This is a long post, and I make no apologies for its length. If you want it summed up in one sentence, here it is: I support AV because it allows voters more choice in deciding who should be their MP, and ensures the MP elected has the support of the majority of their voting constituents.
What I find most infuriating about the current debate on AV is the fact that most of it seems to focus on tangential issues to the matter in hand: questions of ‘do we really need it’, (as if democracy were a frivolous expense), endless & contradictory accounts of which parties will benefit and who would have won which previous election if held under AV.
The merits and demerits of AV harbour in the none of these areas. Whether one party will gain or lose is not a reflection of anything other than the particular methodology employed in that projection. If a party stands to lose under the switch to AV, it will simply adapt its habits of campaigning or its political strategy to the new electoral system.
A further irritating factor in the current debate is that a lot of people misunderstand what it means to vote in the AV system. Putting a #1 next to Party A and #2 next to Party B does not mean you have voted for Party A. Counting up the first preferences and saying “this many people voted for Party A” is wrong.
Under AV, a voter express a preference between the candidates. For instance, if I preferred Labour above Conservative, and I preferred Conservative above all the other candidates, I would put #1 for Labour, #2 for Conservatives and give none of the other candidates a numbering. This overall numbering is my vote. I have not voted for Labour, in the same way I have not voted for the Conservatives. What I have done is said I prefer Labour the most, Conservatives second and I am indifferent between the others.
This misconception between expressing a preference and voting is one that has fuelled a lot of the criticism. One of the silliest criticisms is the idea that AV can produce a winner who did not win the most first preferences – this is the whole point of using AV! Another is that the voters whose first choice drops out get votes worth more than voters whose first choice stays in the race.
An excellent way of illustrating why AV is a good idea is to explain how it works. So let’s hold a fictitious election. Remember, to win election, you have to secure more than 50% of the vote. (And no, this is not arbitrary, it means that most people prefer you than anyone else).
Imagine there are six parties contesting an election: the Roman Party (RP), the People’s Front of Judea (PeFJ), the Judean People’s Front (JPF), the Judean Popular People’s Front (JPPF), the Campaign for a Free Galilee (CFG) and the Popular Front of Judea (PoFJ).
|Election to the seat of Jerusalem Central|
|Name||1st Round||2nd Round||3rd Round||4th Round||5th Round|
So to sum up this table: the unified Roman Party holding a strong minority of popular support is finally beaten into second place by the People’s Front of Judea as the AV system redistributes votes according to preferences among the disparate Israeli Resistance groups.
If first preferences were the same as First Past The Post votes – which they are not – then the Romans would triumph always in the election, because although the majority disapproves of them, they are too fragmented to unify against the Romans. However under FPTP, because people vote tactically, it is conceivable that the support for smaller parties would be less than it is in the first round of elections here, to the benefit of the larger Israeli parties.
The single defining benefit of AV is clear – under AV people can’t win unless they have the broad support of their constituency – over 50% of the people who expressed a preference.
In Australia, where the law states that you must express preferences amongst all candidates, this means that the winner has 50% of the support of all who voted. In the proposed UK system, this is not the case. You will notice that the total number of voters in each round declines as some people’s preferences are exhausted and thus are thrown away. This means that the winning party secured 47% of all votes. However, all those who expressed a choice between the candidates in each round still had their vote counted – if they didn’t, they were indifferent to the outcome in the rounds after their preferences were exhausted.
Hopefully the criticism that some people have more votes than others has already become demonstrably false. To think that it is true is to simply misunderstand how the system works. You can see quite clearly that the election consists of five sub-elections, due to the fact that nobody secures 50% of the vote until the final round.
If nobody wins on the first round, everyone gets to vote again, with one less candidate. The AV system ensures that we don’t have to physically go to the ballot box each time, so if the candidate you voted for last time is still in the race, then it is assumed you vote for them again. If your candidate is knocked out, then your vote is moved to one of the remaining candidates depending on your second preference. If you have no second preference, your vote is discarded because you have decided to opt out of the remaining contest! To sum up then: nobody gets to vote for the same candidate more than once in any one round.
