Anyone waiting for buses recently in Vauxhall would have seen a fairly imposing billboard, and it’s the sort of thing which signals to me that I must be getting older, because instead of not giving 2 shits about it, seeing it sends me into apoplectic paroxysms of rage:

The principle at stake is the upcoming referendum about whether the UK should replace its current “First Past The Post” voting system (FPTP) with a system called “Alternative Voting” (AV).

For those who don’t know what that’s all about – the UK currently uses an election system whereby the candidate with the largest number of votes after counting wins.  Consider a fictional constituency (Lumpfordsomethingshire) of 100 voters, with 5 candidates standing for election.

First past the post

Under FPTP , Candidate E would take the seat of Lumpfordsomethingshire, having the highest score (25 votes).  The problem with this, and the whole crux of the AV argument, is that it means the other 75 people in the seat (total of people voting for A, B, C & D) potentially didn’t want Candidate E.  FPTP has been the method the English system has used for some time now, and defenders of it say “The person with the most votes wins!”.  However if you look at it from the point of view that if a voter casts a vote for one candidate, they’re also saying that they don’t want any of the others, it’s very quickly obvious that one candidate can be elected despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the voters don’t want them (in our example, 75%).

The process in AV is that instead of each voter selecting one candidate to vote for, they number all candidates on the form from 1 through to 5 in preference order.  In our example, Candidate C is the least-popular option (17 votes), so under the AV system Candidate C is removed from the running, and the Candidate C voters’ 2nd preferences are counted.

Round 2 - redistributing votes for C

Of the 17 people who had C as their primary choice, 10 of them marked A as their 2nd, 5 wanted B, and 1 each wanted D and E.  At this stage however no candidate has greater than 50% of the vote, so once again the lowest scoring candidate is removed from the running, and now the 22 people whose votes were for D are distributed to their next available option.

Round 3 - down to 3 candidates now

With no clear winner still, the 28 votes which Candidate E had attracted are redistributed to the 2 other contenders.

How about that? A winner!

10 of them listed Candidate A as their next preference, 18 listed B, giving Candidate B the admittedly small margin of victory of 51 votes to A’s total of 49.

It seems like such a no-brainer to me, but when I’ve discussed it with people there’s been some interesting objections come up, so I thought I’d expand on some of those.

Why should one person’s vote count more than once?  With our current system it’s “one man, one vote”.

You’re not voting more than once.  Your vote only finally counts towards one candidate.  With 100 constituents, you’ll get (up to) 100 votes.  Under AV the philosophy is “I want to vote for B, but if B got knocked out of the running, I’d rather have C than D”.  What I like about the AV system is that it removes the idea that “my vote doesn’t count anyway”, which is an excuse a lot of people use for not bothering to turn up and vote.  If your local area’s “always” been a stronghold seat for B party with 36% of the vote, that means that there’s 64% of the people voting who didn’t want party B.  Under AV, it’s possible for the non-Party B voters to reach compromise and get a more representative candidate.  If it ends up that that’s party B, so be it, but at least you’ve got the peace of mind knowing that the winner is supported by at least 51% of the voters.

If you’re in a seat with loads of candidates, doesn’t that mean it’ll take you ages to fill out a voting form?

I can’t believe this is a genuine objection – that voting for the person representing your local area in parliament, and by extension determining which party is going to form government for the next 5 years, is something that it’s not worth taking a few minutes out to number a few boxes.  What’s potentially scarier is that under AV it’s more important to have an understanding of what the various party plaforms are, so that you can correctly rank the candidates according to what your personal requirements are.  But as I mentioned previously, some of the UK newspapers put together excellent sites for getting your head around which party promotes what.

It’s still possible to game the system.

There’s no such thing as a perfect voting system.  However when used as intended – that a majority of the population vote honestly rather than tactically – AV can produce an outcome that more of the people feel like represents them, and giving them the empowerment to effect change should encourage buy-in to the voting process.

It’s going to cost a lot of money to implement, which could be used better elsewhere.

The whole point, as far as I can tell, is that nobody’s ever happy with what the government spends money on, however the sorts of sums they deal with are beyond the comprehension of the ordinary person.  A leaflet I read recently from a counter-AV interest party suggested that the money could be used to provide 2,503 doctors.  That suggests instantly that doctors are paid nearly £100k each, which most doctors will very quickly set you straight on.  It claims that £130 million would need to be spent on vote counting machines: my understanding is that this isn’t necessarily the case, and there’s no reason the votes couldn’t be manually tallied.  The billboard at the top of this post suggests that the soldier needs bulletproof vests more than we need an AV system, however this completely ignores the fact that the UK went into Afghanistan against the overwhelming outcry of public opinion, and that possibly if government had been more representative of the people then we wouldn’t be in there to start with.

If it were to come down to questioning where parcels of money were spent, I’d certainly sooner see money spent on electoral reform than on strategic attention-distracting U-turns such as the Tory woodland selloff, where the government put forward a proposal to sell off publicly owned forests, then claimed to be surprised by the public’s reaction, and performed a backflip on it after much public campaigning.  Some commentators believed that the selloff was launched as a PR exercise that the Tories never intended to go through with, as well as a means of soaking up campaigning funds from pressure groups – in addition to the cost of putting together the proposals and holding the debate in the first place.

Under AV the loser can win.

