Alternative alternative voting systems: Part One

It seems fitting to begin this series of analyses of alternative voting systems on the day when our half-Dutch Deputy PM has leaked the date of the coalition government’s proposed referendum on replacing the First Past the Post voting system with the Alternative Vote (and is doubtless also celebrating his motherland’s World Cup triumph over Brazil – sob . . .).

That referendum will be on the same day as the elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. So while the rest of Great Britain gets to vote for their own national legislatures using a genuinely, if imperfectly, proportional system (AMS), we in England are being offered a referendum that denies us the choice of a genuinely proportional system (which AV is not), let alone a referendum on an English parliament to match the referendums on the Scottish and Welsh parliament and assembly that took place 12 years ago. Well, I guess such a flagrant denial of English people’s democratic rights is only what you can expect from a Eurocrat who refuses to say whether he is English or not.

Most of the systems I’ll be discussing in this series of posts are themselves alternatives to the alternatives to FPTP that have been espoused by the Labour and Lib Dem parties in the run up to May’s general election and, in the case of the Lib Dems, for a long time before it: the Alternative Vote (AV) and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) respectively. However, in this first article, I want to briefly go over the merits, or rather mainly demerits, of the Alternative Vote system. I won’t reiterate the more detailed points I made in my previous discussions on AV (here and here). What I want to do here is set up a series of criteria against which to measure the merits of voting systems; and in this article, I’ll apply those criteria to AV and FPTP.

There is a whole Wikipedia article devoted to discussing some of the technical criteria by which experts on voting systems assess their qualities. However, this is far too abstruse for my purposes, and my criteria are a lot more intuitive. They are as follows:

  • Does every vote count / is every vote counted? On the face of it, that sounds like a rather funny question: of course, every vote counts (matters) and is counted. But that’s not actually the case in all systems. With respect to AV, the ‘majority’ that AV produces in favour of the winning candidate is occasionally dependent on eliminating some people’s votes altogether, i.e. if they haven’t listed one of the candidates surviving in the final count as one of their preferences. It seems rather paradoxical that a system that is supposed to carry more legitimacy than FPTP engineers overall majorities for the winning candidates by disenfranchising some supporters of smaller parties altogether: effectively, ignoring their vote.
  • Is the system proportional? How effective is the system in producing shares of the seats that closely match the shares of the vote obtained by the parties?
  • Does the system foster accountability? In other words, to what degree are the elected representatives directly accountable to a specific, local electorate, as they are for instance in constituency systems as opposed to those involving party lists?
  • Does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their political and personal preferences? In other words, does the voting system allow voters to send a message to politicians about how they really think on a range of issues, rather than just voting for one party in a way that the parties themselves take as a mandate to carry out their whole policy programme?
  • Does the system mitigate the need to vote tactically? In other words, does it genuinely free people up to vote how they really want?
  • How easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? No point in having a mathematically perfect system if voters don’t understand how it works in such a way as to fully take advantage of it.

I’m now going to assess the relative merits of FPTP and AV by awarding points for how well each system performs against each of these criteria: one point being the lowest score and five the highest.

In relation to the first question – does every vote count / is every vote counted? – I’d give FPTP three points and AV only two. Under FPTP, at least every vote is taken into consideration and treated equally, and all votes go into the final count. But those votes often do not count in the other sense, in that votes for all but the two leading parties, or even the only leading party, are usually pointless: they won’t affect the result in any way. AV performs worse in this respect, as I pointed out above, in that some of the votes are actually not included in the final count: first-preference votes for parties eliminated from the final count, in cases where voters have not indicated a lower preference for any of the parties still in the race. In addition, the second or subsequent preferences of people who have voted for one of the top-two parties in the election are not counted at all. That means that the final result is based on counting some non-first preferences but not all. So AV gives the impression that what all voters indicate as their first preference actually matters; but in fact, the end result is rarely different from a FPTP ballot, and votes for smaller parties are just as pointless, if not more so, as under FPTP.

Second question: is the system proportional? In this respect, FPTP is just about the worst system there is and so scores only one point. AV is only marginally better (in some cases, it can be even worse) and so scores two. AV is not a proportional system. The only thing you can say in its favour is that, as AV allows for results that better reflect the consensus of opinion in each constituency, therefore the aggregate result across the different parts of the country is more likely to be consistent with the real level of support that each party enjoys. But this is only so to a very limited degree.

