Mandelbrot set image very small MohammedAmin.com
Fresh thinking from a British Muslim
Join my
email list
RSS Feed button RSS Feeds

 

Follow @Mohammed_Amin
Custom Search
MohammedAmin.com     Tap here for MENU

Summary

The Alternative Vote Referendum: why I will vote YES

23 February 2011

On 5 May 2011 the UK will hold what will be only the second referendum in its history.

This page sets out the legislative framework and explains why I will vote “YES.” It is written in an entirely personal capacity and my views should not be attributed to any organisation that I may be involved with. There is a downloadable PDF version which is designed for printing.

This article is structured as follows:

The legislative framework
How the first past the post system works
--- How you vote
--- How the votes are counted
How the alternative vote system works
--- How you vote
--- How the votes are counted
Some comments on the FPTP system
--- The 1992 US Presidential Election
--- The January 2011 Oldham and Saddleworth East by-election
--- Summary
A full run off system
Why I prefer AV to FPTP
The “NO” campaign’s arguments against AV
--- More coalition governments
--- AV also requires tactical voting
--- Almost nobody else uses AV
Concluding comments

The legislative framework

The law is set out in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. Section 1(3) provides that the referendum must be held on 5 May 2011 unless the Minister (defined in s.7(1) to be the Lord President of the Council or the Secretary of State) certifies that this date is impractical. All of the indications are that the referendum will be held on that date.

Section 1 (7) states “The question that is to appear on the ballot papers is—

 At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?”

Schedule 2 of the act sets out how the ballot paper will look.

 

Referendum on the voting system
for United Kingdom parliamentary elections

 

At present, the UK uses the “first past the post”
system to elect MPs to the House of Commons.
Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

                      Vote (X) in one box only

YES

 

NO

 

Section 8 makes it clear that the result of the referendum will be decided by a simple majority of the votes cast. If “YES” gets more votes than “NO” then AV will come into force. That wording makes it clear that in the very unlikely event of an exact tie in the referendum, AV will not come into force.

Section 9 explains how AV will be enacted. The Representation of the People Act 1983 will be amended as follows:

9 The alternative vote system: amendments

(1) In Schedule 1 to the 1983 Act (parliamentary elections rules), after rule 37 there is
inserted—

“How votes are to be given

37A (1) A voter votes by marking the ballot paper with—

(a) the number 1 opposite the name of the candidate who is the voter’s first preference (or, as the case may be, the only candidate for whom the voter wishes to vote),

(b) if the voter wishes, the number 2 opposite the name of the candidate who is the voter’s second preference,

and so on.

(2) The voter may mark as many preferences (up to the number of candidates) as the voter wishes.”

(2) After rule 45 in that Schedule there is inserted—

“How votes are to be counted

45A (1) This rule sets out how votes are to be counted, in one or more stages of counting, in order to give effect to the preferences marked by voters on their ballot papers and so to determine which candidate is elected.

(2) Votes shall be allocated to candidates in accordance with voters’ first preferences and, if one candidate has more votes than the other candidates put together, that candidate is elected.

(3) If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes shall be dealt with as follows—

(a) each vote cast by a voter who also ranked one or more of the remaining candidates shall be reallocated to that remaining candidate or (as the case may be) to the one that the voter ranked highest;

(b) any votes not reallocated shall play no further part in the counting.

(4) If after that stage of counting one candidate has more votes than the other remaining candidates put together, that candidate is elected.

(5) If not, the process mentioned in paragraph (3) above shall be repeated as many times as necessary until one candidate has more votes than the other remaining candidates put together, and so is elected.

Information to be given by returning officer after each stage of counting

45B (1) If no candidate is elected (as mentioned in rule 45A(2)) at the first stage of counting, the returning officer shall, immediately after that stage, record and make publicly available the following information—

(a) the number of first-preference votes obtained by each candidate;

(b) which candidate was eliminated;

(c) the number of rejected ballot papers.

