The Jubilee Centre Blog

The AV Debate

John Hayward   Posted: 13 January 2011

Keywords: Government & Foreign Affairs,

(To avoid disappointment, this is not about the merits and demerits of the Authorised Version, or King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, four hundred years after its publication transformed the spirituality, language and culture of the English-speaking world, but is a continuation of yesterday's post, Electoral Reform: a Biblical Approach, which concluded that, even if you disagree with my conclusions on this question, the discussion should be focused around participation, not representation.)

Some claim that 'millions of votes are wasted’ under the existing ‘first past the post’† voting system (FPTP) used for electing politicians to the House of Commons. If we are all made in the image of God and therefore of equal worth, then, we are told, there should be a bias toward the vulnerable, the powerless and the voiceless. However, this argument is flawed on two counts. Firstly, bias is different from protection and does not reflect equality. Secondly, and more seriously, this presumes foreknowledge of results. Millions of votes only appear 'wasted' once one knows that a particular candidate has secured a large majority. Yet the bible clearly warns against such presumption (e.g. James 4:13-17). Today's 'safe' seat was yesterday's marginal and today's marginal could well be tomorrow's 'safe' seat. In any case, the 'alternative vote'† system (AV) would not prevent seats from being 'safe'.

Others argue that we need AV because coalition government introduces checks and balances of the kind that are in evidence in the very different electoral system across the Atlantic, where compromise is needed at virtually every step if politicians are to achieve anything. Yet others respond that we only need to look at the Conservative-LibDem government to see that coalitions throw out their policy commitments and manifesto pledges, and instead develop new manifestoes over which voters are given no say.

Yet others claim that AV would deliver a fairer result as every winning candidate must have secured the support of at least half the electorate. However, an AV system didn't stop people complaining that Ed Miliband's election as leader of the Labour Party had been unfair, as his brother David had been the clear first choice of MPs, MEPs‡ , and Labour Party members.

Indeed, given the three-party state of our politics, AV would almost guarantee a repeat of the unedifying spectacle witnessed last May, when the decision of who forms the Government was taken away from the voters and placed in the hands of the third party – the Liberal Democrats. How, one might ask, is that 'fair'?

Even at the constituency level, AV does not offer equality, as only the second and subsequent votes of constituents who do not support the preferred candidates are counted. Thus, AV treats the second and subsequent votes of a limited group of voters as of the same value as first preferences. In other words, an MP's success could be determined by the preferences of, say, UKIP or BNP voters, which could see candidates adopting more extreme policies, for example on immigration, in order to appeal to the prejudices of these voters in the hope of picking up their transferred preferences.

As John Redwood graphically put it, 'If I go to the races, I expect the horse that comes first to be the winner. I do not expect the judges to say that as the first and second were close they will ask the losers who they would like to win. Nor do we say that as it was close the first and second place have to run it again without the others to see if one is faster without the others getting in the way.'[1]

Or, as Winston Churchill more succinctly observed eighty years ago, AV allows democracy 'to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.'[2]

AV need not even produce a more proportional result than FPTP. For example, under AV parties in Canada have been known to obtain 90 per cent of the seats on 54 per cent of the vote.[3] Neither does AV prevent a party from winning a landslide victory. In the last ten years, AV has twice given the Australian Labor Party more than 70 per cent of the seats in Queensland, despite securing less than half of all first preferences.[4]

Making the process of casting a ballot more complicated, by asking the public to rank candidates or to vote for parties and individuals, also risks a repeat of what was seen in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election, when more than 100,000 (or five per cent of) voters were disenfranchised. Most constituencies saw at least 1,000 ballot papers rejected, a situation all the more unfair in any area where this number exceeds the winner's majority.

At the end of the day, reform of the process by which individuals and the parties they represent are elected cannot bring about the change that is needed. Governments will still get majorities or even landslides with less than 50 per cent of the vote, and we will still have tactical voting and so-called 'safe' seats. We could spend days and years discussing how to structure government differently and how to determine who should represent us in government, but it will still come down to people with different ideas and values needing to cooperate and negotiate in the interests of the common good.

Concludes with: Real Electoral Reform


† Under FPTP, also known as 'plurality rule', people cast a single vote for the candidate they want as the representative for their constituency and whichever candidate gets the most votes is elected. Under AV, known as 'instant run-off' in the USA, people rank the candidates; if no candidate has more than half of first preference votes then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed among the other candidates according to voters' next preferences; this process continues until one of the candidates has secured a majority of the votes cast.

‡ MPs: Members of Parliament; MEPs: Members of the European Parliament

[1] John Redwood's Diary: Why should Lib Dems vote twice?

[2] HC Deb 2 June 1931 c106 cited by I. White & J. Woodhouse (2010) AV and electoral reform, House of Commons Library SN/PC/05317

[3] 'in 1948 the Social Credit party in Alberta hit the jackpot when it scooped 97% of the seats by winning 53% of first preference votes (in the 47 constituencies that used AV)' cited by AV2011.co.uk

[4] See results for Queensland's 2001 and 2004 elections

Comments

Just a few corrections and explanations for you...

