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Alternative Vote (AV) or first-past-the-post: which is better?

Updated on April 5, 2011


On 5th May 2011, the UK population will get the opportunity to vote in a referendum on a new "AV" (Alternative Vote) system for future elections used to elect MPs to the House of Commons, replacing the current first-past-the-post system.  

There is currently an enormous amount of confusion in the country as to how the system will work (which has fortunately been largely resolved now due to an Electoral Commission booklet which has just been posted through the door of every household), but more importantly, what the effect will be of having an AV system instead of a first-past-the post system to elect our MPs.     This hub is aimed at exploring some of the issues, but its main aim is, having explored those issues, to get lots of feedback and comments to aid the general understanding of the issues, to try to answer some of the questions, and to get a feel for how the country feels about voting in this referendum.

What are the issues?

The key issue for all voters is to have an understanding as to how an AV system will affect the outcome of elections.

Thus, the key questions are:

1) If we had had AV in the last 5 elections, or even just the last 3, what difference would that have made to the make up of MPs in the House of Commons, and would it have changed who was the party with a majority, or the largest vote?

2) How many (percentage-wise) people will choose to express preferences for more than one candidate? If only a small percentage do, then AV will make little difference from first-past-the-post.

3) How does AV affect constituencies with large majorities?

4) How does AV affect constituencies which are marginal?

5) Will this affect the relative importance of some constituencies?

6) How will minority parties fare? Will they get more seats, or fewer seats, or about the same?

7)  Will AV lead to more hung parliaments, or not?

How does AV work?

How AV works is explained very well in the booklet, but for convenience I will include a brief description here.

To start with, and for clarity, let's look at first-past-the-post. Basically, a number of candidates are available for voters to vote for, and they have a single vote for a single candidate. If they tick more than one box then their vote is classed as "spoiled" and not counted. Very simply, the candidate who gets the most votes is the one elected. No overall majority (i.e. more than 50% of the vote) is needed, and no minimum number of votes.

AV, on the other hand, is a system which creates a majority of more than 50% for one candidate by the following system.

Voters may vote for as few or as many candidates as they wish, but they do so by ranking them in order. They might just vote for one candidate with a "1", or they might vote for two, with a "1" and a "2", or however many they wish to, in the same vain.

In first round counting of the votes, the first votes ("1"s) only are counted, and candidates are put in order. The candidate who came last is disqualified, and their votes are re-apportioned by seeing if any of the votes for them had a second preference "2" vote for another candidate. If so, that ballot paper is moved to the pile of the candidate who received the "2" vote. If there is no "2" vote on the ballot paper, it no longer counts and is discarded.

If no candidate has achieved more than 50% of the vote at this stage, then a third round of counting takes place, where again the candidate with least votes is eliminated, and the ballot papers on their pile are re-allocated to the remaining candidates, with the vote going to the candidate who is ranked highest on each of those ballot papers. Ballot papers with no vote for any of the remaining candidates are discarded.

Here's a thought

One thing that I would like to have seen, which is not proposed, is the additional option of one negative vote for one candidate, i.e. a vote that gets subtracted from that candidate's total. However, apart from allowing people to feel good, by letting them vote against a candidate who they really do not want to be elected, the same questions arise, as above, which are summed up by: what difference would it make to the results?


We cannot really vote on whether we prefer AV or first-past-the-post unless we know what difference AV will make to the results of elections. If we don't know that, then voting on it is a meaningless and arbitrary exercise, where people will choose which way to vote based largely on rumour and speculation, or even misinformation, or they will vote with their political bias (i.e. they will vote in support of the policy of the party of their allegiance).

I would like to generate a huge debate on this matter, because, at the moment I have a completely open mind about it, and have no idea which way to vote on this matter, because I do not know the consequences of changing to an AV system of voting.

If you have read this and also want to know the answers to the questions raised, and to see what the country thinks about this issue, then forward the link to your friends and acquaintances, and vote it up as useful, or whatever you think is appropriate, and do add your own comments giving your views. We have a month to gather enough information, research, and answers, before we have to put a cross in favour, or against, changing to an AV system. Let's be as informed as we can be when the time comes.


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Well, it's voting day tomorrow, and this hub has not generated the interest and debate I would have liked to have seen. Perhaps that says something about people's apathy over this issue?

      Interestingly, I have received through the post a reasonable amount of information supporting a "No" vote, and not a single item supporting a "Yes" vote. Living in a Conservative constituency with a large majority, perhaps the "Yes" vote supporters have decided that there is no way that they can get a "Yes" vote from our community, so they won't bother trying to persuade us.

