Me and AV

Apparently no one gets excited about AV (Alternative Vote) except me. Even the yes campaigners interviewed on the radio are at pains to say how they know it’s nobody’s favorite electoral systems and there are more pressing issues that voting reform, but, “since we’re being asked…”

I think that the first ever opportunity to vote on how we elect our representatives at Westminster is hugely exciting and AV is very nearly my favorite electoral system. The discussion around electoral reform goes right to the heart of our democracy, raising questions about the separation of the executive and legislature and the role of the monarch, whether we (should) vote for people or parties, the link with constituencies and the nature of representation. I really don’t understand why, when a democratic revolution is sweeping across north Africa, anyone should feel the need to apologise for discussing the nature of our own democracy.

It is true that the options we are being presented with a very limited. A more proportional system is not on the agenda right now (and some have argued this is a reason to stick with the status quo – I may come back to this in another post). Like first past the post, AV involves electing a single member (who may or may not belong to a political party) to represent a geographical constituency. In fact, when there are only two candidates standing the systems are functionally identical: marking one candidate with a cross and leaving the other blank is precisely equivalent to marking one candidate with a one and the other with a two, whether you see this as the one fewer votes being eliminated or the one with the most votes winning. It’s where there are three or more candidates involved that the difference is apparent, and it’s because of the crumbling of support for the two party system over the past sixty years that the flaws in first past the post have surfaced.

To see how different the outcomes of the two systems can be, consider a simplified situation where three candidates each have a different policy position on a major local issue, and where their supporters’ motivation is aligned with this. Candidate A, let’s call her Dilys Andrews, wants to close the local hospital because it is overspending and failing to meet targets. Candidate B, let’s call him Edgard Bennett, wants to keep it open by closing A&E and focusing on improving the rest of the provision. Candidate C, let’s call him Fergus Crane, also wants to keep the hospital open by merging the management with that of the one in the next door constituency. Bennet and Crane’s positions are close, but with significant differences that are worth putting to the electorate. Let’s suppose the votes are cast with A getting 12,000; B getting 10,000 and C getting 8,000. With first past the post, Andrews wins, and the constituency is represented by someone who work towards having the hospital close. But since first past the post is good for two-way elections, wouldn’t it be better to re-run the race without Crane, who has clearly lost? With just Andrews and Bennett standing, the 8,000 who originally voted for Crane could choose to support the candidate they thought best represented their views, and we might well suppose most of them would choose Bennett as a candidate promising to keep the hospital open. If more than 5,000 of them chose to vote that way, Bennet would win and the constituency would be represented by someone who would work to keep the hospital open.

Had there been another candidate, there would have been another round, and this system of “rounds” is, of course, how AV works (with voters ranking candidates in order of preference rather than actually having multiple rounds). No one’s vote has counted for more than anyone else’s. But the difference is that the supporters of the candidate who has the least votes, rather than have all of their votes discarded entirely, get a chance to contribute to the choice between those that remain. Ultimately, a candidate can only be elected if over 50% of their constituents prefer them to their closest rival.

AV is a system with all of the benefits of first past the post but without one of its most significant flaws. Why would anyone not choose to accept this free upgrade?

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

2 thoughts on “Me and AV

  1. I for one am excited about the prospect of AV in the UK parliamentary elections! While it has no direct impact on those of us in the US, it will stand out like a beacon of hope. It will show that the world’s oldest and most entrenched democracies can change; that it is possible to have a dialog on the nature of fairness, accuracy in reflecting the people’s will and the ability to make course corrections when time has passed by older systems of voting.

    It’s also a blow against the entrenched party system – a system that perpetuates the differences instead of commonalities in our political discourse.

    If there’s hope for the UK, then there’s hope for the US, which “enjoys” (and I use that term sarcastically) about a 51/49% split in public opinion, but that produces wild swings from side to side when public opinion only swings fractionally.

    Yes, something like STV in a larger constituencies with multiple representatives would be better, but AV is a good start down that road.

    Don’t let us down, the rest of the world is watching!

    1. It’s true the party system distorts first past the post. It’s also true, I think, that AV gives smaller parties a better chance, provided they do enjoy substantial support, because people don’t have to be sure they’d win to risk voting for them. But like first past the post, the single-member constituencies (a strength, in some ways, I think) do still allow the political parties to hold a lot of sway over individual candidates. Neither system is the best or the worst in this respect, though.

      Would AV avoid the swing you describe? I’m not sure. What’s the evidence from places like Australia? I’d have thought only a more proportional system would avoid this, but I need to read more about it. While I think proportionality is generally a plus factor, it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

      Anyway, thanks for your support. I’ll do my bit not to let you down!

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