(2) Immediately after each subsequent stage of counting, except the final stage (on completion of which the requirements in rule 50 apply), the returning officer shall record and make publicly available the following information —

(a) the number of votes obtained by each candidate at that stage (including any reallocated in accordance with rule 45A);

(b) which candidate was eliminated at that stage;

(c) the number of votes of the candidate eliminated at the previous stage that were not reallocated.”

How the first past the post system works

While most UK citizens will be familiar with the “first past the post” system (abbreviated to FPTP), it helps to review the details.

How you vote

You receive a ballot paper which looks like the following illustrative example:

Name

Party

Place an (X) in one box only

Brian

British National Party

 

Charles

Conservative Party

X

Larry

Labour Party

 

Linda

Liberal Democrat Party

 

Una

UK Independence Party

 

You vote as instructed on the form. In the above example, the vote has been cast for Charles.

How the votes are counted

All of the ballot papers are counted, to see how many votes each candidate has received. The candidate who receives the most votes is the winner.

How the alternative vote system works

The “alternative vote” system (abbreviated to AV) is explained in the above extracts from the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. However it is worth seeing how it operates in an illustrative example.

How you vote

You receive a ballot paper which looks like the following illustrative example:

Name

Party

Number the candidates in your order of preference, starting with “1” for your highest preference, and so on.

Brian

British National Party

5

Charles

Conservative Party

1

Larry

Labour Party

3

Linda

Liberal Democrat Party

2

Una

UK Independence Party

4

You have voted above as instructed. In the above example, the vote has been cast taking into account my preferences which are set out later in this paper.

How the votes are counted

Assume there are 100,000 voters and that when the first preferences are counted, the results are as follows:

Name

Party

Count of first preferences

Brian

British National Party

25,000

Charles

Conservative Party

20,000

Larry

Labour Party

20,000

Linda

Liberal Democrat Party

20,000

Una

UK Independence Party

15,000

To have more votes than all the other candidates combined, a candidate would need to have more than 50,000 votes. No candidate has achieved this. Accordingly the bottom placed candidate, Una, is eliminated and the second preferences counted on the ballot papers which had Una as their first preference.

For simplicity, assume that 10,000 of those voters put Charles as their second preference, 4,000 put Brian as their second preference and 1,000 put Larry. The count now stands as follows:

Name

Party

Count

Brian

British National Party

29,000

Charles

Conservative Party

30,000

Larry

Labour Party

21,000

Linda

Liberal Democrat Party

20,000

No candidate has yet achieved more votes than all the other candidates combined. Accordingly the lowest place candidate, Linda, is eliminated. The votes on ballot papers in her pile are reallocated. Assume that to be 10,000 to Charles and 10,000 to Larry. The count now stands as follows:

Name

Party

Count

Brian

British National Party

29,000

Charles

Conservative Party

40,000

Larry

Labour Party

31,000

No candidate has yet achieved more votes than all the other candidates combined. Accordingly the lowest place candidate, Brian, is eliminated. The votes on ballot papers in his pile are reallocated. Assume that to be 11,000 to Charles and 18,000 to Larry. The count now stands as follows:

Name

Party

Count

Charles

Conservative Party

51,000

Larry

Labour Party

49,000

Charles has more votes than all the remaining candidates (being only Larry) and so Charles is declared elected.

Some comments on the FPTP system

When there are only two candidates, FPTP works perfectly. You vote for the candidate you want, and if 51% of the voters agree with you, your candidate wins. Otherwise the opposing candidate wins.

In this scenario, more complex voting systems are not needed. Indeed they would make no difference. For example AV with two candidates is a meaningless concept; it is logically exactly the same as FPTP.

However, FPTP starts to give peculiar results as soon as there are three candidates. It is particularly problematical when all three candidates are credible winners, but can cause problems even when only two of the candidates are likely to win. Two examples from real elections illustrate the point.

