In about two weeks’ time, voters in the UK will be given an historic opportunity to change the electoral system. The referendum motion asks whether the existing First Past The Post (FPTP) system should be replaced with the alternative known, conveniently enough, as the Alternative Vote (AV) system.
Unfortunately, while this is a potentially monumental issue, much of the media coverage that I’ve seen has been frankly very poor, with a lot of bad arguments and negative campaigning on offer from both sides. I thought I’d put my PhD in politics to use, by trying to offer something more sensible – though I hope that the following review won’t be too long or technical.
** Preamble **
Cards on the table time: I’m inclined to vote for the switch to AV. I say that at the start, to make clear that this won’t be an entirely neutral and dispassionate piece. Nonetheless, I’m not strongly in favour of AV, so I’ll try to resist advocacy. I think there are good arguments on each side, so if someone finds the arguments for FPTP more convincing that’s fine. My concern is that people vote based on good, informed argument, rather than on the basis of some of the bad arguments that I’ve heard thrown around.
Why the hesitancy? Well, I think it’s worth noting that NO voting system is perfect. Thankfully, our choice is this referendum is made simpler by the fact that we need not consider all of the many voting systems that have been devised. Our choice is simply between two: FPTP and AV. Hence, there’s no need to consider, for example, Proportional Representation (PR). I’ll define FPTP and AV in a moment, but first one further point is in order.
The referendum question is actually about which system we should use. In deciding how to vote in the referendum, I know some people who are swayed by other considerations, such as giving Nick Clegg a bloody nose or which option they think will favour future reform (some think AV might lead towards PR in future, while others think that this change will stifle further reform). I’m also going to set these considerations aside and focus, so far as I can, simply on the intrinsic merits of FPTP and AV.
** Defining the Alternatives: FPTP **
First Past The Post (FPTP) is probably the simplest option to understand, perhaps in part because it’s the system currently used in UK elections so already familiar to most of us. It works like this: each voter places a vote next to one candidate of their choice. After all votes are cast, they are counted. The candidate who gets the most votes is declared the winner.
It should be noted that the name – First Past The Post – is slightly misleading. There is no fixed winning post that candidates must cross. It would be possible in theory for someone to win with a very small share of the vote – just 10% for instance. Suppose we had eleven candidates competing in the election. If they are very close in support, it might be that one wins 10% of the vote and the other ten each win 9% of the vote. In this case, the former is declared the winner. This is true even though only one tenth of the electorate voted for them.
There are two points that we should notice, in particular. Firstly, the winner need not have (and in fact in UK elections rarely does have) the support of a majority (i.e. over half) of the voters. Secondly, the person with the most votes wins, even if deeply unpopular with everyone else. I’ll return to that point in a moment, but first it’s time to present the alternative.
** Defining the Alternatives: AV **
The alternative vote system allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Voters may, if they wish, rank only one. If everyone did that, then the system would in effect work just the same as FPTP. It also allows voters to indicate a second choice, third choice, and so on. These are their ‘alternative votes.’ In effect, it allows someone to say ‘ideally, I want X, but if not X, then I want Y’ and so on – until, if they wish, they have ranked all candidates.
Once voters have expressed their preferences, the first round of counting begins by looking only at people’s first preferences. If any candidate has a majority of votes (over half), then that candidate is duly elected. If no one has a majority, then counting proceeds to a second round. In this case, the candidate with the smallest share of first preference votes is eliminated from the running. Votes for that candidate are then redistributed – any that did not express a second preference are eliminated, while those that did are now transferred to that second preference candidate. These votes are counted equally along with first preference. In effect, the voters concerned, having had their first choice candidate eliminated, are asked for their alternative choice out of those remaining.
(In French presidential elections, there are actually two separate votes. First, everyone gets to vote for whoever they like. Then a second vote is held between the two candidates who come first and second, to see which of these has majority support. This involves only two stages, but requires a second election. The aim of AV is to allow voters to express their alternatives on a single ballot paper, avoiding the need for multiple rounds of voting.)
This process is continued, with the least popular candidate eliminated in each round, until one candidate has over half of the votes remaining active in that round. Since this may ultimately result in only two candidates left in the running, it is almost certain that one will have a majority. (The only exception is if the final two end up exactly tied, 50% each – but ties are also possible under FPTP.)
** An Illustration **
These definitions may be clearer if accompanied by an illustration of the two systems in practice. I’ll use a simplified, non-political example. Suppose we have a club with 100 members trying to decide where to go on a day out. Let’s assume that there are four options: beach (B), football (F), museum (M) and shopping (S).
1) Ten people rank the options as follows:
B > F > M > S
That is, they prefer the Beach to anything else. They like going to the Football less than the Beach, but more than either a Museum or Shopping. And, finally, they prefer the Museum to Shopping.
