On May 5th, the British electorate has the task of choosing its voting system. It is a simple binary choice: to stick with first past the post (FPTP) or take a hesitant step into the unknown with the alternative vote (AV).
The Lies About The Alternative Vote and First Past The Post
The campaigns on both sides of the argument have muddied the waters by making false claims to try and weaken the other sides’ argument – propaganda, disjointed thinking and BS (not the Big Society, the BS you shovel).
Here are few examples of the misrepresentations peddled by the “Yes to AV” side:
- “There are no safe seats with AV” – simply not true – the impact on safe seats will be small. The impact of AV affects marginal seats more. There will be a few more marginal seats as having only 35% of the vote was ‘safe’ under FPTP might make the sitting MP vulnerable under AV
- “AV encourages MPs to work harder” – Not generally true; most MPs will not change their work habits due to the change in the voting system: only MPs in marginal seats will have to ‘work harder’ for voters’ second and third choice votes
- “With AV the winning candidate has at least 50% of the votes” – For this to be true all voters would have to use all their preference votes. In likelihood voters will only use 2 or 3 preference votes and hence if all their preference candidates have been eliminated before the final round of voting, their vote will not count in the last round – hence the real winning percentage might be as low as 45% in some cases.
And on the “No to AV” side the bogus claims are:
- “AV produces more coalitions governments” – not true, either theoretically or in practice in other countries – as AV is NOT a Proportional Representation (PR) system of voting the chances of a coalition government are just the same as first past the vote
- “AV is against the principle of ‘one man one vote'” – not really, each person has a single vote in each round of vote counting until all their preferred candidates have been eliminated
- “It will cost hundreds of millions of pounds to buy new counting machines to count the vote” – not true – AV can be counted by hand. The counting will take longer and be more error prone since multiple rounds of counting are required as each candidate is eliminated from the count. It is true that some of PR voting systems are more complicated to count and hence an significant investment would be required – but that is an argument for another time, not now
- “Nick Clegg will be in power forever with AV” – not true. Liberal Democrats will likely pick up only a few more marginal seats typically where there was a three horse race between Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats where Liberal Democrat has less first votes that other two candidates but much more second preference votes. This ‘Clegg in power forever’ statement would have much more credence under a PR system where say both the Tories and Labour each had 35% – 40% of the votes and Liberal Democrats 20%. In that case Liberal Democrats could be permanent coalition partners.
- “AV is too complicated for voters to understand” – Not true. For sure it is more complicated then FPTP but millions of people worldwide use the system successfully to elect governments. Putting 1-2-3-4 in a few boxes rather than an ‘X’ in a single box is within almost everyone’s capabilities.
The Truth About The Alternative Vote and First Past The Post
Let’s look at the two systems rationally and dispassionately.
First Past The Post
Method: Choose Your Favourite Candidate Then Stick an ‘X’ in the box
The candidate with most votes wins.
It is a misleading name as there is no ‘post’ as such; ‘most popular’ or ‘furthest along the track’ would be more accurate as there is no finishing line. The winning candidate will win typically with somewhere between 25% and 75% of the vote. If the turnout is 40% then the winner may have as little as 10% of the electorate.
Positive Aspects Of First Past The Post
The strongest aspect of this system is its simplicity: the candidate with most votes wins.
Its simplicity extends beyond just the understanding of the principle: it is easier to vote, it is easier to count the vote, the scope for miscounting of votes is reduced.
It is a system understood by all the UK voters.
Negative Aspects Of First Past The Post
If your candidate ends up winning you probably don’t care too much about the negatives.
However there are many down sides to this voting system if you do not support the candidate who is the likely winner in your constituency. And that is now the majority of voters. So while FPTP works well in a two party system where those two parties have 80%-90% of the vote it ceases to work as well where there are more contenders involved. This first happened in the 1974 election where the 2 large parties received around 75% of the vote with the winning party getting 42% of the vote. In more recent elections the more than 70% of the electorate did NOT vote for the winning party so the mandate to govern is weaker.
