Continuing Electoral Reforms in Trinidad and Tobago

by Sarah John // Published September 15, 2014

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Hot on the heels of reforms to local elections last year, Trinidad and Tobago has recently abandoned plurality voting for the 41 members of the House of Representatives in favor of runoff voting.This change has sparked much public debate – and some anger – in this small Caribbean republic just miles off the coast of Venezuela. While FairVote applauds Trinidad and Tobago’s move away from plurality voting, we urge the legislature to continue exploring avenues for more democratic and representative electoral systems. In the short term, FairVote encourages Trinidad and Tobago to consider ranked choice voting, which would be a fairer, more popular – and cheaper – system of elections.  Longer term moves toward proportional representation, which face considerable constitutional barriers, are also heartily endorsed by FairVote.

A "firestorm of criticism" 

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar introduced the proposal for runoff elections in the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 on August 4 this year. As its name indicates, the bill amends the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution. It provides for four structural changes to the way the nation chooses its leaders. The first three changes – for fixed legislative terms, term limits on the Prime Minister and recall elections for legislators – were part of the People’s Partnership’s platform to the 2010 election. These changes were controversial, but less so than the forth change: runoff voting for House of Representatives elections.     

Runoff voting, in which a second election (the “runoff” election) is held if no candidate receives 50% + 1 votes in the initial election, ensures that an elected candidate is always the candidate that received majority support (at least in the runoff election). It reduces, though does not eliminate, the “spoiler effect”, in which a third party candidate might contribute to the loss of the most similar major party candidate by splitting the vote between those two candidates. Runoff voting is, however, expensive as it requires the conduct of a second election. For that reason, runoff voting is usually only used to elect presidents and not the hundreds of seats in a typical legislature, with the French National Assembly being a notable exception to this tendency.

FairVote has noted many issues with the use of runoff elections in the U.S. as compared with ranked choice voting. Aside from the added cost, runoff elections in the American states tend to plagued by very low and unrepresentative turnout in their first round. They also make it difficult for absentee voters, such as military and overseas voters, to participate in every round of the election. They may also exacerbate issues with negative or even hostile campaign tactics, as the one-on-one runoff election becomes a zero-sum game in which gains to a candidate only come at the expense of losses to the other candidate. Although runoff elections make improvements on simple plurality rules, they are far from ideal.

The inclusion of runoff voting in the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 surprised many Trinidadians and Tobagans. The People’s Partnership – a sometimes shaky coalition of four parties, including the United National Congress and the Congress of the People, in office since the 2010 election – did not overtly hint at any electoral systems reform plans before the election.

The response to these surprise measures has been hostile, hyperbolic and jam-packed with allegations of electoral manipulation.

Union leader, former MP and mutineer, Raffique Shah claimed that, with the runoff proposal, the People’s Partnership is “leading the charge of a dark brigade that could well see the society rent asunder by political strife”.  Based on the People’s Partnership’s poor performance in the 2013 Tobagan local elections, Shah alleges that the coalition “can’t win by fair means, [so] they will change the rules of the game, move the goal posts in ways that might give them some advantages.” Trinidadian Historian Gerard Besson described the change as “[a]n electoral machination under the guise of constitutional change.” Another historian, Michael Anthony, said the government was using runoff voting “to kill off the smaller parties … which might split their votes. It is as clear as that.”  Former MP, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, claimed that runoff voting presented a serious threat to the economy, private property and human rights and that there was “a risk that Trinidad and Tobago will become like Afghanistan, Ukraine, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria and those other countries in which you have political instability.”

Tand T 2010 Election Map

Picture source: Adam Carr

Surprise and Misinformation

In reflecting on the public response to the runoff provision, the Trinidad Express, a national newspaper, concluded that “[t]he majority of the public discourse surrounding the controversial proposed run-off election system holds that it is undemocratic and distorts the intended will of the population.” This response is at once odd for two reasons. Firstly, while not ideal, runoffs are not undemocratic. Nor do they distort the will of the people. Indeed, runoffs reduce the spoiler effect, lessen vote wastage and give voters a bit more choice. Secondly, the ruling parties (and particularly Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar) have given up powers by passing the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014. No longer can the Prime Minister cynically choose the timing of the election to maximize her political prospects. Rather than unlimited tenure, subject to the confidence of the House of Representatives and the voters of her district, Persad-Bissessar may only serve one more term in office. Ever.

