First Past the Post Majority Top-up (FMT): the perfect compromise between FPTP and AV

We English are famed for our ability to reach pragmatic compromises. Our First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system is totally compromised; and the Alternative Vote (AV) is a compromise between FPTP and PR.

In this spirit of compromise – a spirit which is increasingly absent from the debate on electoral reform running up to May’s referendum – I’d like to propose another voting system that is a ‘perfect’ (if that’s the right word) compromise between FPTP and AV. I’m opposed to both systems because of their manifold failings. But equally, they both have their merits. FPTP is simple and straightforward, which commends it to your average Englishman and -woman: you just stick a cross in a box, and the winner is the candidate that gets the most crosses. The trouble is this produces rule by the minority, which then becomes a British stick to beat us English folk. AV is fairer but fiddly: you list candidates in order of preference (which presupposes that you regard any of them as acceptable, let alone several), and then if there’s no majority for anyone, the bottom-ranked candidates are eliminated and the preference votes of their supporters redistributed among the remaining candidates until one of them has a majority of the votes remaining in play. Yes, even to describe it involves a proliferation of polysyllabic Latin words! But once you get the hang of it, it’s not all that complicated, but it is inconsistent: not all the preference votes are counted, which can lead to questionable results.

My system – First Past the Post Majority Top-up (FMT) – is the best of the dodgy worlds of FPTP and AV. And it’s even easy to describe:

  • There are two columns of boxes next to the candidates’ names – let’s call them column A and column B
  • In column A, you put a cross next to the name of your preferred candidate, just like in an FPTP election
  • In column B, you put a cross, or more than one cross, next to the name(s) of any other candidate(s) you would like to be elected if your preferred candidate doesn’t win an outright majority of the votes recorded in column A
  • Any candidate winning more than 50% of the column-A votes wins automatically
  • If no candidate wins such a majority, then the votes recorded in column B are added to the totals of all the candidates
  • This could produce one or more candidate with more than 50% of the vote
  • If there’s only one such majority winner, that candidate wins the election
  • If there are more than one, the winner is not the candidate with the highest share of column-A + column-B votes, but the candidate who obtained the highest share of column-A votes only – even if their share of column-A + column-B votes is less than that of another candidate
  • If there is still no candidate with the support of the majority of voters, the winner is then the candidate with the highest share of column-A + column-B votes.

Got it? This system basically preserves the merits of FPTP: it gives greater weight to the first preferences of voters, and the ‘top-up’ system of preference votes in column B is designed merely to discover whether any candidate enjoys the support of a majority of voters if no majority is produced in the primary vote. So, if a candidate has won most of the first-preference votes but not a majority, all they need do to win is get enough preference votes to constitute a majority, and they can win even if another candidate has more combined first- and second-preference votes than them.

However, if no candidate enjoys a majority even after the preference votes are counted, then the winner is the one commanding the broadest overall base of support, i.e. first- and second-preference votes combined. This is more like AV, except – unlike AV – all the preference votes of all voters are counted and treated equally. So with my system, FMT, there can be no latent majority for a candidate that is bigger than the majority or plurality of the winning candidate. It’s possible for some candidates to get more first- and second-preference votes than the winner – but only if that winner a) came ahead of the other candidate in the column-A vote, and b) if both the winner and the other candidate won a majority of A + B votes.

And this is a lot simpler than AV. If there’s no majority winner of first preferences, you just add up all the second preferences in one go, and that’s it. And the rules for who’s won are very clear and simple.

And finally, the technical bit (but I’ll keep it short). FTM doesn’t pass the ‘later no harm’ criterion for voting systems. This means that voting for a candidate as your second preference can harm the chances of your first-preference candidate by, for instance, contributing to a majority or plurality for your second-preference candidate that is higher than the plurality obtained by your first preference. So voters would have to be advised on the ballot paper along these lines: ‘Any candidates you vote for in column B could defeat the candidate you vote for in column A. You should therefore carefully weigh up your choices for each column. However, you are not obliged to vote for any candidate in column B – so if you are in any doubt, leave this column blank.’

This warning applies only to candidates that have a realistic chance of being elected: you can harm the prospects of your favourite candidate by voting for other candidates in column B only if your favourite candidate has any hope of winning in the first place. So this system would lead to a degree of tactical voting along the lines of FPTP, with Lib Dem and Labour voters typically switching their support in column A to whichever candidate was more likely to beat the Conservative. But then, if no candidate wins an overall majority, you can still vote for your actual favourite candidate in column B. And your favourite could still catch up the candidate you voted for tactically, so that you wouldn’t mind about the ‘later no harm’ rule in this instance: you’d actually want your second-preference candidate to win if possible. So it cuts both ways.

As for any prospect of this system actually being adopted – well, I haven’t seen too many flying pigs recently. Nonetheless, I think it’s a ‘good’ compromise. And, you never know, if the result of the referendum is itself compromised by a low turn-out – as I hope – I might try to put it on the table. Or should that be the trough?


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