Thursday, April 28, 2011

AV and 'Multiple Votes'

Continuing my series (1, 2) in the run-up to the electoral reform referendum on May 5th, this time I want to look at another claim on the No2AV leaflet I have in front of me: “One person should have one vote. That’s fair.” (See also here.) Again, I find this flawed on several counts.

Firstly, one natural reading of this is simply that everyone should have at least one vote, and there is obviously no conflict between that and AV. Presumably, however, their intended meaning is that everyone should have exactly (or perhaps at most) one vote. They claim that “The AV system will mean the end to equal votes,” presumably meaning that expressing a second or third preference amounts to having two or three votes.

‘One person, one vote’ is certainly a rhetorically effective slogan, but again it needs to be analysed more carefully if we are to understand its meaning and implications. The appeal of the slogan is that it expresses political equality, but there’s no particular reason why it should be ‘one person, one vote’ rather than, say, ‘one person, five votes.’

Indeed, in the Scottish elections (to be held on the same day as the referendum) each person will cast TWO votes. I don’t mean a vote for their MSP and a vote in the referendum. Rather, the Scottish parliament consists of one lot of MSPs elected on a constituency basis with a second lot elected by PR, so each voter will get two ballot papers and cast one vote on each. I don’t hear anyone protesting that this is undemocratic.

Of course, the No2AV campaigner could say that there’s a difference between having two votes on two different ballot papers and having two votes on a single ballot paper. This merely highlights another ambiguity in the slogan though. We don’t think that each person should only have one vote in their lifetime. We wouldn’t disenfranchise someone now because they already voted five years ago. Hence we don’t literally enforce only one vote, but ‘one vote per ____’ where that blank needs to be filled in to specify how often each person should get their one vote.

The No2AV campaigners would have us believe that this blank should be filled in with per election, but I haven’t heard any good argument as to why we should favour that over per *round* of vote counting, as happens under AV.

As I hope I made clear in my original explanation of AV, no one exerts more influence than anyone else. The point of people expressing second and third preferences is that these ‘alternative votes’ are counted instead of their original (first preference) vote, if their first preference is eliminated. The principle is essentially the same as in a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system which, as the name implies, gives each person only one vote – the difference being that they are allowed to transfer it. (AV is in fact STV when electing only a single person per constituency.)

We could, in fact, replicate these results by having multiple elections. That is, if no one of five candidates standing wins an overall majority, we might eliminate the fifth placed candidate and hold another election with only four candidates standing, and so on until one wins a majority. Then it would be quite clear, I take it, that each person only has one vote per election. The point of AV though is that it saves the need for multiple rounds of elections, by having voters specify all of their preferences to begin with, so we can calculate what would have happened had there been a four-way election instead of a five-way one. (This also of course means that turnout is held constant and prevents tactical vote-switching between rounds.)

‘One person, one vote’ doesn’t tell us whether people should have one vote per election or one vote per round of counting. That’s the problem with slogans – since they’re not arguments, they can’t guide us in cases of ambiguity.

Here’s another example of ambiguity where simply asserting ‘one person, one vote’ doesn’t help. It might be objected that our current system fails to respect ‘one person, one vote’ because children are persons but aren’t given the vote. We might propose to remedy this by giving parents votes to cast on behalf of their children. Is this in keeping with the requirements of ‘one person, one vote’ because it gives children votes or contrary to it because it gives parents more than one vote? Either interpretation is possible, so the slogan alone is no help here. We need to get beyond the simple slogan and explore the reasons behind it, which might help to adjudicate between these two possibilities.

The same is true when it comes to AV or FPTP. Each system reflects a different understanding of ‘one person, one vote.’ FPTP focuses on how many votes one casts, whereas AV focuses on how many votes one has counted. The essence of AV is that everyone’s vote is counted once in each round of voting. Expressing a second preference does not give one more influence overall, it merely means that one can still have influence once one’s first choice has been eliminated. That second preference is counted (if at all) instead of one’s first preference, not as well.

Now when I’ve pointed this out to No campaigners, some have acknowledged that each person only has one vote counted, but still held that it’s objectionable for people to cast more than one vote, even if only one is counted. But this doesn’t seem plausible to me. What’s important is surely how many votes you have counted, not how many you cast.

Suppose we allow everyone to cast one vote, but then a significant section of those votes (either selected at random or perhaps those of some particular group) are simply discarded without being counted. Surely that wouldn’t be democratic. The ability to write marks on bits of paper isn’t what’s at issue here; it’s influencing the political process that matters. Thus, it matters that your vote is counted, not merely that it is cast.

Someone might say that’s unfair of me. We needn’t assume that it’s either voting once or counting once. It might be that both of these matter. Thus they could say that everyone has to count once (and only once) but also that people should only cast one vote. AV respects the first requirement, but not the second.

But I don’t see why we should think that each person casting one vote ought to matter, independently of each person counting once. Suppose we had a reform that allowed each person to cast as many votes as they liked, though only their first would be counted. (Leave aside questions about how this might be enforced.) I wouldn’t see anything wrong with that. You could go down to the polling station and mark as many ballots as you like, but it wouldn’t give you any more influence than me. In other words, it doesn’t seem to matter how many votes you cast, provided only one is counted.

For the sake of completeness, we can also imagine another example, in which everyone casts one vote but some people’s votes are counted twice. That, I take it, would be objectionable and undemocratic. So everyone casting one (and only one) vote doesn’t ensure equality; we have to make sure that each person is only counted once.

Let’s recap. Each person casting one vote isn’t sufficient for equality, if some of those votes are counted twice or not counted at all. Nor is it necessary, since we could allow people to vote more often, but only count their first vote. Thus, it seems that what matters is that each person’s vote is counted once and not more. It does not matter whether people cast more than one vote, provided each person only has one vote counted.

So, even if we interpret AV as people casting more than one vote, albeit only conditionally, it doesn’t violate the supposedly democratic requirement of ‘one person, one vote.’ One person should have one vote *counted*. That’s perfectly consistent with AV.

Note I’m not saying that ‘one person, one vote’ is inconsistent with FPTP. We might have an argument as to whether ‘wasted votes’ for minority candidates are really counted. But my aim here is merely to counter an argument against AV, not to offer positive argument for it. My claim is merely that ‘one person, one vote’ – when properly interpreted – gives us no reason to favour either system over the other.

Moreover, as I pointed out at the outset, this slogan isn’t actually particularly compelling to begin with; the Scottish elections illustrating that one person might have more than one vote in both senses.

The aim of AV is to ensure that the candidate elected is preferred to his or her rivals by a majority of voters. What’s undemocratic about that?


  1. See also a somewhat ponderous but completely accurate video on how AV maintains the principle of "one person, one vote" (and adds "one value"):

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