2) Nine more rank:
B > M
These people also prefer Beach to anything else. They express no preference, however, between the Football and Shopping (though it is assumed, since their second preference is for the Museum, that they prefer Museum to either of these; they are simply indifferent between the other two).
3) Twenty-one people rank:
F > B > M > S
4) Twenty-five people rank:
M > F > B > S
5) Thirty-five people rank:
S > M > F > B
Under FPTP, these people can only vote for their first or most preferred option. That is, the people will vote for B, B, F, M, and S respectively. These are then totalled up, to show how many people support each option. The results are as follows:
Hence it is decided that the group will go shopping, because this option has more votes than any of the other options.
Note, however, that while Shopping was the most preferred option of 35 people (just over a third of the group), it was the *least* preferred option (solely or jointly) for all of the others. These people, presumably, would be very dissatisfied with this outcome.
Thankfully, there is a remedy at hand. Suppose the twenty-one people in the third group (those who rank F > B > M > S) realise what is likely to happen. They know that the Football is not that popular, so votes for Football are likely to be ‘wasted.’ (This is analogous to those who prefer a third or fourth party, but know that either Labour or Conservatives are likely to win.) Since these people still prefer Museum to Shopping, they may decide to vote tactically. That is, they could vote for Museum, rather than the Beach, even though this is not their real first preference. Then Museum would have 46 votes (to 35 for Shopping) and so win.
AV is, in effect, a way of avoiding the need for such tactical voting. It allows people to still express their real first preference – for Football – yet also to have a say when the choice comes down to Museum or Shopping. Because of this, however, the counting of votes will be slightly more complicated. In the first round, counters will look only at first preferences, so the first round will look like this:
The same as before. No option has a majority (over half) of the votes, so counting will now go to a second round. The Beach – as the least popular option – will be eliminated. Rather than effectively disenfranchising those who had voted for the Beach, though, the AV system says that we should ask how they would have voted from the remaining alternatives. (This is done without the need for a second, three-way vote, because we asked voters for their second preferences in the initial round of voting.)
Ten of those who voted for Beach would have voted for Football (their second preference) had the Beach not been an option, while the other nine would have voted for the Museum. Thus these voters are reallocated, according to these second preferences. This gives us:
As we see, things are now very close. Had the Beach not been an available option, Shopping would still have won under a FPTP, but only by a single vote. Still, however, no option has majority support. It looks to be between Shopping and Museum, which are one and two in the votes, so Football is eliminated as now being least popular. But again to declare Shopping the winner would ignore the fact that it is the least popular option of almost everyone else. Almost two-thirds of people, in this example, would prefer either Football or the Museum to Shopping. This is confirmed when voting goes to a third stage.
Here, Football is eliminated and those whose votes are currently counted as for Football are transferred to their next preference, to see how they would vote between Museum and Shopping. As it happens, these are voters from the first and third groups above, all of whom prefer Museum to Shopping. (For some of these, Museum is their second preference and for some their third.) Thus, when these votes are reallocated, we get the following result:
So Museum wins!
Sorry for the slightly lengthy explanation, but I think it goes a long way not only to explaining the difference between FPTP and AV but also the relative merits of the two. FPTP only looks at people’s first vote. Consequently, those in a minority are either effectively ignored or forced to misrepresent their true preferences by voting strategically. AV, on the other hand, looks at all of a person’s preferences. This means that an option, such as going to the Museum, can win in virtue of being a widely popular second choice, though it was not the most popular first choice. Political parties would, therefore, have incentives to appeal widely to as many voters as possible, even if they were unlikely to be first choice amongst those voters. Picking up second or third votes might still be enough to allow them to win.
Now let’s look at some of the arguments in more detail…
** Arguments Against AV, Considered and Rebutted **
One argument offered for FPTP is that it’s simpler. Voters only need to vote for one party, rather than ranking their whole preference ordering. I don’t think this shows much faith in voters. The added complexity of AV lies largely in vote counting, not in the act of voting. All voters need to be able to do is order their preferences. If you can count to three, then the chances are that you can rank three alternatives, for instance Conservative > Lib Dem > Labour. It should be added that voters are not *required* to rank all of the alternatives on offer. It’s fine to express preferences between your top three candidates, but then no further, in effect abstaining if the choices were to come down, say, to UKIP or BNP. If this is too difficult for most voters, then we probably ought to reconsider whether we want political decisions made by such idiots!
A second argument I’ve heard is that AV means giving some people more votes than others. This isn’t really true. Each person only has one vote counted at any given stage. The point is that people can also express a second preference, which might be counted *instead of their first* should their first be eliminated. These people aren’t given any more influence though, because those whose first preference is still in the running are still having their first preference counted. It seems ludicrous to suggest that someone who gets their second preference has more power or influence than someone who gets their first preference!
