Climate, covid and consensus

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Humanity faces existential choices - but is still to decide how to make fair decisions.


Climate breakdown and Covid are telling us we must live and work together. Accordingly, the UN Conference of the Parties climate gatherings, for example, reject majority voting and aim for unanimity.

But that gives every nation the ‘right’ of veto: China and India in Cop26, the DRC in Cop15.  Not yet have they worked out, how best to get consensus.

In the old days different peoples tried to identify their common ground: in the pow-wows of the Indians, the barazas and gacacas [1] of Africa, the 圆坐yuán zuò, 圆议yuán yì [2] of China, and the medieval tings of the Norwegians [3].  It often took quite a long time…


So, some 2,500 years ago, the Greeks and later, quite separately, the Chinese invented binary voting. History relates that in both settings of relatively rich men – citizens in the forums of Greece and ministers in China’s Imperial Court of the Former Hán Dynasty – it worked quite well: either “Option X, yes-or-no?” or a pairing, “option X or option Y?”  If the problem was binary, it worked.

In a murder trial in Rome in the year 105, however, the jury had three options – A acquittal, B banishment, C corporal punishment – and Pliny the Younger realised, when there’s no majority in favour of any one option, then obviously, there’s a majority against every option. “Innocent, yes-or-no?” – B and C gang up against A.  “Execute, yes-or-no?” – and B oppose C.  And so on.

So the Greeks invented a procedure based on binary voting: first, choose the most popular amendment; next, reject or accept this amendment to get the substantive; and finally, decide, this substantive or the status quo ante.

Imagine nine people wondering, is the forum to meet on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday?  If four people want M, three prefer and two opt for W, then there are majorities of five, six and seven against M, T and W, and of nine against nothing, option N.  If the preferences of these nine persons are as shown..

Voters' Preferences


...and if the motion is “Let’s meet on Monday,” with amendments for either T or W, 7 prefer T; next, T versus the motion M, and M beats T by 6:3; finally, this substantive, M, versus N, which N wins 5:4.  Three binary votes, and the answer is N.


To summarise: they agreed, verbally, nobody wants nothing; and then they agreed, democratically, they all want nothing! Furthermore, if the motion were for T while M and W were the two amendments, the outcome would be T

The conclusion is stark: in many multi-option debates, binary voting does not and cannot identify “the will of the people” or of parliament.

As in Brexit. It was a multi-option debate: the UK in the EU, EEA, Customs Union or WTO. David Cameron held only one vote on only one option, and a small majority said ‘no’.  But maybe even bigger majorities opposed the other options.

Theresa May had four options – her ‘indicative votes’ – and there was indeed a majority against everything.

With Boris Johnson, a “‘his deal’, yes-or-no?” ballot would probably have lost. So he used a pairing, which something always wins: in effect he asked: “‘his deal’ or ‘no deal’?” He won. But ‘any deal’ versus the most unpopular ‘no deal’ would have won.

Punters Guide to Democracy
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When children choose the vegetable for lunch – swedes, turnips, broccoli… – there’s often a majority against everything; and then the pudding – chocolate cake, ice-cream, blancmange… – majorities in favour.  In multi-option debates, binary voting is sometimes almost meaningless.

Little wonder then that many scholars have thought of multi-option voting. Plurality voting was first used by the Chinese in 1197, during the Jurchen Jīn Dynasty.

Next, (no connection), in 1299, Ramón Llull suggested preferential voting; Nicholas of Cusa proposed a points system in 1433; and in 1770, Jean-Charles de Borda did the maths.

Adopted in France, in l’Académie des Sciences, this preferential points system worked quite well.  But, these were turbulent times, and a new guy didn’t like this ‘consensus nonsense’, so back to majority voting.  He chose the question; the people voted yes-or-no… and in 1803, he thus became emperor – Napoléon.

Politicians like majority voting, because then they’re in control.  Vladimir Putin asks: “Luhansk: independence, yes-or-no?”


That was in 2014, which also saw Scotland’s referendum of course, and the word Scotland, Шотландия, ‘Shotlandiya’, was used by Russian separatists in Luhansk… to ‘justify’ the unjustifiable. 

“Everything is connected,” to quote the Ukrainian philosopher, Vladimir Varnadsky – Ukraine, Scotland, Ireland, Catalonia, Republika Srpska… 

In 2022, Putin changed his mind: “Luhansk: incorporate into Russia, yes-or-no?”  Whereupon the people, apparently, changed their minds too.  In a nutshell, majority voting is often a means by which the powerful manipulate those with less. 

In politics (and business), however, most debates are, or should be, multi-optional; accordingly, the corresponding ballots should also be multi-optional.


Therefore, as in the Jurchen assemblies of yore, democratic decision-making should allow anyone to make a suggestion; every option to be on the table (and, today, the computer screen); and, à la New Zealand’s 1992 five-option electoral system referendum, the final selection of (ideally, 4 – 6) options to be done independently.

That is key! The separation of powers should mean the number and type of options must be resolved independently of the executive; the people in a referendum or the MPs in parliament then cast their preferences; at best, the outcome is the option with the highest average preference; and an average, of course, involves every (voting) member of parliament/society. 

So the introduction of this form of preferential voting – the Modified Borda Count MBC – could be the catalyst of a more consensual polity.

Indeed, real majority rule should involve all-party, power-sharing coalitions, where all the MPs share collective responsibility for implementing the will of parliament – (which, under a fair electoral system, would be similar to “the will of the people”) – and the words ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ could fade from the political lexicon, in the UN, Cops, parliaments... and conflict zones.

This Author

Peter Emerson is the director of the de Borda Institute, a founder member of the Irish GP, and the author of The Punters’ Guide to Democracy (Springer, Heidelberg).


[1]                The Swahili and Kinyarwanda words describing meetings where everyone sat in circles, often under a tree.

[2]                These words, ‘sitting in circles’, come more from the Jurchen and Mongolian traditions.

[3]                Assemblies where the freemen settled disputes, adopted laws, and elected a king, who swore to follow those laws.

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