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Saturday, January 22, 2011

How To Vote

So later this year the UK will go to the polls for a referendum on changing our voting system. It will be the first national referendum since 1975. It will also be a massive waste of time and money.

Now if we were proposing changing the voting system to something with real constitutional bite - like the Single Transferable Vote (STV, a form of proportional representation) - we should have a referendum. The STV would really change politics in the UK. Because votes are cast into a pool of candidates it breaks the direct link between a single voter and their MP, and because it better reflects the true split of the national vote it would mean more MPs for minority parties and thus increase the likelihood of coalition government. By the way, if you want a vote system primer you could do worse than the Electoral Reform Society (not really impartial, but I forgive them :-)

But we're not being asked to decide on STV. Instead what we have proposed is the Alternative Vote system (AV). The AV system is really just a modest improvement on First Past the Post (FPTP). The advantages are that no candidate is elected with less than 50% support, it also reduces the need for tactical voting because if a voters first choice is eliminated (because they don't have enough votes on the first pass) then their vote automatically moves to their second choice.

So why am I against a referendum? It's because AV is an absolute no-brainer. It improves our current system with no adverse effects, and no real implication for our system of government. The government should introduce AV through normal parliamentary process. A referendum is a waste of money.

Except, unbelievably, there is a 'No' campaign. Their arguments are interesting as a study of the way in which you can argue from a weak position using rhetorical tricks. Let's take a look at them:

A screen shot of the NOtoAV argument
1) "AV breaks the principle of one person one vote, because supporters of fringe parties end up having their vote counted several times while supporters of mainstream parties only have their vote counted once" - this is wrong, and plays on a lack of understanding of how the AV algorithm works. In AV there are multiple rounds of voting and in each round everyone's vote is counted. Its just that some people's vote changes, and others do not. Nobody ends up with more votes than anyone else.

2) "Under AV the candidate that comes in third place can end up winning." - this is misleading and when properly expanded it becomes clear that it is nonsensical. The candidate that would have come third under FPTP can certainly end up as the winner under AV, but it's equally true to say that under FPTP the candidate that finishes in third place under AV will end up winning. This argument therefore presupposes that FPTP is the right system.

3) "People have a right to know where their vote goes" - yes they do. And that has nothing to do with the voting system. They will know equally well under AV as with FPTP. Making clearly true assertions is a nice way to make your argument seem reasonable, but it only actually helps if it helps differentiate between the options.

4) "Voters themselves should decide who the best candidate is, not the voting system." - this is a false dichotomy, voters always use the voting system to jointly decide who wins, there is no option where the voting system does not determine the winner. FPTP is as guilty as this as AV. Many MPs have been elected with a minority of votes under FPTP because the voting system has yielded that result. Oxymoronic statements are not helpful.

5) "AV is a politician's fix, taking power away from voters and allowing the Liberal Democrats to choose the government after each election. The only vote that really counts under AV is Nick Clegg's." - wow, where did that come from? It's simply not true, and is clearly designed to play to certain fears (including that attempt to link AV with politicians - not the most popular group at the moment!). AV is a form of improved FPTP, it will not result in increased likelihood of coalition (presumably what they are referring to).

6) "Our current tried and tested voting system delivers clear outcomes and everyone's vote is equal." - see point 3 above. This statement is also true of AV.

7) "One person, one vote is the fairest way to elect an MP and the most democratic way to choose a government." - again this is also true of AV (each person still ends up with 1 vote). I assume they are trying to reinforce point 1 above.

8) "AV is complicated and expensive. Only three countries use the complicated system - Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea - and Australia has compulsory voting to make sure people turn up." - saying complicated twice doesn't make it true, and trying to create a connection between Australian compulsory voting and AV is cheap and misleading (there is no evidence to suggest that AV is a cause for that law). AV isn't complicated. Most children can list their preferences, I suspect many adults will have retained the same skill. This also ignores the many other types of elections that use AV (including USA mayoral elections, Irish presidential elections and many trade union elections).
It's as easy as ABC!
9) "AV would also be expensive, requiring councils to spend more time and money on vote counting, which would increase your council tax." - at last, something that is partially true. although I still think this is misleading. AV would be more expensive that FPTP but its not clear to me that it would be radically more expensive or time consuming. Australia still seems to manage the count in one night for example. Cost is a consideration, but its not a deal breaker. After all, not holding an election would be cheaper, but we still all seem to think its worth having one.

10) "AV is a big change, so you need to make sure that you have read the small print before voting on 5 May." - why is moving to AV a big change exactly? You haven't made this case, so please don't pretend that you have. And what's this small print that you are mentioning? Can it be a negative reference to make people afraid (see 'complicated' from point 8).

I hate all this weaseling around, it's all so much obfuscation and sophistry. I like a good debate as much as the next person, but there has to be something to debate about. The danger with this referendum is that it will have nothing to do with the voting system, and everything to do with the current political context. Are the Conservatives using it to gerrymander constituency boundaries? Does a vote for AV help or hinder a greater goal for proportional representation?

If we had the balls we'd make this a referendum on AV vs. STV - those are the two best systems for delivering either singular or consensus government. Even better let's have our cake and eat it. Use AV for MPs and STV for the Lords. That way we get strong government with a check and balances second house that represents the popular vote.

Other than the Greeks, Sumerians, Indians, a smattering of other Europeans and arguably the Americans, we bloody well invented democracy. Surely it's about time we got it right :-/


Rikki said...

I was talking to a mate in the pub about AV last night. He was adamant that it was wrong to let people's vote change; that once you have chosen who to vote for, why should your vote be allowed to change just because you 'lost'/'got it wrong'.

While I don't agree with that line of argument, it gives another perspective as to why the man on the street might vote against AV in a referendum (that doesn't seem to fall into one of the no2av categories, except maybe 7).

Dave Millard said...

Yes - I suspect that you might have discovered the reality behind the badly phrased 'one person one vote' argument.

The phrase is clearly chosen to try and convince others to vote No (and to hell with its accuracy), but I suspect that the underlying issue is whether you think it is right for a person to be able to *change* their vote to make it count.

Of course the system we have already does this to some extent, because people can alter their vote tactically according to pre-election polls. They do this to try and make it count.

It's interesting that the Electoral Reform Society automatically assumes that helping to make everyone's vote count is an important objective for a voting system. Obviously the man down the pub disagrees :-)

Personally I think that its more helpful to see a voting system as something that should help a group of people make a fair decision - rather than a test that you can get right or wrong!