This is pure poppycock.  In each round of voting, the candidate with the fewest votes is removed from the running and their votes redistributed based on their preferences among the remaining candidates.  In the fictional example above, the candidate initially ranked 4th ended up winning, whereas the candidate who started out leading the vote was eliminated in the 3rd round.  In each round, the “loser” is eliminated.  If a candidate’s not eliminated, it means they’re not the “loser”.

Similarly, the voting rounds only continue until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote.  If in round 1 70% of voters go for candidate A, that’s case-closed.

AV will give the BNP a greater chance of gaining office.

If more than half of the people in an electorate list the BNP candidate as their 1st, 2nd or 3rd choice, then that suggests that the people in the local area support that candidate or party.  A party holding one seat doesn’t instantly mean the demise of the country (In the BNP’s case, as with many similar styled parties, their polarising firebrand attraction point is usually overshadowed by their complete inability to deal with other policy within the first year or two, and it’s rare that that candidate is re-elected).  Based on anecdotal evidence though, the main reason that non-lunatics vote for Nationalist parties (such as the BNP) is because they’re disillusioned with the 2-party duopoly and want to cast their vote as a visible protest rather than actually wanting that party to win.

AV is only used in Australia and a couple of other places, and most Australians don’t want it any more.

I’ve had a look around for a source on this one, and there’s 2 facts to consider:

– the claim in the leaflet was that 3 countries use AV and none of the others do, however this statistic is misleading in that it fails to point out that not all countries are run democratically.  According by an index assembled by The Economist, only 26 countries in the world operate a “full democracy”, with a further 53 operating “flawed democracies”.  Zimbabwe uses FPTP, but that doesn’t seem to form a cornerstone in the pro-FPTP argument.

– there was a survey conducted in Australia which gave a result saying that 57% would favour a change to FPTP.  The survey, as the article references in its last line, canvassed the opinions of 1202 people.  The population of Australia is currently 21.8 million.  To claim that such an impossibly small fraction of the population’s opinion is representative would be absolute nonsense.

Stability of government is important. Under AV there would be more likelihood of shift and change, and I would rather have my MPs spending their time governing than on backroom party politics every time there is a new coalition formed at an election.

That’s not a bad objection.  My uneducated observer’s opinion on this is that 2-party politics is so polarised, and parties are so obsessed with governing towards winning the next election, under an AV system they’d need to change their tactics to sticking to campaign promises and core party principles in order to ensure that they continue to enjoy the sort of 51% or greater support they’d won in an area.

The adversarial nature of 2-party politics, that if you don’t want Big Party A you’ve got to vote for Big Party B (even if you hate them almost as much), prolongs the mentality that you’ve got to vote based on what you don’t want rather than on what you do.

I don’t know.  I don’t really have an answer for this one.  The Titanic was stable.

AV is a flawed system.  Proportional Representation is far superior.  If we get AV through, there’s no chance people will vote for PR further down the track.

As far as I can tell, this is wildly speculative.  PR seems to be a superior system, however to rule out the possibility of a further referendum on electoral reform – presumably to be held after a few elections using AV so that people have time to figure out what they think of it – is to make a massive assumption.  It’s equally valid to hypothesise that if AV’s defeated at this referendum that people will get it stuck in their minds that electoral reform is too complicated and has too many down sides.

I think this, above all, is a mentality that needs to be avoided.  As the arguments above illustrate, First Past The Post works in favour of 2-party politics.  It perpetuates the oscillation back & forth between the monolithic traditional political institutions, and through fear of wasted votes it removes choice from the people.

Winston Churchill said AV was “The most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates.”

I’m not sure that cherry-picking a quote from a politician from the 1930s is exactly a conclusive way to win an argument.  Whilst unquestionably an inspirational wartime Prime Minister, Churchill was largely a member of the Conservative party and as previously demonstrated had a vested interest in maintaining the 2-party system, but moreover it’s worth noting that not everything Churchill did between 1900 and 1955 would be considered laudable by today’s standards.  For instance, as Chancellor of the Exchequer he oversaw the return of the British Pound to a gold backed standard, and drove the country into unemployment, depression, and a General Strike.  He was also massively in favour of maintaining British control in India and was said to have favoured letting Gandhi die on hunger strike.

At this point I’m going to push the Publish button on this post, as I’ve been agonising over it for over a week now, and I want to get it out before the voting happens.

And, irritatingly, Charlie Brooker pointed out yesterday that the Yes campaign have started to shoot themselves in the feet by resorting to the sort of hyperbole that we’d expect from the No campaign.

Ultimately, it’s up to the voter to decide.  It’d just be nice for the voter to have a chance to have access to a reasoned discussion of the facts.  The Political Studies Association have published a reasonably objective paper on Alternative Voting, which is quite interesting.  And it will be quite fascinating to see what the results of the referendum are, considering that at the last UK General Election there was only a 65% voter turnout.  My understanding is that referenda are usually carried by simple majority, so it seems to be the case that AV could be brought in – based on those turnout figures – by a mere 1/3rd of the UK public.  It’s doable!  (Ironically, by a FPTP method)

Personally, I’m for Alternative Voting – however the important thing, as always, is that people make their decision an informed one.

Edit: A fairly succinct if tongue-in-cheek summary of the deficiency of FPTP turned up on Twitter via the lovely @stephenfry and @standupmaths which I’d be foolish not to append:

Discussion: Alternative Voting
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