The alternative vote system offers the (near) guarantee that the elected representative for a constituency will have been voted in by a majority of the turnout. On election day, instead of placing one 'x' in the box of your
favoured candidate/party you number the candidates in your order of preference. To illustrate this, Below are two 'example' ballot forms. The first is a traditional FPTP ballot, the second an AV paper.
A mock up of the current style ballot form
A mock up of the potential new style ballot form
In the AV system a candidate cannot win (I'm trying hard to avoid using 'win' for the reasons explained in the previous post, sometimes though it's unavoidable) an election without a majority. When the papers are first collected, the only the first choice votes on each form are counted. Should any candidate have more than 50% of the first choice votes they become the elected representative.
In the case where no candidate gains an overall majority of first choice votes, the candidate (or candidates in some instances) with the lowest votes are eliminated from the count and the second choice votes on those papers are then reassigned. Should the moved second choice votes for one candidate when added to their existing first choice votes give that candidate a majority, they will then be elected. Should that not happen, the process will be repeated with third choice votes counted on any paper where both the first and second choice have been eliminated. Take a look at the example ballot below.
Before anyone with keen eyes cries out, it is deliberate that the later rounds have less than 100% votes.
The election in the example above has four candidates standing. After the first count it is found that candidate 3 has the lowest number of votes. At this point they are eliminated from the election and the second choice votes of the voters that selected them are distributed. 14% of the voters (2% of the electorate) that voted for candidate 3 had no second choice vote, so those ballot papers are now considered void.*
After the second round it is found that candidate 1 now has the least votes, so they are eliminated and any further votes on those papers are distributed between candidates 2 and 4. After this round candidate 2 has the majority and is elected.
Hopefully that now explains the AV system works. The question still remains if it is any better than what we have now?
In my opinion it most certainly is an improvement. The result of the ballot could certainly be claimed to be more indicative of the will of the voters, as a majority of voters are required to have shown at least some sort of preferrence for the eventual representative.
There remains an obvious problem though; the political parties still get to decide which candidate sit in which area, so the Winterton dilemma still remains. Also, despite finding a majority opinion for this poll, the example above still leaves 46% of the voters in a constituency with a representative that they did not want! There is a voting system that answers this call, though admittedly it does have it's own problems which will be discussed in the third part of this 'voting reform' series.
*This provides a good reason to vote for as many candidates as you can stomach leaving out only those that you truly detest. Imagine the situation where two parties or candidates remain in the running. One is nothing special, but the other is some Bloody Nasty Party. If you haven't used a low preferrence vote for the average lot, your ballot won't help to keep out those that you really detest.