Thursday, April 28th, 2011 07:26 am
Next week, I get to vote in a UK referendum for the first time ever; hardly surprising, as there's only been one before in 1975, and I'm not that old. I'll be voting in favour of AV [1]; I don't like it much, but I like it more than I like our current FPTP [2], and I do like being able to express small, nuanced preferences. Incidentally, in another first for me I'm getting to cast two votes, because I have a proxy vote for [personal profile] sashajwolf, who will be on a pilgrimage to Spain on polling day.

Neither side of the campaign has impressed me much, although the 'no' campaign is by a country mile the most amusingly awful. Pretty much none of their arguments stack up, and the telling point that I think they should be making - that AV simply doesn't give different enough results from FPTP to be worth the hassle of changing - gets swamped by the mass of 'OMG AV is un-British, will elect the BNP and lets last-place people come first' rubbish.

The 'yes' campaign, though, is also making claims for AV that don't necessarily stand up. Yes, there are likely to be fewer safe seats under AV, and safe seats may have been a factor in the expenses scandal [3], but AV's not the magic bullet for this it's portrayed as. The problem for the 'yes' campaign is clear: AV doesn't really fix the things that people were most annoyed about after the last election. Apart from not fixing the expenses issue, it's not proportional. Generally, it will give similar results to FPTP; the voting is a little more nuanced, but if your party isn't quite as popular as the two main parties, it probably still sucks to be you. This is not something that it's easy to sell to an electorate who - if they want change at all - want a much bigger change than this.

One claim that's caused particular controversy and misunderstanding is the 'all MPs elected on 50% of the votes' claim. The problem here is that it's sort of true, but it's not true in the way that many people think, and in the way that the 'yes' campaign sometimes portrays it. In order to get elected, a candidate needs 50% of the votes of people still expressing a preference at that stage of the count. That is still a big deal, and a strong argument in favour of AV. At the point a candidate gets elected, if you have a preference between that candidate and any others still in the race, your vote will still be in there, being counted. But to understand that you need to be a bit of an election geek, and any attempt to simplify it risks being misleading in some circumstances.

To take a very simple example with three candidates and an electorate of 300:

First round:

* Freema - 90 votes
* Naoko - 60 votes
* Noel - 50 votes

Firstly, note that only 200 of the electorate of 300 voted. In order to get 50% of the electorate's votes, a candidate would have to get over 150 votes and (spoiler), that's not going to happen. It is assumed (in both AV and FPTP) that if you don't vote, that's your choice, and you don't get a say in the outcome.

In terms of people who've cast a vote, the percentages stack up as follows:

* Freema - 90/200: 45%
* Naoko - 60/200: 30%
* Noel - 50/200: 25%

Freema, although the winner under FPTP, does not have 50% of the vote yet. The next stage would be to 'eliminate' Noel and redistribute Noel's votes according to second preferences. If all Noel's voters put Naoko as a second preference, it would look like this:

* Freema - 90/200: 45%
* Naoko - 60/200: 55% - elected

If the votes were split 50/50, it would look like this:

* Freema - 115/500: 57.2% - elected
* Naoko - 85/200: 42.5%

So far, so good. But what if most of Noel's voters don't care which of Freema or Naoko get elected, and don't put a second preference? What if the ones that do care vote exclusively for Naoko? Then we might get:

* Freema - 90/160: 56.25% - elected
* Naoko - 70/160: 43.75%

This is the niggle that causes the most problems. Freema's vote count hasn't increased at all since the first round, but she now has over 50%. In case it's not obvious how that's happened, it's because the voters who expressed a first preference for Noel and no other preferences have been removed from the count. This is (IMO) fair; if they had a preference between Freema and Naoko they had a perfect opportunity to express that, so it's assumed that they don't. Freema got over 50% of votes from voters who care whether she or Naoko win. That's an important improvement over FPTP, IMO, and it's certainly one I feel it's worth voting for in the referendum. But it's not the 'an MP must get over 50% support from all the electorate' claim it's sometimes seen as.

Incidentally, I do think Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and some other Lib Dem MPs have handled the campaign badly in the past few weeks. The supposed tiny size of Nick Clegg's principles is familiar enough to the voting public that it's regularly the punchline of jokes on The News Quiz, so he's the very last person who can carry off accusing the opposition of lying. (I happen to think that's hugely unfair to Nick, but that's not the point; I'm voting 'yes' anyway, and the people who need convincing are the undecided voters.) 'Vote "no" to piss Nick Clegg off' seems to be doing very nicely for the 'no' campaign; a good defence from this is to stick to the issues, not draw attention to how pissed off you're getting.

Chris Huhne, if anything, is worse. Threatening legal action pretty much never goes down well with the voters, because it tends to look as though you're trying to win in the courtroom when you've lost at the ballot box. Even if, legally, you have a case, it still comes across as an admission of defeat. Occasionally, if the electorate agrees about your case, it can be worth it. That doesn't seem to be the case here. At best, it looks like a desperate ploy from someone who thinks he's going to lose; at worst, it's an attempt to use the legal system to bully the electorate.

Chris and Nick may be playing a different game here, and both are excellent negotiators. That said, I really don't see how this helps the Lib Dem position within the coalition, and that's going to be important long after this referendum is over.

Anyway: TL:DR - I'm firmly voting 'yes' on the 5th, but there are better voting systems I'd prefer to have been voting for. And I've pimped it before, but the AV guide on Britain Votes is an excellent guide to AV and the issues around it.

[1] Alternative Vote - also known as 'Instant Runoff Voting' or 'Single Transferable Vote in single member constituencies'.

[2] First Past The Post - which is AV where nobody gets to express a second preference. No, that's not how it's usually described, but it's true. ;-)

[3] These claims are discussed in this PDF from the Political Studies Association, among other places.

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