AV or not AV? That is the question.

Or more precisely it’s:

“At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?”

On May 5th Brits have the opportunity to put a ‘X’ against ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ (please vote in my own poll below).

We are having to do this because of the Liberal Democrats. This was the negligible price they demanded for forming a coalition with the Conservatives.

Since the general election last May the Lib Dems. have reneged on their pledge not to introduce tuition fees and have voted that it is legal to save the lives of Libyan Arabs, having once voted that it wasn’t legal to save the lives of Iraqi Arabs.

There are 650 constituencies in the UK and whichever candidate gets the most votes in his/her constituency at a general election becomes a Member of Parliament. Whichever party gets the support of 326 MPs becomes the government.

Those in favour of AV want each MP to be elected by at least 50% plus 1 of the votes. At the moment one can become an MP on, say, 30% of those who vote, as long as he/she gets more votes than any other individual in that constituency. Voters can only choose one candidate to vote for.

Howevere, under AV you can put a ‘1’ next to your first choice and ‘2’ next to your second choice and then ‘3’, ‘4’, ‘5’, etc.

The number 1 votes for each candidate are then counted. If a candidate wins more than 50% he or she become MP.

If no one gets more than 50% the candidate with the fewest number ‘1’ votes is eliminated and his/her number ‘2’ vote (if there is one) is added to the latter candidate’s pile of votes.

This is repeated until one candidate achieves more than 50% of the vote. So the winner in the first round might not necessarily become MP.

My main complaints about both AV and this referendum are:

1. Arbitrariness – Achieving 50% plus 1 vote seems an arbitrary limit. Why stop at 50%? Why not 75%? The person who wins with 50% plus 1 might have lost in the next round of counting. In fact, why not count every preference to see who wins? By stating the winning post to be 50% plus 1 the will of the people has not been fully expressed as there is still enough information available that has not been considered and which could have determined that another person should become MP.

2. Timing – Why are we not having something crucial like this on the day of a general election when turnout will be greater? Ironically, AV could be approved by far less than a 50% turnout of voters. At a general election turnout will be more than 60%.

3. Cost – The government is cutting jobs and services, so this referendum is an unnecessary expense right now.

4. A highly unfavoured candidate could end up winning under AV.

5. AV seems to be nothing more than a glorified version of the current first past the post system, the only difference being that the winning threshold is set at 50% plus 1.

I would like to retain the first past the post system but there should be compulsory voting with a financial penalty given to those who fail to vote (like with the census form we have just had to fill in). There would be a box marked ‘none of the above’ on the ballot paper if you don’t want to vote for any of the candidates.

This is the only way, in my view, that we will get a clear picture of the will of the people as to who they wish to govern the country.

I think that AV will, rightly, be rejected on May 5th but maybe my analysis is wrong. Please let me know your view by voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to AV in my poll below. I promise I won’t fine you if you don’t.

Whichever choice gets the most votes will determine which box I put my ‘X’ in on May 5th.

22 responses to “AV or not AV? That is the question.

  1. Maybe I don’t understand the system properly, but to me AV doesn’t make sense in the way they count the votes – Why should the candidate with the least no.1 votes be automatically eliminated, without considering if they have the most no. 2 votes?

  2. Daniel Marks

    I wasn’t sure whether ex-patriots were allowed to vote, so I did anyway. It was also the first time I had heard of this referendum. To my mind the wording of the question in your poll is a little biased. “Yes, give us the alternative vote, please! 33.33%” sounds much like a child excitedly talking, while “No thanks, I’m happy with what we’ve been doing for 150 years or so.” with no exclamation marks is a mature voice of experience. That having been said I doubt that any readers of this excellent blog will be influenced by such matters.

    Your analysis is characteristically fascinating and, all in all, a lot to take in. The first point about “Arbitrariness” is in my opinion one of those logical fallacies. Every law has an arbitrary cut off point and a person born one minute after midnight and thus being 60 seconds too young to vote (or stand) in an election could make a similar claim. The same goes for the arbitrary legal limits of drinking before driving which differ from one country to another, and I could go on. Most laws require exact definitions and thus have clear numerical cut-off points.

    The fallacy is compounded as, though 50% might be arbitrary, it intuitively sounds as, if not more logical that 51% or 49%. The next stage is to argue that because we can’t reach a universally acceptable number the whole idea should be abandoned altogether, even if it is good. This would be tantamount to saying that because society cannot reach universal consensus regarding the exact age of retirement, or because any agreed upon age would be arbitrary, old people should never retire.

    On impulse, I voted for AV and was gratified, as usual, to find myself in the minority camp. My hope is that if the change takes place, flocks of Jews will make aliyah. I just haven’t yet figured out why.

  3. Joe in Australia

    We have a system very similar (perhaps identical) to your proposed AV system in Australia, and I have served as a scrutineer in such elections.

