Referendum on the Alternative Vote

Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the 'alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?

AV Referendum Ballot Paper (Source)

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.

Read the full, official, explanation of how the UK’s Alternative Vote system would work as defined in Section 9 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011


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.

Personal Experience

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”.

Proportional Representation

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.

My View

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

16 responses to “Referendum on the Alternative Vote”

  1. My view on the boundary review is that having constituencies with approximately equal numbers of electors in them (with exceptions for geographically large and hard to travel around / to constituencies) is desirable. I value a local MP, so do not want to see the numbers of MPs significantly reduced and for constituencies get correspondingly larger.

  2. I think the most compelling argument in favour of AV is that with FPTP, candidate A can get elected even though most voters prefer candidate B. This happens less often with AV.

    I don’t think the complexity argument is very convincing, though AV’s supporters would probably be doing better if they used its American name, Instant-Runoff Voting, which makes it clearer how it works.

    I don’t think your interpretation of section 8 of the act is correct. The act says that AV comes into force only when both 8(1)(a) (there is a Yes vote) and 8(1)(b) (the boundary review is completed) are satisfied.

    I do think the quality of political debate on your website would be improved if you didn’t use words like “slimy”.

    We received a copy of the electoral commission booklet a week or two ago.

    Phil (former Lib Dem activist)

  3. I don’t think your interpretation of section 8 of the act is correct. The act says that AV comes into force only when both 8(1)(a) (there is a Yes vote) and 8(1)(b) (the boundary review is completed) are satisfied.

    I’ve updated the section in light of this comment – thanks.

    I do think the quality of political debate on your website would be improved if you didn’t use words like “slimy”.

    but then what 50% of the vote actually means in absolute terms is slippery under AV.

  4. The most obvious riposte to the patronising “AV is just too complicated” argument is to point out that this system is exactly what’s being used in a vote which millions of ordinary people find more motivating than parliamentary elections: ITV’s X-Factor show. At the start of the finals, there are a dozen or so contestants. Each week, the lowest-scoring contestant is eliminated, and the members of the public who voted for that contestant shift their allegiance to a different contestant. Eventually, it’s down to two. Now, I appreciate that the political version makes everyone declare their full list of choices up front, rather than round-by-round, but the principle is more than just analogous. People tend to prefer the male singers, or the female singers, or the groups, and the “AV” process in The X-Factor means that their vote doesn’t get “split” like it can with FPTP. If you’re down to the last four acts, and they’re three groups and one solo artist, it’s clear that public sentiment is with the groups, and thanks to AV, one of the groups will probably win. If X-Factor had some sort of FPTP system in place at that stage, the generally-unloved solo artist would probably win, to the majority’s disappointment. The point of all this is that the public understands the whole process very clearly; when the X-Factor’s on, everyone from teenagers to grannies can be heard discussing tactical voting, split votes and the like. A lot of people in politics find it hard to believe that’s the case.

  5. One of the beauties of our current electoral system and the reason why it is respected across the world, is that it is straightforward. There is no accusation possible of vote rigging, dodgy counting nor any other species of malpractice. If the voting is close, the loser can call for a recount, and can do so multiple times if necessary. With AV, this becomes something of a black art. Who can be sure what was counted and what eliminated? Who can call for a recount? If there is a recount in round three, do rounds one and two have to be recounted to be sure that the right numebr of ballots are in round three?

  6. “Who can be sure what was counted?”

    The same as currently. AV uses a set of rules and ballots can be observed as FPTP is in exactly the same way.

  7. @Martin

    Chess and battleships are both games described by simple rules. However, there is a world of difference in the complexities of the two.

    The reality is that the counting process with AV is considerably more convoluted. Going back and recounting an AV vote is _significantly_ more time consuming than its FPTP counterpart, particularly in edge cases where the choice of whole gets knocked out in an early round changes.

    Which is where we get to the whole thorny issue of electronic counting (and the Yes campaign’s rather worrying links to ERSL). There seems to me to be a very significant chance that a shift to AV would see electronic counting — and that means that you can no longer observe the count in the same way as currently.

  8. I don’t think electronic counting is that likely. They haven’t been needed elsewhere and if we do get complicated recounts, we’re more likely to see the Australian remedy – just count them again and don’t worry if it takes a week or two.

    Whilst I’m not wildly keen on that – it’s much harder for party workers to get sufficient time off work to monitor that sort of recount – it’s unlikely that you’d have a recount that close in more than two or three constituencies, so it wouldn’t be likely to decide the result of the election.

  9. All the evidence i need to decide is provided via the conduct and tactics of the no campaign. This may seem irrational, but if they are so so desperate to avoid AV and have such little respect for voters that they will stoop to bribing them with the lives of babies and soldiers (see recent ad campaign), then that’s all i need to know. The fact that they are mostly monied Tories and that these are their tactics tells me they are desperate to keep the cosy system that has lined their nests for so long. TIME FOR CHANGE – VOTE AV!

