Saturday, 30 April 2011


In order to spare the regulars on pb1, I've put the Q & A on AV that I've written below. I've tried to make it as objective as possible - obviously complete objectivity is impossible, but I've tried to address where and why AV differs from FPTP, what the arguments are (and why both official sides have come up with crap arguments) and why I came to the conclusion to vote Yes. It's long, but there have been many questions raised and much debate about the whichness of what, and what "is" means, so it would be rather a challenge to make it shorter without ducking some of the issues.

Q - What is AV?

A - AV, or Alternative Vote, is the common name for Instant Runoff Voting. We’ve all experienced runoff voting, even if not under that name: In an election or contest, the last placed person is eliminated and another round is run, until the winner gets the majority of the votes in that round.

Q – Why is Runoff voting ever used, then?

A – To prevent what’s called “vote splitting”. If there are more than two candidates, it’s likely that at least two of those standing are going to be more similar than the other(s). They’ll be “fishing in the same pool” for votes. But your vote can only go to one of them, so even if their stance is agreed by the majority, they’ll probably lose. And the winner could well be someone who would lose against either of them individually. So improving choice in this way would mean reducing the democratic result – not good.

Q – So why not restrict the lineup?

A – Because that restricts your choice. There’s plenty of complaints already that Westminster MPs and their political Parties aren’t in touch with what you want. Is it really a good move to restrict the scope of candidates to what they consider worthwhile?

Q – Okay. Any other reason why runoff voting is good?

A – Yes – the “wasted vote” argument. You’ve all seen the leaflets: “If you vote for the SNP, you could get Labour”. “The Tories can’t win here”. “Only Labour can beat the Tories here”. “It’s a two horse race between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats”. Each and every one of those is appealing for you not to support the candidate you want for fear that your positive vote will result in someone you really want to avoid getting elected from winning. Smaller parties like UKIP and the Greens are squeezed out immediately. Independents have an incredibly difficult task to leap into contention. Under First-Past-The-Post, it’s horrifically obvious that if you vote for what you want, you stand a very big chance of getting what you detest, so you are encouraged to vote for what you don’t really want but could probably put up with. And in the next election, as your votes went for these “I could probably put up with them” candidates, the alternatives languish without hope.

Q – What’s “First Past the Post”?

A – The existing system. Add up the number of votes that people get and whoever is in the lead – regardless of what the final score is – wins.

Q – So where’s the post? And what happens if you get past it second?

A – There isn’t one. You can lose with 49% of the vote or win with 26% of the vote (and both have happened). And it doesn’t matter when you finish counting your votes either.

Q – So why do they call it First Past the Post?

A – Search me, mate. I didn’t come up with it.

Q – So – you can win with 26% or lose with 49%. Why the difference?

A – It depends how many candidates are standing, whether your main opponents are sufferi ng from vote-splitting or not, how many people have bought your arguments on wasted votes, and so on.

Q – And that’s supposed to come up with the right winner? It’s supposed to be fairer?

A – Well, it’s certainly very simple. And the Big Two parties are almost always in one of those top two positions so they can use the wasted vote argument, so they like it. And it makes it a lot harder for large chunks of their support to wander off to a new smaller party or an independent or a splinter of their own party who may be closer to your views. The “nowhere else to go” argument.

Q – It’s very, very simple and some politicians like it because it makes their lives easier isn’t really the best selling point. Is there any way to find out how they really feel about it?

A – Yes. The Leadership contests for the Parties.

Q – And what do they use? First Past this non-existent Post?

A – Ah, no. The Tories use “Exhaustive Ballot”, Labour use straight AV within an Electoral College and the Lib Dems use something called STV.

Q – Doesn’t help me.

A – Might help if I say that each and every one of them is a runoff voting system. No FPTP for them.

Q – Ah. There’s a hint. So why do they use Runoff Voting?

A – To ensure that the winner has a broad range of support without risking someone unpopular from getting in due to vote splitting.

Q – Sounds familiar. So why’s it good enough for them but not us?

A – Because they benefit from the existing system.

Q – Haven’t we used the existing system for time out of mind?

A – The existing system of one person one vote for one member per constituency under FPTP has only been in its current form since 1950. Before that, university graduates got another vote under a more complicated multi-member version of AV called STV, and owners of businesses got an additional vote where their business was. And from 1945 backwards, more and more constituencies had multiple MPs. And the rules on who could vote changed repeatedly over time as well. Interestingly, back in the 1930’s, Parliament passed a Bill to require the use of AV for Parliamentary elections.

Q – So why wasn’t it used?

