Answering an important question: Why I'm saying “Yes” to Alternative Vote on Thursday

Posted on May 4, 2011
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?”

If you’ve spoken to me recently (or know me on Twitter or Facebook), you’ll know that I’ve been campaigning for a “Yes” vote in the referendum tomorrow on whether Britain should adopt the Alternative Vote. This is the first time I’ve been ‘politically involved’ in anything beyond voting, and it’s an interesting experience - equal parts uplifting and depressing, I’d say. I thought it would be a good idea to detail my thoughts here, partly as a cathartic exercise, but also so that I could better explain to my friends and family what I’m thinking. I hope that even if you’re intending to vote “No” you can spare the time to read this, because I think it’s important. I’ll try to be impartial with the arguments.

If you’re voting “No” because you fully understand both systems, and think that First Past The Post is fairer, you might want to jump to The moral argument for “No”, below. I encourage you to read the rest too though.

Campaigning on the street, I’ve found that a lot of otherwise sensible, fair-minded people are voting “No” because they’ve been scared into believing some weird things about AV, a system that’s new to them, so they’re sticking to the status quo. The “No” campaign has somehow been great at getting ideas that are at best very ropey, and at worst actually provably false, into the public mindset. To be fair, the “Yes” campaign has some questionable elements too, but I’d argue none that are false, they just chose to emphasise some points I consider unimportant. Personally, I’d argue that the fact that the people behind the “No” campaign feel that they have to promote falsehoods to win - and that it’s morally right to do so - says something about them and the ideas they’re supporting, but I’m trying to keep this positive, so I’ll stop that line of thought now, and get into the arguments…

How AV works:

Lots of people still don’t know how AV works, or, worse, have been dissuaded from even finding out because the “No” campaign has somehow convinced them that it’s far too complicated. To be fair, it is a little more complicated than First Past The Post - it’s really not all that complicated though.

The voting part is easy (I find it hard to believe that anyone could argue this bit is complicated): rank the candidates in order, giving a number to any you don’t actively disapprove of (leave those blank, just as you do now).

When it comes to counting, things do get a little more complicated, but it’s still fairly simple: Tally up the “1” votes; If someone has over half the votes, they win; if not, knock out the least popular candidate, and use the preferences to work out how the count would have come out if the election had been run without them standing; keep doing this until someone gets over half of the votes. This process might be tedious (I’m not sure I’d apply for the counting job…), but it’s not exactly hard.

By the way, another name for AV is “Instant Runoff Voting”, and reading the above you can see why. It’s intended to simulate a runoff election, where the least popular candidates are eliminated after each round of voting, and then everyone goes back to vote again, until a single candidate receives over half of the votes. AV eliminates the time (and expense) of making everyone go back to the polls multiple times.

If you still think it’s complicated, ask yourself: Do you not understand it, or are you just afraid that other people won’t? When speaking to people on the street I find that most people are afraid that other people won’t understand it, and this is just not the case. I haven’t spoken to a single person who didn’t ‘get it’ after a short explanation.

Arguments for the “No” side that seem valid, but are in the end not the important ones:

AV will mean my party is less likely to win in the future.”

This, although most don’t talk about it much, is, I think, the real reason that many are or campaigning for a “No” vote, or voting “No”. I find it a depressing reason. This vote should be taken on its merits - “does AV produce a fairer democracy?” should be the question, not “who will win?”.

AV will make me more likely to lose in the future.”

Many MPs in the “No” camp are in this position. The argument is a close cousin to the argument above. It doesn’t seem like many of these people are considering the system on its merits - does it produce fairer results? - they are instead railing against what they see as a personal attack. Remember, MPs who this is genuinely true for are by definition those with less than majority support in their own constiuencies.

I don’t like Nick Clegg / The Lib Dems, so I’m voting against AV to register my protest.”

A bit like the first two, but this one doesn’t even have an ideology to back it up. Isn’t it a little ludicrous to be deciding how to answer any question just to spite one person or party? To make things stranger, in this particular case, a “No” vote is really a “Yes” to the system that produced the current result, that one that you so dislike.

This really is a once-in-a-generation question, don’t throw away the chance to answer it well! Consider the real choice, vote for the system you think is the fairer, more representative one, and use it to express your opinion properly, at the ballot box in the next election.

With all the arguments above, it’s particularly depressing to see people who have analysed them well, concluded that AV is indeed fairer or more representative, and are still voting “No”. It surely indicates a disturbing lack of faith in representative democracy. Pragmatically, it’s also surely a little worrying to be relying on an unfair election system to deliver power to your chosen party - who’s to say its unfairness will always be in your favour?

As important a choice as this should be about which system is the more representative, not how your party will perform at the next election if it’s used.

The real case against AV:

There are some arguments that tackle AV on its merits. Some hold more water than others. I don’t think that any are a reason to choose First Past The Post over it - and this is the choice, remember! - you may disagree.

Arguments that are believable, but in the end not actually true:

AV is expensive.”

This is mostly untrue - the numbers put out by the No campaign, in particluar, include massive costs ascribed to voting machines there are no plans to buy (it’s perfectly possible to mark AV ballots with pencils and count them by hand - Australia has been doing it for over one hundred years), and include the costs of holding the referendum itself.

Anyway - isn’t is a little ludicrous to be throwing out a fairer democracy for a few pounds? The UK population is 61 million people - even the No campaign’s most ludicrous figures put the election bill at about £4.20 per person, surely not a crazy amount to spend every few years on a better democracy?

AV gives more votes to people with unpopular views” (or, to put it in hyperbolic terms, “AV will be the end of one person, one vote”).