  10. Mark, both sides have been peddling lies, but the Yes side has been a bit more hysterical about the lies of the No side than vice versa, perhaps because the Yes side is likely to lose (which is surprising to me, before this started I would have thought Yes would win fairly easily).

    As an example of a lie on the Yes side, they are pushing this myth that MPs in “safe seats” will pay more attention to their constituents because of AV. Well, a “safe seat” by definition is one in which the MP is overwhelmingly and easily winning the election, so I would say by definition these MPs are already getting more than 50% of the vote under FPTP.

    Even if AV passes, I think it will make very little difference. Huppert got less than 40% of the vote in Cambridge. Does anyone seriously believe that he would not have won under AV? Some alleged expert on Radio 4 last week claimed that any MP who was getting at least 35% under FPTP would almost certainly win under AV.

    So I don’t think you will get (much) change under AV even just considering the election results. And although the odd MP will be different because of AV, you would have to be pretty naive to think that MPs as a whole will behave any more or less diligently or behave any more or less honestly because of AV. (So another lie of the Yes campaign was that the expenses scandal was somehow related to FPTP rather than the way MPs were encouraged to fiddle the books with expenses to make up for their “low” basic pay.)

    I would assume that most people in the pro-AV camp know that AV will make no real difference. And their obvious hope is that after the electorate discovers this, we will all be clamouring to have another referendum, this time on PR.

    I have heard no good argument for AV except that people are supposed to somehow feel better that they can waste their first vote and that their second or third preference has won the election.

  11. Today I had to come to a decision on which way to vote (or if to vote).

    I decided not to give any consideration on the effect of the voting system on the current party political balance in Parliament as the question relates to change for the long term future of the country.

    I think AV is complex; as can be seen from some of the inaccurate things proponents of AV have been saying such as that it will result in all MPs being elected with more than 50% of the votes.

    I agree there are potentially better systems than the first past the post method. If there was more passion for democracy in the country real then run-off elections – where everyone gets to vote to choose between the top two candidates in the first round in a second real election would in my view be fairer than the AV system where everyone’s vote doesn’t necessarily count in that crucial final choice. (You’d need the passion/interest to get people out to vote twice)

    I was mindful of the argument that perfect can be the enemy of good, but didn’t think AV was a clear step for the better. I think it’s a perfectly good system but it has its pros and cons too.

    AV is more complex; and while it is easy to criticise people who say something is too complicated for others to understand as arrogant I talk to people on a daily basis about the way the country is run and there is a huge amount of confusion already. The role of elected representatives verses officers is a common one, as is which tier of government is responsible for a particular matter. I know of a number of people who have found the referendum question difficult to understand so that, along with my own recollection of my first experiences of preferential voting led me to give a strong weight to the need for a simple electoral system.

    I think there is a risk people would have less trust and faith in a more complex electoral system which was harder to understand.

    When it came to my final decision I balanced the complexity of AV against the benefit of AV freeing voters to vote for the candidate they want to win without considering if they’d rather vote for which of those they expect to come in the top two they’d prefer. However AV doesn’t really fully do that as everyone still doesn’t have the chance to have their preference with respect to the eventual top two actually counted, so I gave that, in my view the strongest pro-AV argument, a slightly lesser weighting than the “complexity” argument against AV. I therefore voted “no to AV”, against changing from the current first past the post voting system to AV.

    It wasn’t an easy, obvious, decision for me. I still hope, and expect, that we will see the era of party politics come to an end, AV might have hastened the current move in that direction, but I think until we have alternative candidates who can win outright in a clear first past the post race that time has not come.

  12. “I think there is a risk people would have less trust and faith in a more complex electoral system which was harder to understand.”

    That is surely an argument against any form of electoral reform.

    Any form other than FPTP is obviously more ‘complex’ to count, but then they aim to be fairer by taking more subtle account of voters’ real preferences. But in terms of the actual voting, are you really saying that people cannot understand the idea of voting in order, starting from 1?

    Your last point seems to recognise that FPTP is heavily weighted against independent candidates, but seems to forget the point that good candidates are less likely to stand in these conditions – so nothing will ever change.

  13. I think the complexity with AV comes not in the voting but in understanding how those preferences are turned into the deceleration of a winner.

  14. How about this for an idea – where there’s an election with say 60% turnout; a second round of voting is held allowing electors to chose between the top two candidates?

    Perhaps a further criteria could be included for triggering a second ballot to avoid them being held unnecessarily eg. where the first round was effectively already a two horse race which produced a clear winner.

    I wouldn’t want to see any change without a referendum. I don’t think the national result of this referendum should be read as “no to electoral reform” it’s just “no to AV”.

  15. No system is biased against independents.
    You get more supporters than the other candidates and you win.
    There is nothing to say that the winner can’t be an independent. If they’ve not got enough support then they don’t win. Same as any other party.
    AV just gave the people that wanted to support those candidates another go which is one of the reasons I didn’t like the idea of AV.

    If any candidate could get the votes of the majority of the electorate that didn’t bother voting they’d beat everyone.

    There is no reason why there can’t be a PR vote in the future. That’s the way to go an where the Lib Dems went wrong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.