A – Collapse of Government. And then a World War came along and voting reform rather dropped off the bottom of the priority list. And after World War 2, the Big Two parties found out just how much they benefited from FPTP and, curiously, didn’t seem to want to change the system.

Q – Funny, that. Well, runoff voting sounds good, but running round after round is going to take ages and be very costly. Is it worth the hassle?

A – That’s where it turns to “Instant” Runoff. If the candidate you want to win makes it through every round, who will you vote for?

Q – Well, the obvious answer is “my candidate”, but I might change my mind. How do you cope with that?

A – We can’t – it’s all down to your preferences at the Instant you fill in your ballot. To be fair, you don’t get to change your mind under FPTP when you walk out of the ballot booth.

Q – Well yes, but if there were multiple rounds, the candidates could give more speeches and change tack a little and my preferences would change. Isn’t that unfair?

A – Well, it would definitely be unfair on the candidate who just got eliminated and therefore never got a chance to try to change your mind, certainly. And if we did it that way, we’d run into the cost and time issues, just to allow some of the candidates to change their appeal and others not. The method of crystallising your preferences at the instant you fill in your ballot does seem fairer all round.

Q – Okay, say you can assume that my vote for my preferred candidate sticks with him (or her) throughout all the counting rounds – I can go with that. What do you do if and when he (or she) is eliminated.

A – You have to tell us – in that instant you fill out your ballot – where you’d like your vote to go in the runoff if and when your candidate isn’t there. You do this by putting a “1” by your first preference – the candidate who you most want to win, a “2” by your second, a “3” by your third preference, and a “4” by your …

Q – Fourth preference. I get it. Hardly rocket science is it?

A – I’d agree. Some politicians apparently consider it far too hard for normal people like you and me, though.

Q – Aren’t you being a bit snarky there?

A – No, some really have explicitly said that it’s too complicated.

Q – Do I have to list a number by every candidate? What happens if I genuinely no longer care?

A – Stop writing numbers at that point.

Q – People have said that it gives you multiple votes. Is that true?

A – No – your vote only counts once in every round, just as for any other runoff voting. Only the highest preference left in the race is looked at – lower preferences are ignored. If your candidate gets all the way to the final runoff, your preference of who else you’d vote for in the final runoff if your preferred candidate doesn’t make it is ignored.

Q – Now you’re just stating the obvious, aren’t you?

A – Again, you’d be surprised.

Q – So – under First Past the Nonexistent Post, the “winner” can be someone who only got their due to a split vote or by pressuring enough people to forget about who they’d really want to vote for, it gives you nowhere else to go but the big parties, it stops independents in their tracks … and it’s not good enough for politicians themselves. That’s accounted for most of the No2AV arguments I’ve seen. What about this “It will cost £250 million” leaflet?

A – Oh that’s easy. Add up the price of all these leaflets, add up the price of running the referendum, and if you assume that we’d need to buy loads of voting machines, you get that figure.

Q – But everything but the voting machines is also a cost for not changing. Why do we need voting machines, anyway?

A – We don’t.

Q – So why does this leaflet say we do?

A – All’s fair in love and politics. We don’t need them, but if you believe it, it means the story’s worked.

Q – What’s this about BNP voters getting multiple votes? Do the BNP support AV?

A – No they don’t – they’d find it harder. Under FPTP, they might win on 26%; under AV they’d have to convince a lot more people to vote for them at some stage of the process. The argument is that the BNP are a minor party and their supporters are more likely to have their candidate get knocked out, so their vote would transfer, whilst that of a major party might not.

Q – But that just means they’re not getting a shot in the final runoff, but the supporters of the big parties are. Why’s that a bad thing? And it’s the same for UKIP, the Greens, the Campaign for an English Parliament, Mebyon Kernow …

A – If you say it quickly enough it sounds dodgy. All’s fair in love and politics, remember. They’re also saying that the winner might need those lower preferences, and that votes from BNP supporters are yucky.

Q – But not from the other parties? How do they know they’re not getting votes from BNP supporters already?

A – They are, and they know it. Some parties print leaflets aimed at BNP supporters already, trying to pressure them to swap their vote completely under the “wasted vote” argument. In others, there are no BNP candidates, so how do you know who the BNP supporters are voting for?

Q – Well, maybe there are no candidates there because there are no BNP supporters. Have you considered that?

A – Doesn’t work – that there are BNP supporters in 338 constituencies with an average of 3.7% support in those 338 even after the wasted vote pressure, but absolutely none in the other 312 constituencies doesn’t really add up. Rather more likely that the BNP run out of money for deposits.

