2 March 2011

The Alternative Vote: a minor reform

In May 2011 a referendum will be held on the replacement of Britain’s First-Past-The-Post electoral system with the Alternative Vote.

The Alternative Vote (AV) allows voters to rank their choices 1,2,3, etc, instead of placing a simple cross against only one candidate. In the first round of counting, votes are awarded to candidates according to each voter’s first preference. If no candidate has 50% of the votes, the lowest placed candidate is eliminated and the candidate’s votes are re-allocated according to the eliminated candidate’s second preferences. In each successive round, the lowest placed candidate is eliminated and the votes for that candidate are transferred until one candidate exceeds 50% of the votes.

AV does indeed mean that the successful candidate in the single member constituency is more representative than under First-Past-The-Post, but AV is not proportional representation. The Greens, for instance, could chalk up a double digit percentage of the vote across the country, but still fail to win a single seat.

According to current opinion polls, in the majority of British parliamentary constituencies the first and second candidates will be Tory or Labour. Thus the only voting decision of any importance would be whether the voter ranked higher the Labour or Tory candidate. The two-party system would be mostly preserved.

In a minority of constituencies the Liberal Democrats could expect to occupy the first or second position after the first count. Since they could expect to receive Tory or Labour transfer votes, their chance of winning these seats would be boosted.

AV is still capable of leading to perverse results; e.g. Labour pushing the Liberal Democrats into third place in the penultimate count and then losing to a Tory, whereas had Labour tactical voters got the LibDem into second place the LibDem would have defeated the Tory in the final count.

In fact, this voting reform is so minor, so easy to introduce and is so obviously a fairer way of voting in single member constituencies, a referendum to introduce it seems unnecessary.

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