The 1992 US Presidential Election

The detailed results are on Wikipedia and can be summarised as follows:

Name

Popular vote

Electoral college

Bill Clinton

44,909,806

370

George HW Bush

39,104,550

168

Ross Perot

19,973,821

0

Ross Perot ran as an independent. Politically he was well to the right of the other two candidates, and it is generally accepted that if he had not run, most of the people who voted for him would have voted for GHW Bush. Accordingly, by voting for the candidate they liked most, Perot, they caused the election of the candidate they liked least, Clinton.

The January 2011 Oldham and Saddleworth East by-election

In the May 2010 general election, the results were as follows:

Party

Votes

Labour

14,186

Liberal Democrat

14,083

Conservative

11,773

British National Party

2,546

UK Independence Party

1,720

Christian Party

212

Total

44,520

The elected Labour candidate, Phil Woolas was later disqualified by a special election court for breaching the Representation of the People Act, so a by-election needed to take place. It was held in January 2011.

Several public opinion polls were taken before the by-election; details of three are summarised below.

Party

ICM

Populus

Survation

Labour

44%

46%

31%

Lib Dem

27%

29%

30%

Conservative

18%

15%

6%

While polls are sometimes wrong, it was clear from both the May 2010 result and the polls that the Conservative candidate was not going to win. If you were a Conservative Party member in Oldham East & Saddleworth, how would you vote?

The actual result of the by-election was as follows:

Party

Votes

Labour

14,718

Liberal Democrat

11,160

Conservative

4,481

British National Party

1,560

UK Independence Party

2,029

Total

33,948

The total turnout was down on the general election. Given the information we have about the May 2010 result, the opinion poll information and the existence of the coalition, the most likely explanation of the result is:

Summary

Both of the above elections demonstrate that under FPTP, voting for the candidate you most want (Perot and Conservative respectively) can result in your causing the election of the candidate you want least (Clinton and Labour respectively).

The effect can be demonstrated even more strikingly by considering our hypothetical election in the light of my own personal preferences:

Name

Party

Opinion poll

My personal preferences

Brian

British National Party

25%

I loathe the BNP.

Charles

Conservative Party

20%

I am a Conservative Party member and want Charles to win.

Larry

Labour Party

20%

Labour are a credible party but with some serious weaknesses in their policies.

Linda

Liberal Democrat Party

20%

The Lib Dems appear to have adopted more sensible policies than the past and are in coalition with the Conservatives. Therefore I prefer them to Labour.

Una

UK Independence Party

15%

UKIP are a single issue party. I am pro-European and also UKIP talk about banning the burka, so I am hardly likely to support them.

The opinion polls show that if everyone votes for their preferred party, the BNP will win. This would be a deplorable result from the perspective of most Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem supporters.

However, who on earth do I vote for to stop the BNP? I have no reason to believe that Labour or Lib Dem are likely to be a better choice to stop the BNP than the Conservatives. The Labour and Lib Dem supporters are in the same quandary, in the absence of a clear poll leader amongst the three main parties.

All of the above examples demonstrate that under FPTP, unless you are genuinely indifferent about all candidates other than your top choice, you need to guess how other people will vote before you decide who you are going to vote for.

A full run off system

The most natural way of avoiding having to second guess how other people will vote is to use a full run off system. Under this, you have a simple ballot (“put an X against your desired candidate) and after the ballot is counted:

Under this scenario, almost everyone would agree that the most natural and appropriate thing to do is in each round to vote for your favourite candidate.

The main drawback of operating a full run off system is the monetary cost and logistical effort involved in organising the election, and also the time it takes you to vote in all the ballot rounds.

If you make the assumption that every voter has a definite set of preferences between the candidates, and that order of preference (between the remaining candidates) does not change as candidates are eliminated, then it is possible to save the cost of repeated ballots. Under the assumption of static preferences the AV system gives exactly the same result as holding repeated ballots.

In the USA the AV system is used for some mayoral and other local elections. However the Americans have a far more meaningful name for the system than AV; they call it the Instant Runoff System (IRV).

Why I prefer AV to FPTP

The single most important reason is that it allows me to vote for the candidate that I like most, without having to think first about how other people are going to vote.