In fact, I think it could be argued that AV better ensures equality between voters, since it allows all voters (if they wish) to have their preference counted between whatever candidates are in the running. FPTP, as already explained, provides incentives for strategic voting. That is, savvy voters may realise that they can better serve their preferences by voting for a candidate who is not their genuine first preference. This behaviour is sometimes criticized as dishonest, though I am not sure I would go that far – why shouldn’t voters be able to use their vote as they wish? The problem, however, is that it means those who know how to ‘play’ the system can get more out of it than those who do not. The naïve bumpkin who simply votes for her genuine first preference may effectively waste her vote, when she could have been better served by voting for her second preference, to ensure that the candidate she detested did not win. This seems more inegalitarian to me. AV removes the advantage is strategic voting, so all people can express their genuine preferences and have them counted equally.
A third argument worries not simply about the fact that some people get their second preference counted, but about who these people are – namely, fringe minorities. Suppose, for instance, we had the following scenario:
49% vote Labour
48% vote Conservative
3% vote BNP, with second preference for the Conservatives
In this case, Labour would win under the FPTP rule, but under AV the 3% BNP voters would be reallocated to the Conservatives and they would win. It is worried that this makes fringe minorities potentially pivotal.
I think there is some merit to this concern, but it seems to be overstated. The electoral result doesn’t depend simply on the 3% BNP ‘fringe.’ The Conservatives only win, in this example, with those votes, but they also have 48% support in their own right. Moreover, it should be remembered that FPTP simply encourages tactical voting. The BNP supporters might simply have voted Conservative to begin with and we’d never have known. At least AV allows voters to express their true preferences and to have influence on the final choice.
Also it should be noted that a few fringe voters are unlikely in practice to make a pivotal difference. Where we have three (or four) major parties, it is likely to take the elimination of one of these before a winner is decided. Consider:
35% vote Labour
35% vote Conservative
30% vote Lib Dem
5% vote BNP, with second preference for the Conservatives
In this case, I have assumed more BNP support (5% rather than 3%). Even so, the elimination of the BNP leaves us with 40% Conservative, 35% Labour, and 30% Lib Dem, so still no overall winner. Who wins will depend on the second preference of (in this case) Lib Dem voters, not (only) the BNP voters.
These are some of the arguments that I’ve heard most commonly presented in the media. As should be obvious, I think that they’re all bad. AV isn’t too complicated (in fact it’s often used in many elections, including in student societies), doesn’t mean that some voters count for more, and doesn’t mean that electoral results will be determined by fringe minorities. There are, however, some better arguments against it. For reasons of balance, let me consider one of the more serious.
AV asks voters to rank their preferences in order, but an ordering gives us no information about how strong someone’s preference is. One voter might be almost indifferent between the candidates she has numbered 1 and 2, while another may have a very strong preference for his number 1 and consider his number 2 merely the best of a bad bunch. Consider this case:
Forty people rank A > B > C and much prefer A to either B or C, both of which they detest.
Thirty-one people rank B > A > C, but are almost indifferent between B and A.
Twenty-nine people rank C > B > A, but are almost indifferent between B and A.
Under AV, C would be eliminated and then B would win, 60 votes to 40. This is so, even though no one has a strong preference for B over A, but 40 people have a strong preference for A over B. We should be wary, this reasoning suggests, of reading too much into second preferences. This is true, but it should be noted that it is hardly a glowing endorsement of FPTP either. People may not be equally satisfied, under an FPTP system, with the alternatives on offer and, as we have seen, many may in fact vote strategically in any case. As I said at the outset, AV isn’t perfect – no system is. While this seems like a potential problem with AV, it doesn’t show that FPTP is any better. Where our choice is between the two, I’m still inclined towards AV.
** Conclusion **
As I said at the outset, I’m not totally confident in my preference for AV, because there are problems with it, but I don’t think these should blind us to the (possibly greater) problems with FPTP just because we’re more accustomed to them.
I’m uncertain about the referendum because, given the many factors that we might consider, I’m open to saying that one’s vote in the referendum *shouldn’t* be determined simply by which, of FPTP and AV, is the better system. (For instance, perhaps one should think about which will better serve the cause of future reform.) Nonetheless, if the question were simply which is better out of the two, then I’m much more confident that AV is preferable to FPTP and that’s the way I’m inclined to vote in the referendum.
My aim isn’t to convince others, but to encourage more constructive debate. Vote how you like, provided that you’ve thought seriously about the issue and have genuine reasons, rather than bad arguments, for your choice. I’d welcome constructive disagreement in comments!