"In any case, the 'alternative vote'† system (AV) would not prevent seats from being ‘safe’."

No-one on the Yes camp is claiming AV eliminates safe seats, only that they make more seats less safe than under FPTP. AV ensures that the winner is someone that has true support. Current winners of over 50% of the vote already have that true support (and maybe more), we don't want to take power from them.

"Others argue that we need AV because coalition government "

Those that argue for AV on the basis of it creating coalitions are misinformed, and wrong. AV doesn't create coalitions, it could easily create stronger governments and LESS coalitions than FPTP. It depends entirely on where people of different political opinions live in the UK.

"Yet others claim that AV would deliver a fairer result as every winning candidate must have secured the support of at least half the electorate"

No, at least half of the votes in the final round is what we claim. FPTP can barely manage a turn out of more than half the electorate, so we wouldn't expect half the whole electorate to give their support to one candidate under AV either.

"AV does not offer equality, as only the second and subsequent votes of constituents who do not support the preferred candidates are counted. "

Every vote in every round is counted.

Round 1: Candidate A gets 10 votes, B gets 5, C gets 2. In total 17 votes are counted.
Round 2: Candidate A gets 11 votes, B gets 6 votes. In total 17 votes are counted.

Everyone, even those that don't change preference round to round, keep their vote counted. It's a lie to suggest that only some get their vote counted twice.

"As John Redwood graphically put it, ‘If I go to the races, I expect the horse that comes first to be the winner. I do not expect the judges to say that as the first and second were close they will ask the losers who they would like to win'"

Luckily an election isn't a race, it's a popularity contest. Are you suggesting we should elect MPs as if it were a race? I don't think so, so why use false analogies?

"AV allows democracy ‘to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates."

AV means that the most worthwhile votes for the most worthwhile candidates keep those popular candidates in the race. Those that voted for worthless candidates are then asked to choose between the candidates that remain, whom the majority of the rest of voters have decided should be the only people in contention. Hardly an election decided by the worthless, seems to me like strong support is key.

"AV need not even produce a more proportional result than FPTP."

No-one is arguing AV is more proportional than FPTP. Single member constituency single vote systems cannot be proportional. The offer is between FPTP and AV alone.

"Making the process of casting a ballot more complicated, by asking the public to rank candidates or to vote for parties and individuals, also risks a repeat of what was seen in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election,"

Except the Scottish system wasn't AV in 2007. It was a FPTP system with a top up for proportionality. It was, essentially, FPTP+. Read the reports, the ballots were confusing because of each person having two votes. With AV you only have one vote, a list of preferences. Why are you trying to compare incomparable systems?

"but it will still come down to people with different ideas and values needing to cooperate and negotiate in the interests of the common good."

Which we recognise, but at least under AV it is the voter who has more power than the party, and that an MP is there to represent us as well as their party line. That's a pretty good first step to ensuring co-operating in the interest of the common good, rather than the party political good.

Lee Griffin   13 January 2011

I have done a quick response here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13942

Jonathan Bartley   13 January 2011

Actually the Scottish Parliamentary elections were not caused by confusion of a preferentional voting system. It was because instead of two seperate papers for the FPTP and the marked with a single cross additional member list were placed on the same ballot (unlike in 1999 and 2003).

In addition the list was placed on the left and the constituency on the left. Therefore a high number of people made the error of putting 2 Xs on what was effectively the same ballot paper (though there were two on the same sheet). Or forgot about the constituency altogether as they had already marked the first column, the list.

The fact that the number of spoilt ballot papers was up on the previous two Scottish elections on the same system, and higher than the number of spoilt ballots on the STV council elections, suggests that the paper design was the fault. If chosing individuals and parites were a problem you would have equally cited the 1999 and 2003 elections you didn't, but all of us who had to go through that disaster, having not witnessed it before were already aware where the fault lay, later shown to be so in the reports.

Stephen Glenn   13 January 2011


As Lee Griffen points out in an election using AV each vote is counted at each round. If your favoured candidate is knocked out your ONE vote is redistributed according to your wishes.

If you are lucky enough to cast your 1st preference for either of the top two candidates your ONE vote is distributed according to your wishes i.e. you continue to cast your ONE vote for the same candidate.

For a worked example on how AV elections distribute votes please see

http://fairervotesedinburgh.wordpress.com/2010/11/30/vote-early-vote-often/

Danny Zinkus   14 January 2011

Here in Canada we do not use AV - we use FPTP. The reality is that even with FPTP it is not possible at the moment to fabricate a fake majority for any one party - just to overrepresent some parties and underrepresent others.

I would have expected "a biblical approach" to have involved some serious fact-checking.....

Mark Bigland-Pritchard   3 February 2011

Mark, AV was used in Alberta provincial elections 1926-1955, Manitoba 1927-1957, and British Columbia in 1952 & 1953.

John Hayward   3 February 2011

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