A referendum on if we should move to using the Alternative Vote system to elect MPs is to take place in the UK on the 5th of May 2011.
We’re being asked if we want to move away from the system where we simply deem the person who gets the most votes in a constituency elected to represent that constituency in the House of Commons.
The alternative system we’re being offered involves voters ranking as many of the candidates they like in order of preference. If a candidate gets more than 50% of the first preference votes then they are elected. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the first preference votes then the candidate with the least first preference votes is eliminated. Where those who made the eliminated candidate their first preference indicated a second preference their votes are reallocated to that second preference candidate. Ballot papers for the eliminated candidate on which no second preference was indicated are discarded. If a candidate then has 50% of the votes in play at that point they are elected. If no candidate has 50% of the votes in play then the votes for the candidate with the least votes, following the first redistribution, are reallocated according to the next preference, if any, indicated on the ballot paper; this process continues until a candidate gets a majority of the votes still in-play.
There is a strong argument that the Alternative Vote system is complicated. Whereas first past the post is as simple as the person with the most votes wins, the description I’ve given above shows how complicated what happens once people submit ballot papers on which they’ve expressed preferences on can be.
There is also a good argument though that preferential voting is actually the less complex option from the point of view of a voter considering how to vote. Anthony Smith has made a clear flowchart illustrating the point. The problem is that with first past the post someone might rationally not vote for the candidate they most want to win the election if they don’t expect that candidate to end up in the top two, and that person does have a strong preference over which of those candidates they expect to come first and second they would like to see elected. The alternative vote relieves the voter from having to guess how other electors might vote in order to cast their vote most effectively.
I can remember first coming across the preferential voting, aged 18, in the form of the Single Transferable Vote in student union elections at Imperial College when I was a student (According to Wikipedia STV is the same as AV where a single winner of an election is being sought). Counting the votes of union elections was seen as a bit of a black art typically achieved either under the direction of one of the union hacks who was a member of the electoral reform society or a “black box” spreadsheet or computer system. Though after a couple of years acclimatisation and experience I was able to act as a returning officer for a series of student rep positions held using STV.
Julian Huppert’s Slimy Words
Cambridge MP Julian Huppert has been strongly supporting the campaign to change our electoral system to use the alternative vote. On the 18th of April 2011 he was quoted on the Cambridge Liberal Democrats’ website as saying:
Voting Yes in the AV referendum will mean an end to MPs’ safe seats for life and make them work harder to earn voters’ support. In future, they will have to get more than 50 per cent of the vote to win….
The problem with this comes by what Mr Huppert means by “the vote”. Under the current system where the candidate who gets the most votes wins what’s meant by “the vote” is clearly simply the number of votes cast. Under the AV system the concept of “the vote” is more flexible, as the number of votes “in play” varies (reduces) from round to round as ballot papers of candidates who are eliminated on which no further preferences are expressed are discarded. While winning candidates under AV will have more than 50% of the votes still in-play during the final round, this could well be less than 50% of the number of valid ballot papers.
I understand Mr Huppert’s dilemma though, it’s hard to make succinct and accurate statements about a system as complex as the proposed “Alternative Vote”.
My main concerns when it comes to changing the electoral system are not directly related to the alternative vote system. What I don’t want to see are large multimember constituencies with party list systems. I think an electoral system should put power in the hands of the electorate, and not in the hands of political parties – especially as political party membership is dwindling. I also think the geographical link, having a representative for a specific, reasonably sized area is an important part of our system for electing MPs.
Liberal Democrats, who’ve pushed for this referendum on AV, don’t really want to see AV, but proportional representation. I’m worried that a vote for AV will be misinterpreted and taken as support for going down a slippery slope towards some of the anti-democratic systems used to try and achieve proportional representation.
In October 2009 I discussed proportional representation with Julian Huppert, he expressed support for preferential voting along with large multi-member constituencies as his preferred mechanism for achieving a more proportional system. As an example one might see the 6 MPs for Cambridgeshire in elected by one county-wide election, with all those elected representing the whole county. The problem with this can be seen with MEPs: who knows who their MEPs are?