Question 3: does the system foster accountability? Here, I’d give both systems a three. As they are used in single-member constituencies, this makes them quite conducive to accountability in that each MP is directly answerable to the electorate of the local area they represent. On the other hand, both systems lead to disproportionate parliaments and bring about massive majorities for parties that have gained only a minority of the popular vote. In addition, these systems prop up ‘safe seats’ (AV perhaps a bit less so) in which MPs can more or less expect to be re-elected indefinitely. Both of these facts diminish the accountability of MPs to their voters.

Question 4: does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their views? Here, I’d give FPTP one point and AV two. For a modern democracy and society, FPTP is an extremely blunt instrument and really doesn’t provide much of a means for voters to let politicians know what they really think about them and their policies. Nowadays, people tend to agree with different policies and ideas across party boundaries, but the ability to vote for just one party / candidate does not allow that diversity of opinion to be expressed. Instead, people often, if not mostly, end up voting for a particular candidate as much to keep out another candidate as to endorse the entire manifesto of the party they’re voting for. AV represents a slight improvement, in that it does at least allow people to vote for a candidate who’s almost certain to lose while at the same time casting a second- or lesser-preference vote for the ‘least bad’ candidate that has a chance of winning – you can vote for the parties you genuinely support as well as voting tactically.

High-preference votes for candidates from minor parties are rarely effectual under AV: they rarely alter the end result. However, they do enable voters to send more of a message to politicians. For example, had the recent election been held using the AV system, I would have indicated UKIP as my first preference and the Lib Dems second: UKIP to let politicians know I am angry we were denied a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and on EU membership; but Lib Dems as the best means (I thought at the time) to bring about constitutional and electoral reform, and because only they had a chance of beating the Tory. In the event, under FPTP, I just had to vote Lib Dems: a tactical vote, rather than adding my voice to those of millions who might have put UKIP down as one of their preferences if they’d had the choice.

Which brings me to the fifth question: does the voting system mitigate the need for tactical voting? FPTP scores only one point here, as it quintessentially encourages tactical voting amid effective two-party politics: Labour or Tory in the Midlands, North of England and Scotland; Lib Dem or Tory in southern England. Wales is a bit more of a patchwork outside the industrial and urban centres of the south. AV gains only one extra point here (i.e. two in total), as you still end up having to vote tactically under AV, even if the tactical vote is listed last in the order of preference you’ve indicated on your ballot sheet.

Finally, how easy is the system for voters to understand and use to best advantage? FPTP: three points – it’s extremely easy to understand and use, but at the same time, it doesn’t empower voters, and they very often end up feeling cheated or that they’ve wasted their vote. AV is less transparent than FPTP, so I’d give it only two points here. Voters could think that all of the preferences they indicate in an AV vote will be taken into consideration and be reflected in some way in the final result. For instance, they might think that ranking the candidates was equivalent to giving them a certain number of points (rather along the lines of the Eurovision Song Contest) and that first-preference votes carried more weight than last preferences. In reality, they don’t: if you vote for a minor party as your first choice, that vote will eventually be discarded; and if your lesser-preference votes are reassigned to the surviving candidates, these are going to carry as much weight as your first preference whether you want that to be the case or not.

Here is a table summarising the points I’m awarding to First Past the Post and AV against my criteria:

Criterion FPTP AV
Does every vote count?



Is the system proportional?



Does the system foster accountability?



Does the system let voters express all their views?



Does the system mitigate tactical voting?



How user-friendly is the system?



Total scored out of a maximum of 30



Conclusion: AV is a marginal improvement on FPTP – but only extremely marginal, and they’re both pretty rubbish.

I’ll be adding alternative alternative systems to this analysis, and this table, in subsequent posts. Next time: Approval Voting.


3 Responses

  1. […] Posted on 18 July 2010 by David I’ve been re-examining one aspect of my critique of the Alternative Vote electoral system of the other week: the extent to which it enables voters to express the full range of their […]

  2. […] based on AV+ as for their national elections using AMS. The difference with AV+ is that it is AV rather than First Past the Post that is used for the constituency part of the […]

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