Saturday 13 December 2008

Strictly voting fiasco

Those of us who watch popular entertainment with particular reference to electoral systems could find some new material on Strictly Come Dancing tonight.

There are lots of cases where the Electoral Reform Society should step in and sort out television democracy. The Eurovision song contest has been famously wrecked by the abolition of the old (and often bizarre) indirect 'jury' system for pointless public expressions of neighbourly allegiance. The X Factor uses an elimination system in which conflicts of interest are endemic. Where judges are not being asked to vote for (or, technically, against) the acts which they manage, the balance of power will usually falls to the 'neutral' judge who therefore routinely has the option to vote tactically to eliminate their strongest rivals by letting the weakest candidate through.

And it is striking how often these programmes which have become a byword for instant democratic gratification in fact favour the rule of experts, almost always giving a Caesar-like veto over eliminations to the judges, and not the voting public. (And even then, the 'Strictly' judges seem to want to extend their power and to encroach further on the public's choices - in exerting pressure to drive John Sergeant from the contest when the public would not give them the chance to eliminate him).

The Strictly Come Dancing system fell over tonight.

It works something like this: the judges score the various performances, and the bottom act is given one point, the next to bottom gets two points, the next gets three points. These are worth half of the overall totals. The phone lines are then opened, and the viewers' votes (on a similar system) are worth half of the total too.
(The scale of victory or defeat in either the judges' marks or the public vote is worth nothing at all). The bottom two acts enter a dance off, and the judges choose between them.

But the judges' tallies were tied for the top two candidates. And each of them were given three points, while the third place candidate had a single point. They could not escape the dance off by winning the public vote, making their public votes were pointless. My wife, as a dance teacher primarily interested in the dancing and the choreography, was not particularly impressed by my explaining this when the scores were revealed earlier on. I admit that even I thought it was a nerdy point, rather than a public scandal.

But I had not quite anticipated how jumpy the BBC has become about phone line scandals. As the programme returned, the lines had been suspended. It was not quite clear on what basis they could then eliminate anybody. And so they put all three candidates through to the final, broadcasting earnest assurances that tonight's votes will count then.

To avoid a few people being charged for a phone call which might not "count", everybody had spent their time watching an entirely pointless warm-up rehearsal.

I am not sure that the problem would be so very different had the votes not been tied. The system doesn't work well once you are down to three candidates. The third placed candidate can only escape the dance off if they win the public vote, and if the other places are exactly reversed so that the winning act comes third as well. All that does is tie all of the candidates on four points. I don't know what the tie-breaker rules are. (Perhaps the public votes are trumps). In earlier rounds too, with larger fields, it is all but mathematically impossible for the leading couple with the judges to finish in the bottom two, and yet the phone lines are open for them anyway.

Somebody with even more time on their hands than I have might be able to work out some better voting rules.

Much as the restoration of light entertainment on Saturday nights is an impressive achievement, the best approach would be to ensure that no television channel or production company can do anything other than recover the hard costs of running voting lines, removing the temptation to needlessly exhaust the public's appetite for exercising our democratic rights while watching TV.

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