Sunday 27 February 2011

Proof that you can have the X Factor without being first-past-the-post

Ed Hall gets himself completely confused on ConservativeHome, managing to argue that it would be bizarrely incomprehensible and unfair if we didn't have first-past-the-post voting for the X Factor on television.

In modern politics, a winner should be a winner. Try it round your dinner table or next time you watch the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing. Everyone votes for their favourite book, film or act: surely the candidate with the most votes wins? How would the BBC or ITV possibly explain or justify a programme format with public voting in which the candidate that got the most votes did not win?


Hall immediately acknowledges that reality TV does have preferential voting, instead of choosing the first round winner by first-past-the-post. ("Of course you do get to vote again in the TV formats as the candidates are knocked out, and the next week's programme starts, but do we really want General Elections every week until we get a winner?", he writes, which (while introducing a new red herring) has of course just destroyed the entire point he was trying to make the first time around.

(Back in November 2009, the X Factor case for electoral reform might just have been made on Next Left before anybody else).

We now know that the most recent two winners of the X Factor Matt Cardle and Joe McElderry would have lost under first-past-the-post voting on first preferences, since ITV have released the final round voting figures at the end of the last two series. (I haven't seen totals for previous series).

Most people did not seem to find this difficult to understand at all. It was simply that they had more support and popularity among the whole audience than the person who started off with the most votes the first time around. Matt and Joe were crowned as having the X Factor because they were the most popular candidates, without being first-past-the-post.

X Factor voting over several weeks has much more in common with the preferential voting system of the Alternative Vote than to first-past-the-post, because both systems make winning candidates seek majority support rather than choosing the candidate who is most popular first in a large field. (The X Factor does see more shifting of votes between rounds than would happen in a multiple ballot political election, such as in France or the Tory leadership, largely because music TV preferences are rather more fluid and volatile than political ones).

In 2009, Joe McElderry was not the first-past-the-post winner, but was placed third on the first round.

Danyl Johnson 27.1%
Stacy Solomon 12.9%
Joe McElderry 12.7%
Olly Murs 6%
Others 42%

However, McElderry led on all rounds once only six candidates remained, including 42% of the vote and a 20 point plurality once only those four candidates in the race. The full results can be read here.

He held over 50% with three candidates left. But he lost the first-past-the-post election in the first round.


The first-past-the-post winner last year was not Matt Cardle, but Mary Byrne, who had 22% of the vote in a 16 candidate race.

Mary Byrne 22.3%
Matt Cardle 15.1%
Cher Lloyd 10.3%
One Directin 10.0%
Aiden Grimshaw 9.8%
Other candidates 33%

Byrne was somewhat controversially eliminated by the judges when placed fourth with five candidates left.

The X Factor winner Matt Cardle, was second placed on first preferences, though he had the most first preferences once there were 14 candidates left and led on every round after that.

Or, as those champions of first-past-the-post at the Daily Mail put it:

The semi-final voting pattern shows that Matt Cardle was the clear winner with more than 35 per cent of the vote, followed by Rebecca Ferguson with 26 per cent, and One Direction with 17 per cent ...

This year’s winner Matt Cardle won the vote almost every week, apart from in the first week when Miss Byrne did. Runner-up Rebecca Ferguson was regularly in second place.

Of course, it is quite possible for the first-round winner to be the winner after transfers if they are the most popular candidate overall. The differences between the systems is when they pick different winners.

So the argument for first-past-the-post is that X Factor viewers have picked the wrong winners.


cim said...

"Of course, it is quite possible for the first-round winner to be the winner after transfers if they are the most popular candidate overall. The differences between the systems is when they pick different winners."

It's also possible for the FPTP winner to not be the same as the AV winner even when the AV winner was also ahead on first preferences.

(That sounds contradictory, but who stands, how they campaign, and how voters choose how to vote will not stay constant under different voting systems)

Mark Thompson said...

Excellent post Sunder.

I have had a slightly more general crack at exposing some of Ed Hall's fallacies here.