      To add some information, here is the result of a TNS/The Independent poll published recently:

      64% of the public intend to vote in the AV referendum. 35% don't understand how the AV system would work; 12% aren't sure if they understand it or not. 60% think politicians have not done a good job of explaining the issues at stake. 7% will be influenced by how celebrities vote; 81% will not.

      As polling day approaches, it is clear that no one is really making a good case. The "No" vote argument seems to rest on the statement "FPTP has served us well for 400 years, so why change it? And if the public do vote for AV then the BNP will get in". Hardly a strongly reasoned argument, and the BNP scaremongering is simply ridiculous. The "Yes" vote argument seems to be non-existent, so thank you Chris for making a statement in support of the "Yes" vote.

      However, I do see the logic in the argument that winners will be decided by the second and third preference votes of those who vote for the least popular candidate(s). This is factually true for close contests (AV will make no difference at all in constituencies where there are large majorities). This cannot be a good democratic solution. Also, is it democratic that the person who gets the most first choice votes in a constituency can lose?

      It is worrying that when every household in the country has been sent a leaflet which very clearly states how AV would work, that 47% of the population state that either they don't know how it would work, or they are not sure if they know how it would work. That's nearly half of the voters not understanding the voting system! This seems to support the argument to keep it simple, and stick with FPTP.

      It does seem to me that AV is the worst possible solution. The referendum should be about FPTP or Proportional Representation (PR). Only PR would be truly democratic and result in no wasted votes. However, we know that PR would result in lots more coalition governments, so the question is then: Is it better to have coalition governments or to have a single party majority government? My answer to that would be: Let's wait a few years and see how this coalition performs. With the media trying to destroy it from day one by making up divisions and criticising everything they do, the coalition has its work cut out to survive, but I don't think it has done a bad job so far, and I hope it does survive so that we can see how coalition governments would work in this country, and then we will be able to answer the PR question in an informed way. If the media succeed in destroying the coalition, then I think the conclusion will be that we don't have a mature and intelligent enough media to be able to cope with coalition governments in this country, so we are better to stick with FPTP. It would be a shame if the media were to determine our political system in this way.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      It is nothing to do with knowing what the end result would be. That should effect how you vote in this referrendum at all.

      It's all about choosing a system which encourages tactical voting and leads to many people's voice being lost due to a "wasted" vote, a system that is arguably the least democratic of all the voting systems.

      Or choosing a system that is much fairer, more democratic, elimates tactical voting and gives everyone proper voice.

      In FPTP someone can win a seat in parliament with the backing of a small percentage of the vote.

      Let me put it this way - Party 1 gets 40% of the vote, Party 2 gets 30% of the vote and the other 30% is spread between the smaller parties.

      However, of the 30% who chose the smaller parties, 25% would back Party 2 over Party 1.

      This means, given a straight choice between Party 1 and Party 2, that constituency would vote in Party 2 with 55%.

      AV allows the entire constituency to have a say on the final vote and a party must have the backing of 50% of voters to win the seat. How is that in any worse than FPTP, where someone could, in theory, win a seat with the backing of just 25% of a constituency.

      Essentially AV gives a fairer parliamentary representation of the overall will of the population - I fail to see how this is in any way worse than FPTP.

    • wilbury4 profile image


      7 years ago from England I think?

      What is the point of a voting system where a candidate who finishes with fewer votes than a competitor could win an election. Why anyone would want such a system is way beyond my logic. The existing FPTP system is straight forward and simple, most people want candidate 'x', then candidate 'x' wins! Simple as that!

    • profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      There is another hub on this subject with some interesting additional information at:

    • profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      I've just found, through another thread elsewhere discussing AV, this academic paper: . The conclusion is that the Liberal Democrats would have secured more seats at the last General Election under AV, than they did, but still 60 fewer than they would have won under a proportional representation system. This paper also suggests that if the coalition survives relatively successfully to the next General Election, then voters for the coalition parties will be tempted to put the party they support as their preferred vote, and the coalition partner as their second vote, even where they would not previously have voted for them as a second choice. However, it doesn't explore what the wider consequences of this will be.

      The same thread (not the academic paper) also reports that AV wouldn't have made much difference at all in the 1997 nor 2001 elections, as Labour won by such a huge margin. AV would also not have affected the outcome of the 2005 election. In 2002, the result was very close, and no one knows what effect AV would have had on the result, as there is not enough data to draw any conclusions.


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