Q – Will AV mean that we automatically end up with perpetual Hung Parliaments and Coalitions?

A – No.

Q – I was kind of hoping for a bit more. Can you expand on that?

A – Okay – critics claim that AV would end up with perpetual hung Parliaments because the top two Parties would no longer have such strength. It’s a bit of a shot in the dark to rerun previous elections as if they were under AV, but the British Election Survey – of tens of thousands of people every election, carried out by academics, has got second preference choices for elections since 1964. If you assume that first preferences equate to the votes cast and second preferences are as given, two elections that had majority Governments end up Hung – 1964 and 1974 (October). Both had majorities of 4 (ie 2 MPs past the finish post) under FPTP, so you’d need a knife-edge result to shift it. All others result in the same winner as before, or were hung under FPTP anyway.

Q – Seems fair enough. So it won’t cause much change then?

A – Again, we can’t say. Those assumptions are dubious – in the best study, it was found that a fair chunk of people had different first preferences to how they cast their FPTP vote, and running hypothetical scenarios is always risky. So – we don’t know, but what evidence there is, is that there would be only a very marginal effect.

Q – Only 3 countries us AV and one of them - Australia - wants to move away from it. Why should we move towards it?

A – How many countries in Europe use FPTP? Just us? When we were putting our monarch under the rule of law with Magna Carta, how many other countries had done so? Does that worry you, or do you think that we should care less what others do and more what we should do. And with respect to Australia, the unrest there is – according to more specific opinion polls – because it’s compulsory to put a preference against everyone, regardless of whether you care or not.

Q – How does that help democracy? If you don’t care, you’re just putting random numbers down.

A – It’s worse than that – the parties, knowing that you probably don’t care too much beyond a certain point, issue preference cards to recommend how you vote. So a system which should give power to the people, gives it back to the politicians at the last moment. Polls giving the choice of “optional preferencing” versus “compulsory preferencing” versus “anything else at all” come up with a landslide for “optional preferencing”.

Q – A friend of mine said “It will lead to the tyranny of mild preferences”. I’m not really sure what he meant, but it sounded impressive and not the kind of thing I’d like to see. What did he mean?

A – He means that he assumes that people won’t really care much what happens after the first – or, at most, second – preference, so will put down mild gradings of support. So someone who is fervently for one party is cancelled out by someone who kind-of-just-about prefers one party over another between fifth and sixth preferences.

Q – Well, that sounds like a fair criticism! Isn’t it?

A – Think about it a bit more. Firstly, many people say that between their third and fourth (or lower) preference is where they really start to care. If they think that two or more parties are very similar in a way they like, they’ll put them in order but would like a way to signal that they really, really don’t want party number four. They can’t, but it’s not really appropriate to call that a “mild preference”. And if you think about it, practically all of the party election campaigns are based around mild preferences. “Your preferred party can’t win, you mildly prefer us to them, so vote for us!”. “You wouldn’t normally vote for us, but we’ve done some things you might like, give us a try for once”, “You kind of like us but would probably prefer not to bother voting today – please vote anyway” are what most of them boil down to (very few are “You hate us, but please vote for us anyway” or “We know you’re going to vote for us so we’re wasting money on a leaflet to ask you to do what you’re going to do anyway” ). And they do it because it works. All campaigns are down to maximising “the tyranny of mild preferences”. AV beats FPTP because it allows you to honestly go with your strong (positive) preference than aim to avoid your mild (negative) preference.

Q – I’ve seen claims that it would stitch up the system to lock the Conservatives out. Is it true?

A – These are based on the theory that there is a “centre-left majority” in the UK which only results in Conservative Governments due to vote splitting on the left. Only trouble with that theory is that it’s rubbish.

Q – How come? If the Lib Dems are on the left, then it makes sense – remember your points on vote splitting earlier.

A – Because in election after election, Lib Dem voters turn out not to be a monolithic bloc of “left wing voters”. In 8 of the elections since 1964, they (or their predecessor parties) had a net preference for the Conservatives, as against 4 where they preferred Labour – albeit the preference for Labour in 1997-2001 was far greater than any previous such preference. Recent polls indicate that the remaining Lib Dem voters again prefer the Conservatives.

Q – Won’t the politicians who truly believe this be rather disappointed then?

A – My heart bleeds.

Q – The Yes2AV people also say that it would get rid of safe seats. Is that true?

