Laboured understanding of AV

Reading the comments on the 2010 Labour Leadership Election on the BBC Daily Politics message board I worry about the ability of some to understand AV (Alternative Vote).  And the continued press and media comment does not fill me with confidence that all will be clear by the time of the referendum.

“Unfair to the first round leader”

I have a sneaky feeling that the first round leader in an AV contest loses more than their fair share of contests. My theory is that the most popular candidate receives fewer alternative votes, because they tend polarise opinion and so also to be the least popular candidate. As we are on the verge of changing our electoral system to AV, I think a feature on AV would be interesting. Do we want a system that is always won by the second most popular candidate?

So the “most popular candidate” is also “the least popular candidate”?  I think what this critic is trying to get at is that the initial largest minority candidate (which is what most round one leaders are), takes that initial lead by polarising opinion and as a consequence is unable to claim overall majority support.

This may be true in some cases (and may have been true for the Labour Leadership Election – although did any of those candidates appear particularly polarising?).  The person who in this election was “the runner-up” in the first round, in the end proved not to be “the second most popular” candidate, but the one that, when it came to a run-off between two candidates, could command a majority. Ed was more popular than his brother in a straight run-off.  (In discussing AV let’s leave the electoral college out of it – because that is not being proposed for our parliamentary elections.)

“Dishonest Option”

av is dishonest unless is added an option: none of the rest – thus voiding the transfer of alternatives depending where it is placed in the list

So if you express no further preference once you cease to care, how does this differ from saying “none of the rest”?  You are not obliged to number every candidate – just “1” will do.  It’s just that if you do not express further preferences and your vote turns out not to be for the final winner or runner-up, it will have been wasted (like so very many votes are wasted under First Past the Post – FPTP) – but that is the voters’ choice.

No second preference means a spoilt vote?

Hi I’m confused about AV. If I only place one vote and have no 2nd or 3rd etc preferrences is mine a “spoilt” ballot paper?

No, see previous heading.  Your paper is valid if you:

  • either express one or more preferences, or
  • (in most systems,) if you have clearly expressed a preference for a single candidate (by for instance marking your ballot with a single “X”).

Voting for Coalitions?

(Not relating to the Labour Leadership – but about AV.)

If AV is introduced will there be box to choose which coalition you wish to see i.e. Tory + Lib Dems
That would be fair.

In an election we are electing representatives not a government.  Our “Government” is “elected” by a theoretical majority in a confidence vote in the House of Commons (confirmed by a vote on the Queen’s Speech).  If we wanted to be able to directly vote for a specific flavour of Government we need either:

  • a Presidential System (with a separate Legislature of a possibly different political flavour to keep the President in check) or
  • a single whole-nation multi-member constituency (like Israel) but with a list system where we delegate the choice of representative to the parties.

(I don’t think I favour either of the above)

Of course it is entirely feasible for candidates to stand on a “I will support a Conservative Lib Dem Coalition” (or whatever) platform, and if sufficient candidates got elected, that is what we will get.  However it is another question whether the parties will be able to get their mind around the fact that, with transferable voting (either AV or its full-fat version STV), it is entirely possible to put up a slate of candidates with varying views, secure in the understanding that “transfers” will prevent “split votes”.  A party can put up more candidates than there are seats – and let the electorate have a real choice!  (Ooh – too radical?)

  • Conservative: for or against Europe?
  • Liberal: Orange book Whigs, Social Market Liberals, or Pale Greens?
  • Labour: for or against PFI? (1980s: Unilateralist or Multilateralist?)

What is the best way to explain AV?  I think the reformers have got their work cut out – can the principles and benefits of AV be distilled into a single sound-bite?

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