I can see an argument for some proportional representation in parliament. Those with significant, but geographically disperse, support ought be represented. I would suggest if we retain a geographically focused House of Commons, with one member per geographical constituency, some element of the House of Lords ought take account of groups that system disadvantages due to the distribution of their supporters.
Overall I don’t think if we elect our MPs using first past the post or AV is particularly important. I don’t strongly care either way. Both are perfectly legitimate and reasonable systems with their pros and cons.
I wouldn’t have chosen to spend huge sums of public money on a referendum when the country has more pressing priorities. The fact we’re discussing this and being asked to come to a view on it, shows our elected representatives are out of touch.
The important thing is which system selects the best people to act as MPs and under which system is the country going to be better run. I don’t think there’s any significant evidence or argument either way on that key point.
It’s three weeks until I’m going to cast my vote (or spoil my paper), and I’m open to persuasion via the comments.
I think we need an electoral system which can cope with an era where ever fewer people are becoming members of political parties, and the main political parties’ share of the vote is decreasing. It is attractive to argue that AV is such a system because it allows people to vote for a candidate with low historical support, who they’d really like to win, as well as express a preference between those candidates they consider most likely to be in the final two. While you might argue you should, under the current system, always simply vote for the person you most want to win, often that’s not the most rational course of action.
If I could have an assurance that AV was as far as we were going to go, and a vote for AV wouldn’t kick off the start of further more destructive changes to the electoral system then I might be more inclined to vote for it.
I think our current political system is broken; largely due to the influence of party politics which results in key decisions being made in secret and a small number of people having disproportionate influence, I don’t though think our electoral system itself is broken, just the way we use it. AV might well prove to be a catalyst for change, but I don’t think it’s a necessary pre-requsite.
After the Referendum and the Electoral Commission Information Booklet
Postal votes are already in voters’ hands yet I’ve not seen any evidence of any physical copies of an information booklet produced by the electoral commission and supposedly posted out to all households.
Interestingly page 8 of this booklet states:
The ‘alternative vote’ system will be used after a review of the boundaries of the area that each MP represents (known as their constituency) is completed. This is due to happen between 2011 and 2013. The review will happen regardless of the outcome of this referendum.
At the end of the review, the UK Parliament will vote on implementing the new boundaries. If the new boundaries are implemented, the ‘alternative vote’ system will be used for all future elections to the House of Commons.
This has been seized on by commentators as providing a get out clause for MPs / the Government if they disagree with the referendum result as it suggests that only if the new boundaries are implemented will the ‘alternative vote’ system will be used for electing MPs. The possibility that MPs could refuse to accept the new boundaries and derail the introduction of AV is raised.
Commentary on this point appears to focus on (and cite) not the relevant legislation, passed by Parliament, but just the Electoral Commission’s leaflet.
Section 8 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 that if “more votes are cast in the referendum in favour of the answer “Yes” than in favour of the answer “No” then the alternative vote provisions must be brought into force”. However it also makes parliamentary approval of a draft “order in council” intended to implement boundary changes a pre-requisite for the introducing AV.
The Daily Mail has reported on the reasons that provision may be present:
Downing Street insists that the two must take place in parallel, so that if the Lib Dems win the referendum they would not be able to walk away from the coalition until the Tories get the benefit of the boundary changes. Tory MPs say the Bill must spell out that no general election could be fought under AV until the boundary review is finished.
I attended a AV Referendum debate in Cambridge last week. Speakers for and against stated that ultimately the government would decide what to do following the result of the referendum. It looks as if that may well be accurate. Section 4(3) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 suggests that orders made under that act (as the boundary changes would be) may be subject to resolutions of both houses of parliament; though given the bizarre language and procedure associated with our political system that might not actually involve a debate and vote (or even a chance to shout “no”/”aye”).
I have updated this last section of this article on what happens after the referendum following the comment by Phil Rogers below