Here are some of the negatives of FPTP:
- Wasted Vote – “I voted but it was pointless” – If you don’t vote for the winning candidate you may as well not have voted at all
- Discouragement To Vote – “I did not vote as there was no point” – If your preferred candidate is unlikely to win you are disinclined to vote at all
- Tactical Voting – ” I voted but not for the candidate I really wanted” – If your preferred candidate is unlikely to win you are tempted to vote for the candidate that you would not vote for normally, but is most likely to beat the candidate you like the least
- Unrepresentative – “I voted but my party is not fairly represented” – Countrywide a party can get 25% of the votes but only 10% of the seats in parliament – yes it’s a post code lottery
Summary on First Past The Post
Good if your candidate wins; otherwise a bit rubbish.
Suggestion: Move to a constituency where your party already has a MP
Likely MP Behaviours: A good MP will still be a good MP; a bad MP will still be a bad MP. That said, MPs can become complacent if they are in safe seats for life; long incumbency can lead to corruption and claims for cleaning the moat, fake mortgages, etc. – In marginal seats, MPs really do have to be seen to deliver value to their constituents as every vote counts.
The Alternative Vote
Method: Rank the Candidates By Preference – put 1,2,3,4,5 in the boxes
The candidate preferred by the majority wins. (Well almost a majority – typically will be at least 45% whereas with FPTP is can be as low as 30%).
AV is an elimination contest where the least popular candidate is eliminated each round until one candidate has 50% of the vote.
Voters whose first choice candidate has been eliminated in the first round have their second choice vote counted in a second round of counting. The least popular candidate is eliminated and their supporters votes are then distributed according to their second choices (or third choices if the vote has already been transferred from the first eliminated candidate).
This process is repeated until one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote (one could say they were first past the (50%) post but that would be downright confusing.
Once all a voter’s preferred candidates have been eliminated their vote is no longer counted. For this reason, in the final round of voting the winner may have less than the 50%
Positive Aspects Of The Alternative Vote
The strongest aspect of this system is that it promotes voting for your preferred candidate, irrespective of whether they are likely to win. So basically, it is more representative of what voters want rather than what they don’t want.
Tactical voting is reduced (but not entirely eliminated) as it is difficult to vote tactically since there is really no information available about voter’s preferences beyond their first choice.
Every vote counts. In fact, if you prefer the minority parties you can have all your preference votes counted in different counting rounds. If you vote for the winning party then your same first preference vote is counted in each of rounds.
Negative Aspects Of The Alternative Vote
This are also many down sides to this voting system if you do not support the candidate who is the winner in your constituency. (who also might not be the most popular even if he/she is the least unpopular )
- Lower preference votes will count the same as first preference votes
- Voters who don’t express second and lower preferences will have wasted their votes if their first choice is eliminated
- By electing a single candidate in each constituency it does nothing to address the post code lottery that means the distribution of candidates does not reflect the national vote
- The counting of the votes takes longer as multiple counts are required due to the elimination process
- There are likely to be more spoilt ballot papers as writing the numbers 1 though 5 is more difficult than placing an single ‘X’
Summary on the Alternative Vote
Good if your candidate wins, especially if they would have lost by first past the post. Good if you voted for a candidate that you wanted to win rather than against the one you wanted to lose. Good if you voted for the first time because you felt it was now worth doing.
Likely MP Behaviour: The system makes results much less predictable and hence MPs in marginal seats will work harder for your vote (your first, second, third, fourth and fifth vote). Once a candidate is elected there is no saying they will continue to work harder though.
I think the Alternative Vote could prove to be a worthwhile change in the voting system if it ultimately delivers high voter participation as more people feel their vote matters.
But since the benefit is marginal, and the country is facing bigger issues right now, it is doubtful that enough people will be motivated to get out and vote for it.