No electoral system is perfect, and AV like any other has its share of flaws. It is possible to ‘game’ the system, and contrive a situation where a candidate would be better off if less people gave him their first preference. Switching the ranking of your second and third preferences can affect the outcome of your first preference. AV can also produce situations where, if put in a head to head contest with every other candidate, the overall winner would lose some of those contests.
But to be perfectly honest most of the above are fairly academic considerations and hard to replicate in practice. AV has the advantage over FPTP of reducing the need for tactical voting, and ensuring that in tight races with several front-runners, a clear winner with the largest base of support is chosen.
If I were attacking AV (and defending FPTP), I would expect I would probably make three arguments: (1) the current system is fine, (2) AV is unnecessarily complex and (3) AV has the risk of producing wacky results.
I would counter-attack these three arguments by pointing out that the current system isn’t fine, that AV is a perfectly logical system that’s easy to use (hopefully I’ve shown this above) and the ‘wacky results’ really aren’t a cause for concern.
Firstly, FPTP isn’t fine. Yes, this fact is disguised by the many safe seats we have, where one party has a clear overall majority of support. But just look at the results of the Norwich South constituency:
Clearly in this fight, if run under AV, the Conservative and Green votes, if re-distributed, would have played a decisive outcome in the battle between the Lib Dems and Labour. The redistribution mechanism might have also meant that more Lib Dems or Labour supporters put their first preference for the Greens, who might have then beat the Conservatives into fourth place. We don’t know, but what we do know is that the tightness of this race, and others like it, should compel us to use a voting system that allows voters to cover all such eventualities – and that is what AV allows us to do, by giving voters the power to decide between all the candidates.
The second point my hypothetical critic made was that AV was unnecessarily complex. First of all, it’s not particularly complex, although many seem to wilfully misunderstand it. John Rentoul memorably described it as “number the candidates in order of preference; votes are then counted in the obvious way”. More seriously though, when you give voters the ability to be more sophisticated in the way they vote, you should expect to have to be more sophisticated in the way you count those votes.
But not only is AV not particularly complex, it is also not unnecessarily complex. In any two-party system, the best electoral system is FPTP. In fact with only two candidates, an AV election is a FPTP election. No further complexity is necessary, because the simple FPTP system is the best. That’s also why in America, unusual voting arrangements will never catch on while their two-party system continues to exist. When you get a three party system, or even a two and a half party system, the electoral system should be altered to reflect it, because otherwise FPTP cannot cope with the new nuances of the multidimensional elections that ensue. FPTP, as we saw above in Norwich South, allows candidates to win elections on less than 30% of the vote.
The third point of my hypothetical criticism was that AV had some fairly major flaws. I’m sure any supporter of AV would contest the significance of these flaws – I did so above – any quirk AV possess pales into the background when compared to the major flaw of FPTP – that candidates can get elected with minorities of the vote amongst those who voted, and do so regularly. Less than one-third (216 of 650) of all MPs won election with a majority of those who voted. This is a disastrous situation, and needs remedying – the AV system is the best way of doing so.
So, to bring this lengthy discussion to an end. I support AV for two reasons, both on issues of principle. Firstly, I believe MPs should be elected with the support of the majority of people who voted. AV can produce situations where candidates don’t win election of 50% of those who went to the ballot box, but this is only because people actively chose to be indifferent to the end result. Secondly, I believe that a preferential ranking system – one where people number the candidates in order of preference – is fundamentally superior to one where people simply scribble in an ‘x’, because it allows the voters greater sophistication and eloquence in choosing their MP.
And that’s why I’m voting Yes to AV on May 5th.
Update: I forgot to mention in this thread that I support AV precisely because it is a ‘competitive’ (ie non-proportional) single-member electoral system. I think the system of winner-takes-all and one MP per constituency is a distinctive hallmark of British democracy which would bin at our peril. I would never support PR, for reasons which I may go into here on a different post, but needless to say AV is not a stepping stone to PR, as some people have claimed.
Update Update: I got into a discussion about AV on a different website’s comments thread. There I extended some of my arguments and rebutted the unthinking platitudes of a No to AV supporter.