Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Voting reform 2: The basics of Alternative Vote (AV)

I argued in my previous post that First Past The Post (FPTP) is a voting system that should be consigned to the electoral dustbin. Should the Electoral reform bill make it past the lords before parliament is dissolved in the next few months, we may get the chance to boot it out. What will take it's place though?

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.


  1. Isn't the alternative voting system what was used when voting for the London Mayor? I remember having to vote a 1st choice & 2nd choice!

    I recently took part in a Yougov survey regarding alternative types of politics. It was along the lines of people's views playing a big part in policy making, it was more of a democratic parliament which of course is good. What worries me is the fact that many people have really weird/horrid views, after all just think how many Daily Mail readers there are... we'd have the death penalty back for sure!!! :os

  2. The London Mayoral Elections did use a form of AV more formally known as 'supplementary vote.' In the supplementary vote system only two votes are cast by each voter and all but the top two candidates are eliminated for the second round of voting.
    Under AV only the lowest polling candidate is eliminated in any round, so second choice votes are not wasted by voting for anyone other than the top two. Also you can place a preference for as many candidates as you wish.

  3. "There remains an obvious problem though; the political parties still get to decide which candidate sit in which area"

    No, they don't need to with AV.

    Each party can put up as many candidates as they like without fear of splitting the vote. And independents who broadly support a party (and party rebels) can also choose to stand without needing to worry about taking votes away from a more viable candidate and letting a less preferable opponent in.

    Think of it as a way of combining an open-primary with an election in one easy to use ballot.

    No need for all-female shortlists either. If a party has a strong female candidate and a strong male one, then just stick them both on the ballot paper and let the voters decide, instead of having a small number of people active in party-politics have all the fun.

    (In this way, I think it is a superior system to having constituencies with multiple representatives selected by STV. Since that system gives power to parties rather than voters who want to select a peer to represent them.)

  4. @anonymous, you are right that they do not need to (I shall amend the post when I get some time, give me a link/name if you want some credit :) )
    The point remains though that as parties only need to win one seat, they will more than likely only offer one candidate. Especially if they are trying to parachute a front bencher into a safe seat.
    I get your point about the single representative, this will be covered in part 3 :)

  5. Thanks for the explanation about the Mayoral voting system :) The AV voting system seems more democratic (although it's far from perfect!)

    I'm hoping the Power 10 org/group makes a difference!