It sure looks like some people are getting their votes counted again when candidates are eliminated, and then the next round of counting involves moving their ballot papers to their next choice, right? In reality, everyone is having their vote counted again - the ones already in piles just aren’t being physically moved. Think about the “Instant Runoff” idea (mentioned above); it’s clear that in runoff elections that everyone has the same number of votes. AV is the same.

If you’re still not convinced, look at this in a more pragmatic way: It’s like the people who like unpopular candidates are, after the first count, being forced to vote in ballots where their preferred candidate isn’t even running. Remember, in our current system, someone can (and people do) win with 30% approval. Under AV this simply isn’t plausible.

All the places that use it don’t like it and are trying to get rid of it.”

This is just false (and as such, I find it one of the more infuriating ideas that the “No” campaign has managed to spread).

AV is used in lots of places, including many elections in the UK, and in many non-governmental elections - such as the leadership elections of Labour and the Lib Dems, with a close cousin of it (basically a runoff election) used in the Conservatives’ leadership elections (if they used First Past The Post, David Davies would be Prime Minister - or perhaps leader of the opposition - right now).

This idea likely stemmed from a single 2010 opinion poll of Australians that the “No” campaign talked about early this year. They claimed that the poll showed that Austrailians preferred First Past The Post to AV. When they presented it, it did indeed seem pretty clear, but it you look deeper, this single poll didn’t even ask the question “AV vs. First Past The Post”, but asked “Our current system vs. First Past The Post”, emphasising the fact that their current system requires all voters to rank all candidates (the AV system in the UK would not - you only need vote for the candidates you affirmatively approve of). Even then, the poll is an anomaly - the polls just don’t usually fall this way in Australia. There’s some detailed analysis of this (and some incredulity at the fact that this is becoming a campaign issue in the UK) from Australia’s ABC broadcaster here and here. In the end, the posts conclude “But when the same voters were offered the Alternative Vote as the other choice compared to compulsory preferential voting, it gained two-thirds support, more popular than first past the post.”

AV lets losers win!”

Well, if you define “winner” and “loser” as who would win or lose under First Past The Post, this is obviously going to be the case, because AV isn’t always going to produce the same answer as First Past The Post would. What you really think would, I hope, be better expressed in the next section:

The moral argument for “No”:

It’s fairest for the party with the most first preferences to win, no matter if that’s a minority of all the voters, because their stronger positive opinions should count more.”

At last, a genuine moral argument for First Past The Post! If you are voting “No” because you genuinely believe this to be true, I salute you. I think you’re wrong, but I respect that you’re basing your choice on what you genuinely think is fairer.

To try to show why I disagree, imagine yourself voting at a future election. Pretend there are three parties with a chance of winning in your constituency. Maybe it’s not true now, but it could well be true in the future. Imagine that one party proposes things you very much disagree with - if you’re a right-wing voter, let’s say it’s “high deficit spending to spend through a recession” - if you’re opinions are more left-wing, let’s say “privatising the healthcare system”. The two other parties have positions you agree with more. Now, imagine that the election comes out like this:

Party 1 that you disagree with
(high spending, or NHS privitisation)
Party 2 that you agree with
(austerity, or a public NHS)
Party 3 that you agree with
(austerity, or a public NHS)
Some fringe party
picking up protest votes

Now, to be fair here, parties 2 and 3 probably have other differences between them that I haven’t mentioned, but, still, is it really fair that your constituency is now represented by an MP from Party 1, even though they hold views that are the opposite of most of the ones held by most of their constituents? Will you still think the system is fair if this happens to you?

First Past The Post only works well if there are two parties. It breaks down with three. It’s even worse if there are multiple parties on one side of an issue, and only one on the other side - the “only one on the other side” party is almost guaranteed to win, even if they’re actually actively unpopular.

You might not like that Britain is turning into a multi-party system (Conservative, Labour, and Lib Dem in many places, with the SNP and Plaid Cymru also major forces in some parts, and even the Greens starting to pick up support in some places), but it is happening, and unless we update our voting system to take account of it, it’s likely that you will find yourself on a popular, but somehow still losing, side of an issue in the future simply because of the way First Past The Post works.

AV doesn’t go far enough, I want genuine proportional representation.”

I have a little sympathy for this (although I do think the constiuency link - a link AV preserves - is a very valuable thing). In any case though, we have to vote on the question on the ballot, and it’s AV vs. First Past The Post on there. I find it hard to understand why someone wanting PR wouldn’t vote for a good incremental change.

There’s also the likelihood that a “No” vote will be lauded as a victory for First Past The Post (indeed, David Cameron is already saying in interviews that that’s how it should be interpreted), setting back any other reform.

If you want PR, “Yes” is still the better, and the more pragmatic, answer to the referendum question.

In the end:

I think AV is a better system. It has lots of effects that I think are good: it makes it more plausible that unpopular MPs with get voted out; it will end the need for tactical voting as we know it; it allows people to express opinions for smaller parties even if they’re unlikely to actually win, without feeling that they’re throwing away their vote. In the end though, I just think it’s a more representative system. I’d rather live in a Britain where I can feel my MP reflects the views of the majority of the voters in my constituency (even if those turn out not to be my views).

I’d like to think that, perhaps after a few elections, the fact that people can vote how they feel will mean that we get politicians who say what they believe, so that we can believe what they say. I do think there’s a chance that, with a more representative system, that will happen. Even if that doesn’t happen though, I want to be able to tell my children[1] that they can vote for what they believe in, rather than who they believe can win.

AV is not a perfect system, but it is fairer than what we have now. I’m voting “Yes” on Thursday because I believe a fairer, more representative democracy can create a better Britain. If you also believe that, you should vote “Yes” too.

AV Badge

[1] Mum and Dad, this is not code for saying that any are likely in the near future!