I am writing this to explain why I will be voting FOR the Alternative Vote (AV) system at the referendum on the 5th of May. This is not to be an holistic account on the reasons why AV is better than First Past The Post (FPTP), though at the end I shall include a number of links which you may follow up which contain far more than I have here (and which are probably better written). To my mind, there are two main issues: one of principle and one of pragmatism.
To cut straight to the chase, I’ll go for the principle issue first. It will allow me to vote for who I want to vote for. In the last election, I lived in the smallest Labour majority in the whole country. The Labour MP was stepping down and the 2nd place party, the Conservatives, had the leader of the local council as their candidate, who was also the guy who narrowly lost the previous election. Taking this into account, along with the national swing in opinion, it seemed likely that the Conservatives would win here and the only realistic opposition in the constituency was the Labour party. Now I had no desire to see either of the candidates from these parties elected to represent me.
But, having one party very clearly the lesser of the two evils, the only way I could vote to keep out the greater of the two evils, I was effectively forced to vote for a candidate I didn’t want. This is the heart of tactical voting, which would be completely unnecessary under AV. I am not the only one to do this. Under the present system, many people are forced to either vote tactically or to waste their vote by sticking to who they want to vote for knowing that it will have no effect on the outcome, since their candidate doesn’t stand a chance of winning. So by allowing more people to vote for who they want to vote for, the AV system is inherently more democratic than FPTP.
All I do with AV is number the candidates in order of preference. That’s all. Instead of an X in the box, the only added complication is being able to count 1,2,3,4,5….n where n is the total number of candidates – rarely more than 10 and frequently closer to 5. So any scaremongering you’ve heard about it being complicated are unfounded; either that or they have been proposed by people whose intelligence is severely impaired.
So had AV been in place at the last election, I would not have had need to put my only X in the box against the candidate who was not my first choice. I would have been able to have them down the list, probably at number 3 or 4. My first choice would get the vote they rightly deserved which I had been forced to rob them of under FPTP. I would not have been the only one, either. AV would allow the votes in all constituencies to properly show the balance of where people’s priorities lie, and that is what democracy is all about.
Let’s take an example to show how AV is better than FPTP. Let’s take a simple constituency where there are 3 candidates. One candidate has a set of policies which are largely going down route A. They have 40% of the vote of share of the vote. Then we have 2 other candidates, which share similar ground and broadly go down route B. They each have about 30% of the share of the vote (let’s say it’s 35/25 for simplicity). Under FPTP, the minority view wins. The majority is ignored and we have an undemocratic imbalance. With AV, those supporters of route B would likely prefer the other candidate who is similar to theirs as a second choice, so when one is eliminated, the votes from the losing candidate are transferred and the majority 60% gets their views elected.
OK, onto the practical side of the discussion. One of the things that has tarnished the elections have been the lies; they have come from both sides of the argument, though most vociferously from the No campaign. Here, I will address only 2 of them. The first of these is cost.
The No campaign claim it will cost £250m to implement AV. They break this down as follows: £91m for staging the referendum, £130m on electronic vote counting machines and £26m on explaining the system.
Now the £91m is a sunk cost, incurred anyway. So it would be equally valid (invalid) to say that £91m is the cost of keeping FPTP. To claim that this is variable cost is fraudulant, misleading and should be refuted by anyone with a modicum of sense.
The £130m on coutning machines is a fabrication. There would be no counting machines under AV. Counting would still take place as it always has done. Anyone peddling this as a variable cost is either lacking in understanding or is lying to you. Please correct them appropriately. The only hint of truth in this is that AV counts will take slightly longer if there are multiple rounds of voting. In the vote count process, you must first separate the votes and then count them, so in the event of a second round, those of the candidate who has been eliminated must be re-distributed before all the votes are added again. So I would anticipate that an all-night count (as we have presently) might either be delayed until the morning or else results would start to come through some 2 or 3 hours later than they are the moment.
Finally, the £26m to explain to voters. This is a fictional amount, as information on AV is already widely available and there is no need to incur a large expense explaining it. Again, if you hear anyone proposing this as a reason not to vote for AV, they are wrong and please do your best to show them reason.
The other point I’d like to note (and thanks to one of my friends for highlighting this objection) is that AV revokes the notion of “one person, one vote” by allowing one person to have more than one vote. i.e. a small number of people have an undue influence of the election.