A – Um – let’s just say it’s a considerable exaggeration. If a candidate gets over 50% - or even pretty close to 50% - of the vote today, or has a very healthy lead over the second placed candidate, it’s not going to be appreciably less safe. We may, after people are freed to vote how they want rather than how they fear, find in the long run that some seats aren’t quite as safe as they were, but overall, not really.

Q – Would it have stopped the expenses scandal or made MPs work harder.

A – I can’t really see any way how those would have happened, either. Sorry.

Q - They also say that it ensures that whoever wins gets over fifty percent of the votes. That’s true, isn’t it?

A – Kind of yes and kind of no. In any run-off vote, to win you need more tan half of the vote – in that round. But with some people choosing not to preference any further down than the level where they don’t care any more, the winner may well get just under half of the number of all votes cast in the first round. So it’s arguable.

Q – Some actors say I should vote yes and some sportsmen say I should vote no. Should I take any notice of them?

A – If you can’t think for yourself, sure.

Q – If I want a different form of change – say list PR, STV, AV+ or AMS, how should I vote?

A – Vote as to whether you think AV is better than FPTP. But if you’re wondering which result is most likely to bring about further change, I’d suggest that the rejection of a preferential runoff system would damage the case for any other preferential runoff systems in future (like AV+ and STV). Many people believe that if AV fails, the pressure for a larger change will become irresistible, so – if AV+ and STV become less likely and pressure continues to build for a change and is not alleviated by a potential move to AV, then it would be logical that the chances of a move to List PR (like the European elections) or AMS (like the Scottish Parliamentary elections) would become significantly higher.

Q – I heard that there’s a way in which AV breaks down – if your vote increases, you can lose. Is that true?

A – Yes. Every voting system has some fundamental flaws – it’s been proven that it’s impossible to have one that’s perfect. That is AV’s biggest flaw – if supporters of a candidate who otherwise was going to lose anyway move another candidate from last to first, it can change the order of eliminations and change the winner such that the one they are now voting for loses. It’s called “violation of monoticity”

Q – That’s a bit convoluted and unlikely, isn’t it?

A – Well, yes, but it has happened in the past. Admittedly, it is rare enough that it’s worthy of note whenever it happens, and it’s implausibly difficult to bring about deliberately. In comparison, FPTP’s key flaws are that the winner could easily be the loser in a head to head with ANY of the other candidates, and the addition of choice similar to one existing candidate can mean that the candidate who should win, doesn’t. And these are common enough that they have become the focus of much of the efforts of the parties in each constituency – to convince you that if you don’t vote for them, the above will happen to your misfortune. If you want to know the technical names, they are “violation of Condorcet Loser” and “violation of Independence of Clones”.

Q – Actually, I didn’t really want to know the names. So, to sum up the arguments against: that the FPTP loser can win is not a valid criticism, as the only way the result changes is if the FPTP winner only got there due to vote splitting. And the parties themselves use runoff voting to ensure that that scenario doesn’t happen for them anyway. Everyone only gets one vote in every round and it’s the same for all of the voters, the claim of it costing a conveniently specific high price is pretty much made up, the argument on BNP voters relies on “we don’t explicitly see it happen under the current system so we can pretend it doesn’t happen” and ignores the fact that all the other voters put together are a much, much larger influence, the idea of a permanent stitch up against one of the parties is rubbish, and the perpetual Hung Parliament argument is baseless – but there is, as with every voting system, at least one flaw and for AV it’s this “monoticity” thing, which is fairly rare and improbably difficult to deliberately cause?

A – Yup.

Q – And positive reasons to vote for are that it produces a result that isn’t distorted when you vote for who you actually want – because vote splitting won’t be a problem, that minor parties, independents and different flavours of opinion within the big parties which happen to march with your actual views could more easily be represented, and the party leaders can’t take you for granted anymore because you will now have somewhere else to go without fear of disaster. If you get to vote for who you actually want and they can’t produce leaflets to try to scare you into voting for them even if you don’t really want to in order to avoid a worse fate – because of these rather common flaws of the FPTP system – what will they produce instead?

A – Don’t know, but I’d enjoy finding out.


J said...

"So why’s it good enough for them but not us?

A – Because they benefit from the existing system."

I stopped at this point.

Runoff voting is suitable for electing a single position, such as the leader of a party. It is "unsuitable for electing a representative body such as a parliament" (Electoral Reform Society).

Andy Cooke said...

You missed out the bit before "unsuitable":

"However, as AV is not a proportional system, ..."

The ERS want a proportional system. AV is not proportional. According to them, both FPTP and AV are therefore unsuitable, but they are the only options on the table. So maybe it's worthwhile comparing them with each other and not with non-existing alternatives?