Saturday 24 July 2010

The case for AV: Vote for whoever you want to!

The proposed question for a referendum on the Alternative Vote was published this week. I am a supporter of AV - and have set out a detailed case why earlier this year. So I want the referendum to be held and won. There is a long way to go. There will be much debate in parliament about a flawed Bill; about the potential impact of AV on both the political system and on party interests; and about how the broader politics of Coalition and austerity will affect strategy and tactics on this issue. So expect much more discussion on Next Left of the high and low politics of all of this.

But the prospect of a referendum also means it is important to think about the public arguments for and against the change. So let's kick off an occasional series about public-facing advocacy on this issue. (Offers of contributions are welcome).

To start, here is one argument for AV - Vote for whoever you want to! - which I feel deserves more attention than it gets.


If democracy means anything, its about the freedom to choose who we vote for. That's why people fought for everybody to have the Vote and for the secret ballot too.

So why should we put up with an electoral system where millions of people are told they can't vote for who they want?

"Don't waste your vote", the political parties tell us, when you just want to be able to vote for your genuine first choice.

Its because of our electoral system that almost 3 million voters say they didn't vote for their favourite candidate or party at the General Election(*).

What's democratic about that?

Here's a better Alternative.

Let's have a democracy where we can all always vote for the candidate that we think is the best, without worrying about whether you should have compromised with your vote.

Perhaps a local Independent has impressed you most on a local issue. Maybe you think the Greens or UKIP or another small party provide a voice that deserves to be heard.

Or you might want to stand up and support Labour in Cornwall, or the Tories in Glasgow, or the LibDems in a traditional Tory v Labour Midlands seat. Should you be told to put up with a democracy where it doesn't make sense to vote for what you believe in if its not a popular enough choice where you live?

Why should you be told you have to choose between voting how you want and making your vote count?

Vote Yes to change to the Alternative Vote - and all of that can change too.

Here's what the Alternative Vote means.

Everybody could vote for whoever they really want to. Every candidate could get every vote that people think they deserve.

So we'd hear no more talk about "wasted votes" - trying to tell you what you can and can't do with your vote. There would be no need for newspaper guides to "tactical voting" which often leave most people more confused than they were before.

The political parties would have to stop campaigning with dodgy bar charts trying to tell you who can and can't win - and make a positive case about why you should trust them with your vote.

Every MP would need to listen to more people because they would need to have a majority of their constituents. Our current system lets too many get to Parliament without making sure that most voters want them there.

Letting everybody vote for who they want to - and making sure every MP has to win a majority of the voters.

That's why the Alternative Vote is a better alternative.


(*) Provisional: Previous studies have shown that 10% of voters say they voted tactically in General Elections. That would be 2.5 million votes if that was the proportion in 2010. Please do let me know if you are aware of a post-election study or survey on this question. Much discussion of electoral reform - including projections of outcomes under different systems - overlooks the issue that General Election results do not give an accurate picture of the real pattern of first preferences.


Jon Lansman said...

"Vote for whoever you want to!" does indeed apply to the voter under AV. Unfortunately, the corollary is that "say what you believe in" no longer applies to the candidate or party contesting the election. The message not only has to be tailored to potential supporters but to potential opponents.

The new motto: "Give up what you believe in before you start. Or just give up." Nice to have a choice though!

Unknown said...


Re your request in the footnote. See Hix et al., Choosing an Electoral System (available online at at p. 11: 'Any change of system deployed will influence the behaviour of both the parties and the electorate; under different systems, parties will campaign in different ways to maximize their number of votes/seats won, and electors will similarly alter their decisions according to particular circumstances.' Inference drawn: no analysis of what past electoral behaviour would have been under a different system is possible.

Unknown said...

PS Not that that's a reason not to support AV, which I do whole-heartedly and am glad to see that you do too!

Sunder Katwala said...


I am agreeing with that point.

The information request is "what % of voters say they voted tactically in 2010", which is a question about voting behaviour under the current system.

The 10% refers to previous elections, as I think has been cited in the British Election Survey (from memory).

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

"To start, here is one argument for AV - Vote for whoever you want to!"

Sadly, this isn't true: just voting for who you honestly favor can result in you causing your least-favorite choice to win. Example:

4: A > B > C
1: B > A > C
1: B > C > A
3: C > B > A

if this election is just A vs. B, B wins, 5:4. But when you add C, the winner changes--TO A! In order to avoid this outcome, one of the C-first voters would have to tactically mis-rank B higher than C; in which case B wins.

Honesty ceases to work under AV when the third-place candidate can gets near 25% of the votes.

But there ARE voting systems that can handle this correctly: look into approval voting and score voting, which have no such perverse incentives in three-way elections.

Unknown said...

Nice, Dale. I think that it also fails to work if there are more than three candidates. But with that said, it's better than plurality voting, because the Condorcet loser can't win, as he/she can under plurality voting. So it's at least a step in the right direction, isn't it? Or are we going to let the perfect get in the way of the possible??

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...


Sure, AV (IRV) might be a slight improvement. But look at that chart.

Approval voting would be the easiest change to make for elections: instead of throwing out ballots that have two (or more) marks on them, you just count them as a vote for both (or all) of the candidates. Nothing else changes: there are no iterative phases, no thresholds, no shuffle about of ballots.

And more importantly, approval voting would be a _real_ improvement in outcome, not a slight one.

There's no reason to use AV/IRV; other systems are both easier AND better. That's not "perfect being the enemy of good"; that's real reform being the enemy of false reform.

Dale Sheldon-Hess said...

...oh, also, since you mentioned Condorcet: approval voting is more likely to elect the true Condorcet winner than any "real" Condorcet method.