Supplementary Voting

Some commentators have tried to explain away the high number of “spoilt ballots” in last weeks PCC election as the public being confused by the voting system.  Detailed analysis of the spoilt ballots might confirm this, but I am left wondering why they did not use the simpler Alternative Vote?  Oh, yes they screwed up a referendum on that issue earlier this year.

The electoral commission booklet (ref www.aboutmyvote.co.uk) distributed to everyone a few weeks before the recent election explains how to vote in a Supplementary Vote election:

Vote once [X] in column 1 for your first choice, and
Vote once [X] in column 2 for your second choice

There is no explanation of the implication of expressing both preferences, so some may have felt that by voting for a second choice they would have been reducing the chance of their first choice winning – remember the Tory’s horse race adverts against the Alternative Vote (AV)?

The intention behind using the Supplementary Votes (SV) is that if no candidate has achieved 50% of the first choice votes cast, there should be a “run-off” count between the leading two candidates by adding to their first choice vote counts the second choice votes of those whose first choice votes were for the other candidates.  By definition, in a run-off between two candidates, one has to achieve at least 50% of the (valid) votes cast.  Apparently the Tories in the government thinks this is important for Police Commissioner elections, but if applied to elections for MPs could lead to the end of democracy as we know it.  Strange.

A number of Conservative candidates for Police Commissioners lost out to Independents as a result of this system despite being “first past the post” (FPTP) at the end of the first count.  So did John Prescott – although he lost to a Conservative having lead the first count with just under 25% of the vote.  See Wikipedia for a graphical presentation of each of the results. (The percentages quoted below are the levels of first choice support the FPTP leading candidates had – with (in very close contests) the percentage of first choice votes the eventual winner achieved).

  • Conservative FPTP “winners” lost overall to Independents in Gloucestershire (35%), Hampshire (25%), Norfolk (32%) and Surrey (26.1% vs 26.1%)
  • Labour FPTP “winners” lost overall to Conservatives in Humberside (25%) and Suffolk (35.1% vs 35.0%)
  • Labour FPTP “winners” lost overall to Independents in Warwickshire (35%)
  • Independent FPTP “winners” lost overall to other Independents in Lincolnshire (33%)

In eight out of 41 contests the choice of voting system directly effected the result – with some FPTP overall losers getting similar initial percentages to some MPs elected in a general election.

Would it have been simpler if voters had been asked to fill in a single column ranking the candidates in order of preference (1, 2, 3 etc.) for as long as they wished to distinguish between candidates?  Voters could then have been told that they have a “single vote” and the returning officer will count it so as to try and elect their most prefered candidate, only “transfering” it to a lower preference when it is clear that their higher preference candidate cannot be elected.

Perhaps that would have required too much eating of words.

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