In part, the opposition to runoff voting is due to a perception that the government had not given warning to the people or consulted thoroughly enough with them on electoral systems reform.  Even the People’s Partnership’s own facebook page expressed discontent that runoff voting was “sprung on the people” and shared a post on an alternative system, ranked choice voting.

Another source of opposition to runoff voting stems from misinformation – or a lack of information all together. As Jerome Teelucksingh observed, most people with an opinion on the runoff “do not appear to be fully apprised” on the effects of the runoff. For instance, in Trinidad and Tobago, the mistaken idea exists that runoff elections minimize the relevance of third parties more than plurality elections. Indicative of the confused national sentiment is a petition, with around 3,500 signatures, which asserts the runoff ballot was:

a blatant attempt to introduce Proportional Representation via the back door!!! What is wrong with 'The First Past the Post' system where a strong 3rd party can influence the final results?! This amendment seeks to entrench a two party system in Trinidad and Tobago!!

Indeed, ideas that runoff elections would disadvantage third parties were so dominant during the debate over the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014, the Attorney-General Anand Ramlogan directly addressed the claims that the runoff would “kill” third parties.   While runoffs will not kill third parties and are not undemocratic, there are better electoral systems for giving full expression to the will of the people.

RCV and PR: Reforms for the Future

The introduction of the runoff is unlikely to be the closing chapter on electoral reform in Trinidad and Tobago. Lively debates about the runoff, and alternatives like Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) and Proportional Representation (PR), continue.

A key theme for the proponents of runoff voting was that, under the runoff system, all winning candidates will have to demonstrate majority support. Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar justified the inclusion of runoff elections in the bill by reference to the People’s Partnership’s commitment to “[r]espect for the voices of minorities, while acknowledging the will of the majority.” Similarly, Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar explained the decision to introduce runoff voting in these terms:

If a certain party does not win, the runoff gives the party an opportunity to parlay with either of the two parties to secure the 51 per cent majority which enhances the options for both voter and party. It is an improvement on the situation where the winner takes it all and you have no political space for those who do not win. What it does also allow are interest groups to organise themselves into political parties, while under the present circumstances they have no hope of influencing the politics. 

In line with the concern for both majority and minority representation, individuals within the People’s Partnership advocate Proportional Representation. Late in 2013, The Trinidad and Tobago Constitution Reform Commission – made up of five elite members of the community – recommended the Senate, currently made up of senators appointed by the Prime Minister, Opposition Leader or the President, be elected using PR.

Additionally, toward the dying days of the debate over the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014, letter writers and commentators finally noticed RCV.

RCV is a better choice than runoff elections. It essentially does what runoff voting does, but cheaper and better. RCV effectively eliminates the spoiler effect, by allowing voters to sincerely rank candidates rather than forcing them to choose between the candidate they most like and the one they think has a serious shot at winning. Furthermore, because voters express enough information on the ballot for their preferences to be counted and a winner chosen, RCV only requires one election.

Research by Ben Reilly and Donald L. Horowitz (cf Fraenkel and Grofman) indicates that RCV is a good option for ethnically divided societies. A core feature of RCV is that candidates are better served by appealing to broad audiences of voters, beyond their core of support, for second or third preferences than they are by limiting themselves to a narrow, but spirited and mobilized, base of support. In an ethnically divided country like Trinidad and Tobago, in which 35% of the population is of Indian descent and 35% of African descent (and 22% mixed descent), RCV would encourage reaching across ethnic lines for support. In this way, consensus candidates, rather than identifiably Afro-Caribbean or Indo-Caribbean candidates could be more commonly elected.

Additionally, RCV in the House of Representatives may be the best choice in the short term because the constitutional hurdles to implementing RCV are far lower than they are for PR. To introduce PR to either the Senate (currently appointed) or the House, the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution requires an amendment bill be passed by three-fourths of all the members of the House (31 of the 41 members) and two-thirds of all the members of the Senate. The current opposition party, the People's National Movement, is vehemently opposed to PR and currently holds 13 seats in the House.

By contrast, a constitutional amendment introducing RCV – like the recent reforms introducing term-limits, fixed-term elections and runoff elections – needs only a simple majority of those present (assuming a quorum) in each house.



While Proportional Representation, especially in the archaic Senate, ought to remain the long term goal, RCV – with its many benefits – ought to be considered by the Trinidad and Tobago government to further its reform agenda. 


The Ink-Stained Finger of a Trinidad and Tobago Voter. Source: I95.5 FM.