First of all, it needs to be remarked that as we stand at the moment, only a minute minority have any effect on the outcome of the election, given the existence of safe seats. If you are a conservative supporter in the City of Durham, then your candidate currently stands no chance. On the flip side, a place like Horsham is somewhere my dad describes as “blue ribbon on a pig country.” AV doesn’t put an end to safe seats. Indeed about a third of the seats in parliament would be completely unaffected as they have a majority in their own constituencies. It is the two-thirds where the candidate gets elected having failed to obtain the majority of the votes cast that are likely to be affected. Also, not all of these will necessarily have their results changed by AV. A lot of examples used (see example above and the one below) tend to assume that all of the second preferences for one candidate go exactly the same way. In reality, this is unlikely to happen, and there will be a spread. So while AV is inherently more democratic, that doesn’t mean it will always produce a different result to FPTP; it simply takes a more careful look at the marginal seats and sorts these out more fairly.
The particular example that my friend used was as follows: at first preference, candidate A obtains 46% of the vote. Candidate B obtains 44% of the vote and candidate C obtains 10% of the vote. After the first round, candidate C is eliminated and then the second preferences are distributed among the remaining candidates. In this instance, similar to my example above, all of candidate C’s second preferences go to candidate B. They then threw in an extra fact: all of A & B’s second preferences went to C. Their argument was that the supporters of candidate C had their votes counted twice while the supporters of A & B only had theirs counted once; whereas had the second choices been counted that C would have won. The fallacy here is that on the second round of votes, only the second preferences of the eliminated candidates are taken into account. This is plainly not true, as all the first preferences from the remaining candidates are consisdered again. In this example, it seems clear that those who prefer C would much rather have candidate B has their MP than candidate A. So the fact that under AV, candidate B would win is totally democratic. Candidate B will have obtained the majority of the votes, which candidate A never would have, thus meaning that the majority of people would like candidate B to represent them. If you think that the majority of the people should be ignored (i.e. not a democratic solution)then by all means vote ‘No.’ But this example again shows that of the two, AV is fundamentally more democratic than FPTP.
The point of AV is that the most number of first preferences are considered. So the fact that those who supported A had C as their second choice is totally irrelevant so long as A is still in with a chance of winning. If you are supporting Arsenal, would you really want Chelsea to win the Premiership just to stop Man U winning it while Arsenal still have a chance?
It needs be noted that first past the post is a bit of a misnomer, as there is no post to get past. In that respect, AV is far better described as having a post, as you need a majority to win. One of the photos on the no campaign leaflet I got was of the finishing line of a sprint race, where it stated the first person won under FPTP while pointing to the guy who finished last and said that he was the winner under AV. This is deliberately misleading, as a race has a set mark that you need get past. So if we stick with the analogy, it is more accurate to state that FPTP stops a 100m after an arbitrary time period (which would be different for every constituency); say, stopping the race after 8 seconds and declaring the winner to be whoever happens to be in the lead at the time. It doesn’t take into account runners who fade away at the end, nor those who have a strong finish. AV would take these into account and the first past the 50% threshold (in the analogy, the 100m mark) would be the winner.
Now AV is not the be all and end all of political reform. There are plenty more other things which need to be sorted out. My personal bug-bear is the fact the members of the cabinet are appointed by the prime minister, rather than democratically elected on their own merit. However, referenda are so rare in this country, and so binding when they take place, that we cannot afford to miss this opportunity to make a small improvement. As an example, during the last couple of years of the last Tory government in the mid-90s, when Euroscepticism was at its peak, there was a lot of talk about holding a referendum about whether Britain ought to stay in the EU or to withdraw. This referendum never took place, with the one of the main reasons put forward being that “we” voted for it in the 1970s. Now, many of the more elderly electorate who voted it in had died since then and many of the contemporary electorate had been ineligible to vote in the 70s due to their age (or having not been born at all). If a “no” vote wins on Thursday, then it likely be the last chance this generation will get to make an improvement to our electoral system. Some have some said this is an opportunity to give David Cameron a political black eye, but I disagree with this. The vote is an investment for the future. While it is true that the Conservatives will likely lose seats at the next general election if AV is adopted, but then that will be the chance for us to end Cameron’s time as prime minister, not now.
No voting system is perfect, but when we compare the two options we are given, AV is by far more democratic than FPTP. So please, listen to reason, to good sense and vote yes to AV on Thursday.
Mathematics Professor from Cambridge University
Economics Professor from Warwick University