Sometimes you read something that makes you want to spit hairs. Like this article on the BBC News site. David Cameron either doesn’t understand how AV works, and if not we should really get a more intelligent leader for our country, or he knows exactly how it works and is being deliberately dishonest and misleading for completely undemocratic reasons.
Let me explain how the two systems up for debate actually work – the current First Past The Post (FPTP), and the proposed Alternative Vote (AV).
With FPTP you mark an X on the ballot paper, and as the name suggests, the result is a bit like a race – the first candidate to get to the finishing post is elected. The finishing post in this case being the number of votes such that no one else can get more. This is a highly variable target, which no one can determine until the results are counted. Take a hotly contested seat between four candidates where the distribution of votes is as follows:
Cons 35%, Lab 30%, LibDems 20%, Greens 15%
With FPTP, the Conservative candidate would be elected despite only 35% of the electorate declaring a positive intent that they want him to represent them. That means a massive 65% of the electorate are being represented by someone they expressed no preference for, and actively voted against.
With AV, you rank the candidates in order of preference (1,2,3 and so on). Effectively you are saying “I want Candidate A to represent me. If I can’t have Candidate A, my next choice is Candidate D, and if I can’t have either of those, then I want Candidate C.” You can express a preference for as many or as few candidates as you like. So if for you it’s the Conservative candidate or none, then you just put a 1 against him or her and ignore the others.
When the votes are counted up, the winner is the one who gets 50% or more of the vote. So anyone who gets more than 50% of votes in the first round wins outright, just like FPTP. The AV bit comes into play if no one candidate gets 50% of the vote. In our new election, all the ‘1’ votes are counted and the result is the same as before.
Cons 35%, Lab 30%, Lib Dems 20%, Greens 15%
No candidate has the support of 50% of the public. So the candidate with the lowest vote count is eliminated, and everyone votes again, according to their expressed preference. Of course, everyone but the Greens can still vote for their ‘1’ candidate, so that happens automatically. The people who voted Green in the first round can no longer vote green, so their ‘2’ vote is used. To be clear, everyone votes again, and if your ‘1’ candidate is still eligable, that’s who your vote will be cast for. So after the second round of voting, where the Green vote was re-cast according to their ‘2’ preference, we get the following:
Cons 40%, Labour 35%, Libs 25%
We’re still short of the 50% required, so we will have a third round of voting, and this time the Libs will be eliminated. Once again, everyone votes in this round. Anyone who voted 1 for the Cons or Lab will continue to vote for those parties. The Lib Dems vote is no longer available and those votes will now be re-cast to the remaining two parties according to the next available preference for each voter. Once the votes are counted we end up with:
Cons 45%, Labour 55%
The Labour candidate is elected, since 55% of the people actively expressed a preference for that candidate. This system guarantees a representative that at least half of the constituency expressed a preference for.
You could look at the result this way:
30% of people actively voted Labour, and a further 25% preferred Labour to the Conservatives
35% of people actively voted Conservative, and a further 10% of people preferred the Conservatives to Labour.
It boils down to this.
FPTP is a system which allows a person to represent a constituency where the majority of the electorate did not vote for them in any shape or form.
AV is a system which forces candidates to achieve a simple 50% majority of votes before they can claim to represent their constituents.
Which one of these is more democratic?
There are some popular myths about AV which are as follows:
- “someone can vote for a fringe party like the BNP and it’s counted three times”
This is simply not true. There might be multiple rounds of voting in which all votes are counted once per round. The precise make up of the votes per round are determined by preferences people select when they vote, and which candidates are left for them to vote for.
- “It’s so unfair that the candidates who come second or third can end up winning.”
There are two parts to this. Firstly it depends on what you define as winning, and secondly what being ‘fair’ really means. You can easily argue that it’s “not fair” if 65% of an electorate are represented by someone they didn’t vote for. As regards winning, this is not a race round a course, it’s a process to determine the best person to represent the constituency in government. The best person to represent a community is someone who has the backing of the majority (i.e. more than 50%) of voters. AV is simply a way to ensure that a majority is reached. So isn’t the “fairest” result the one where the ‘winner’ is the candidate who has the backing of the majority of voters?
- It’s too complicated.
How complicated is writing the numbers 1, 2, 3 and so on against your preferred candidates? The system takes care of the rest. If you think counting is too complicated, then perhaps it’s wise if you opt out of voting.
- It won’t make any difference so there’s no point to it.
It will make a difference, it will make sure the person representing your constituency has the backing, in some form, of at least 50% of the local people. It’s not ideal, it’s not the best solution, but it’s the only one we are being offered, and it’s better than the FPTP system. It will force candidates to engage with more of their constituents because they will need the support of more people to be elected. That can only be a good thing.
- More extreme, minority and ‘odd’ candidates will be elected, and that’s bad for democracy
The is no basis for this statment. Under FPTP you can win a seat with 35% of the vote, AV requires 50%. If anything this will make it harder for fringe candidates to be elected since they will require more support rather than less. If these candidates do get elected, it will be because people voted for them and if enough people vote for them they should be elected. That’s at the very heart of democracy. Changing the system to prevent ‘undesirables’ winning defeats the point of democracy.
- AV will result in more hung parliaments
Not true. Australia uses AV, and have had 2 hung parliaments since 1910. The UK has had 7 in the same period (according to Wikipedia). Even so, what is so bad about a hung parliament? Surely asking politicians to work together, regardless of views, to run the country should not be huge problem in this day and age. Only those politicians who don’t think they would be able to work with people holding different views would fear a hung parliament. An effective hung parliament requires politicians to work together, and if they don’t think they can do that perhaps we should be voting for people who can…
I leave you with this. The current rules for Conservative Party Leadership contests, the process which elected David Cameron to lead his party requires that the winner win 50% of the vote. It does this by having a series of rounds of voting where the loser in each round is eliminated, and then everyone votes again, until there are only two candidates left. In this last round, someone must get more than 50% unless it’s a dead heat in which case specific rules apply. Doesn’t that sound remarkably like the AV system I described above? I didn’t hear David Cameron rushing to change the ‘unfair and undemocratic’ process which elected him head of his party?
Quite frankly he should be ashamed of his remarks, and ashamed of his hypocrisy.