sparked by this kind of result!

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