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