    Once a candidate has achieved more than 50% of the vote no other candidate can possibly win – there simply aren’t enough votes! Even if all the remaining votes went to the other candidate, the most he or she could achieve would be less than 50%.

    Zahava’s question is a very good one – you could in theory have a candidate who was respected by everybody and was everybody’s second choice, but who loses because they weren’t anybody’s first choice. AV is no worse than first-past-the-post (FPP) in this regard. The same candidate would lose under FPP. AV is at least somewhat better because this situation is quite unlikely, and the candidate would start to increase his or her share of the vote very rapidly as soon as other candidates were eliminated. So there are certainly circumstances when AV is no better than FPP, but there are no cases when it is WORSE than AV!

    • richardmillett

      thanks, Joe but is it worth all the upheaval do you think? Is it really necessary to go to the trouble of changing the present system?

  4. I am proud of my pettiness….if the Liberals want it …..I definitely don’t!

  5. Richard Tebboth

    Yes! That’s the verdict at Standard AV debate as Ken Livingstone and Michael Howard clash on voting reform


    Other references on http://residents-association.com/forum/index.php?topic=327.0

    There are other opportunities for debate:-

    April 26th @ Cadogan Hall, Chelsea – but this will cost you 25 quid!

    or for the rustics of Surrey
    Jermy Hunt MP (he of name fame on the Today programme)
    Minister for Culture, Media & Sport
    Farnham at St Martin’s Hall on the 15th April at 7pm
    Haslemere at the Georgian House Hotel at 7pm on the 28th April.

  6. Denis Cooper

    There are two basic rules during the AV counting process:
    1. An elector’s ballot paper is always allocated according to his highest useable preference.
    2. The candidate with the least number of ballot papers is always the one eliminated.
    In the first rule the qualifier “useable” is necessary to cover the variant of AV we would have here, in which the elector is not required to rank all the candidates and therefore some ballot papers may eventually be withdrawn from the process for want of any further expressed preference.
    I don’t think anyone would argue with the first rule.
    Say it was the first counting round, and an elector’s stated first preference was for candidate A and his second was for candidate B, then it be absurd to put his ballot paper on B’s pile rather than on A’s. And so on throughout the following rounds; the elector can be sure that his ballot paper will always be with whichever of the surviving candidates he would most prefer, or if he hasn’t ranked any of the surviving candidates then it will be in a discards pile.
    Similarly I don’t think anyone would argue with the second rule.
    Say there were seven candidates, and when the first counting round had been completed the sizes of their piles of ballot papers were in the decreasing order A, B, C … G, then obviously G must be the candidate to be eliminated. It would be absurd to instead eliminate A, who was preferred by more electors than G – and possibly by a very much larger number. And so on through the following rounds, the candidate with the least support, the smallest pile of ballot papers, must always be eliminated rather than any of the other surviving candidates who are supported by more electors.

  7. As an ex Aussie I can confirm that the system works and has worked well for almost one hundred years. Don’t get obsessed with the mechanics. That’s a problem for the counters not the voters.

    One major advantage has been that in almost every case the party with the highest number of votes overall has won the highest number of seats.

    The person who gets the highest number of votes may not get in to parliament . However the person least disliked always gets through. At the 1998 Federal election, 99 of the 148 electorates in the House of Representatives required the distribution of preferences. In 7 of these seats (Bass, Blair, Hinkler, Kingston, McMillan, Parkes and Stirling), the candidate who led on primary votes lost after the distribution of preferences. in other words in 141/148 seats the results under AV and 1st past the post would have been exactly the same.

    The funny thing is that the Lib Dems would not necessarily do better under AV but would have far more influence in deciding who does get elected.

  8. Joe in Australia

    Richard, I don’t know whether it’s worth any upheaval at all. That’s a matter for you lot. AV reflects the electorate’s preferences more precisely but I don’t know whether that’s really important. After all, most voters don’t know very much about the candidates or their parties’ policies, and a precise measurement of an ignorant view is still an ignorant view.

    I tend to think that any system is OK as long as you have elections and you can get rid of bad governments. I suppose elections have more to do with getting rid of MPs than electing them!

    • richardmillett

      Joe, do you have compulsory voting? Is it successful and liked?
      Last night there was a discussion on TV about AV and someone mentioned AV in Aus. as an example of being a success. But then someone stated that AV led to two very minor figures in Aus. deciding who the government was to be. How has that gone down in Aus.? Are Australians happy with that?

  9. To me the biggest problem with AV is the 2nd choice idea – why should someone who is only the 2nd or even 3rd choice be better than the 1st choice candidate of the most number of voters? We could end up with a parliament full of 2nd and 3rd choice MPs , or even a 2nd choice government. As it is, the standard of MPs is poor enough, why make it worse? As for compulsory voting, this would make things even worse – anyone who can’t be bothered, or is too disinterested in or ignorant of current affairs should, rather, not be allowed to vote.
    However, given the hopeless governments the UK and most other countries have had for a long time, perhaps the whole system needs to be revamped.