There are also some other reasons why I prefer AV including:

The “NO” campaign’s arguments against AV

The NO campaign website presents a number of arguments against AV. These are worth reading, and then visiting the YES campaign website where they are rebutted one by one. As the YES website does that so well, there is no point my repeating all of the arguments. However I do want to address three NO arguments.

More coalition governments

One argument made repeatedly by the NO campaign is that AV means more coalition governments. However, what causes coalitions is people voting for parties other than the two main ones. A paper on this point, “Worst of Both Worlds: Why First Past the Post no longer works” by Guy Lodge and Glen Gottfried can be downloaded free from the Institute for Public Policy Research.

It demonstrates how even under FPTP the number of MPs from outside the two main parties has been increasing for decades. It is this trend that has led to the 2010 coalition and which makes coalitions more likely in the future.

Furthermore, for each country where coalitions have led to poor government one can think of others where coalitions have led to good government that avoids lurching between the political extremes.

AV also requires tactical voting

No voting system is perfect. With a little creativity it is possible to write down a set of preferences that you hold and that other voters hold that will cause you to be unhappy with the election outcome and wish that you had not ranked the candidates in the order that you actually prefer them.

However, in the real world the key point with AV is that you can vote for your first preference knowing that if he is eliminated your vote will automatically transfer to your next favoured candidate who is still in the race. Even with all of the information available to you from opinion polls etc, in real world situations (as opposed to mathematically contrived scenarios) the most sensible way to vote is to vote for the people you support, in the order that you prefer them.

Conversely FPTP requires you to think and vote tactically whenever there are more than two credible candidates. Otherwise in very simple uncontrived cases as illustrated above, under FPTP voting for the candidate you want most can give you the MP you want least.

Almost nobody else uses AV

 The most amusing NO argument is a map of the world along the following lines:

World map showing countries which use AV and which do not use AV

World map showing countries which use AV in red and which do not use AV in green


This map is intended to make the reader believe that apart from three countries shaded red, the entire world uses FPTP. It reminds me of the book “How to lie with statistics” by Darrell Huff, which I read as a teenager and which I am delighted to find is still in print and have linked below. Some of the map’s rather obvious failings are:

Concluding comments

The referendum is a straight choice between two systems, AV and FPTP. It is irrelevant that other systems might be better than either; you can only choose between the two systems which are in the referendum question.

I have no doubt that AV is better. If you are not yet convinced, I recommend further study as this is probably the most important decision our country will take for a generation. In that regard, I recently came across an interesting article "Is AV better than FPTP" by the the Cambridge mathematics professor Tim Gowers on his blog.

 

 

The Disqus comments facility below allows you to comment on this page. Please respect others when commenting.
You can login using any of your Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or Disqus identities.
Even if you are not registered on any of these, you can still post a comment.
comments powered by Disqus

Previous comments

A comment on the above page was received via my blog. Following the introduction of Facebook comments, my blog has been discontinued so the comment is reproduced here. If you wish to make further comments, please use the Facebook comments facility above.

Jamie Wood says:
02/04/2011 at 22:58

Good article! Pity this topic gets so little interest from the press.
“The most important political decision for a generation” - so let’s all get out there and VOTE!

 

Custom Search

Follow @Mohammed_Amin

Tap to return to top of page

Each of us changes the world every day. We can choose to make it a better place.

(c) Mohammed Amin.

Everything on this site, other than comments made using the comments facility, is written by me in a personal capacity and should not be attributed to any organisation with which I may be associated. None of it constitutes professional advice, and no legal responsibility is accepted to anyone who acts, or refrains from acting, as a result of reading or watching anything posted on this site.

Comments made on this site using the comments facility are the responsibility of the individual comment authors. If you consider that any comment defames you, please email Mohammed Amin using the facility on the "Contact me" page, specifying the page, the comment author and the date and time of the comment, and the reasons it is defamatory so that the comment can be removed.

The ownership of this site is stated on the "Legal" page. Mohammed Amin is a participant in the Amazon Europe S.à.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk/Javari.co.uk.