  10. richardmillett

    But if you have to vote then maybe people would have to become familiar with current affairs and engage more and there would be more discussion generally. They have it in Australia i think. Let’s ask Joe.

  11. Denis Cooper

    But just because somebody is only second choice among a section of the voters that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s second class as an individual.

    We have plenty of second class MPs who were elected simply because they were wearing the right rosettes, and despite their lack of merit as individuals.

  12. The problem with AV is not the system itself – which has the advantage of being complicated and should result in stupid people spoiling their ballot papers and disenfranchising themselves – but the fact that it may be a stepping-stone to full proportional representation (PR) which is an avowed LibDem goal. PR would result in the following evils:
    1) Extremist and other minority parties would gain seats. Under PR the BNP would have got eight seats in the last election
    2) This would result in ‘wag the dog’ whereby minority parties hold the balance of power and can exert influence far in excess of their numbers over the majority party with which they form a coalition government. We see this in Israel, where a scrupulously fair method of election has led to successive governments paralysed with indecision.
    3) It necessitates a ‘party list’ system of candidates, breaking the link between MPs and their constituencies and irretrievably distancing MPs from any personal connection with a local electorate.

  13. You all seem to be complaining that 2nd choices will be voted in, but my complaint is the opposite! To me it looks like the 2nd votes won’t count for much in the end – when we might want it to, after all that’s why we voted a certain candidate as 2nd preference.
    If no candidate wins as 1st choice, then shouldn’t all the 2nd choice votes be counted and allocated, and whoever has the most wins? That just makes a lot more sense to me. I like the idea of ranking but hate the way the votes are counted in AV, I think I’ll probably go for FPTP.

  14. I have voted though being as unentitled as can be for keep it as it is – so if you Richard will abide by “our” decision I hereby empower you to discount my vote

    • richardmillett

      thanks, Silke. I don’t know how exactly you voted so i can’t discount it but I am pleased you voted.

  15. Denis Cooper

    Zahava, I think maybe you’ve just invented a new electoral system – FPTP to elect one MP, but with each elector allowed to pick two different candidates.

    I’ve no idea how that would work out in terms of results, but the mechanics seem difficult as both choices would have to be on the same ballot paper to make sure that electors didn’t just vote twice for their favourite candidate.

  16. Joe in Australia

    Richard: Yes, we do have compulsory voting. A few people grumble about it, but it doesn’t seem to be a huge issue. You can generally lodge a “pre-poll” vote for about a week before the election at a few polling booths or via mail, and then you have the proper election day when most people vote.

    I would like to say that Australians are better informed on electoral matters than Britons. I would also like to say that we are more handsome, athletic, gregarious, and get better scores when playing video games. I don’t have any actual evidence for this, though …. Well, I’m handsome, athletic and gregarious personally, but not very good at video games.

    We do seem to have more “hung parliaments” than you do in the UK, occasions when a handful of MPs control the balance of power between the major parties. This isn’t actually the fault of AV: it’s because Australian parliaments (one per State plus the Australian Federal Parliament) are much, much smaller than the UK one. Our equivalent of the House of Commons has 150 MPs, compared to 650 in the UK. This means that each MP elected has a lot more power.

    For the people saying that 2nd choice candidates shouldn’t get in – they don’t. It’s the voter’s second choice, not anything to do with the candidate. It’s as if you asked voters whether they wanted the Labour or the Conservative MP and they answered that they wanted Nelson Mandela. “OK,” you would say, “but seeing as how you can’t actually have him as your MP, what is your second choice?” And then you record their second choice. It’s still a choice between the major candidates.

  17. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which uses the AV system for the city council (we call it proportional representation, but obviously it’s only one type of PR). All of the candidates are on the same ballot – there aren’t different constituencies, nor are there parties. One of the good aspects of the system was that it ensured that there was representation for racial minorities in the city (when I was growing up, this was mostly black people). If we’d had a first past the post without constituencies, probably no blacks would ever have been elected (at least then, in the 1960s). This was one of the reasons, I think there was a lower level of racial tension than in neighboring Boston. It also made sure that people of different ideological beliefs were elected to the council.

    The Israeli system is pure PR, but on the other hand it means that you aren’t voting for a specific person to represent you, and you have to pick an entire slate of candidates that the party picks. I think Israeli politics might work better if there were a mixture of seats – some elected by the current system, and others constituency seats. Drawing the boundaries of each constituency would then be the big problem.

    I’m not British, obviously, so I won’t vote in your straw poll.

    • richardmillett

      thanks, Rebecca. You can still vote in the straw poll. I value what you think. You don’t have to be British to vote! Good point about the racial tensions but that isn’t really so applicable in Britain now.