Why the Yes camp is in danger of losing the referendum

According to the latest opinion poll, there’s a serious danger that AV will be rejected by the UK electorate on 5 May. Why do voters just not ‘get’ AV; or if they get it, why do they appear not to like it?

Well, contrary to the Yes camp’s claims that AV is a fairer voting system, it seems to many people to violate a basic principle of ‘British [English, really] fair play’: once you’ve lost, you’ve lost – accept it, give the victor your sporting congratulations, and move on. By contrast, AV seems like a trick to steal a win on the part of people who just won’t accept they’ve lost: ‘hey, you bully’, they say, ‘you can’t win till more than half of us have voted for you’ – and then they give lots of extra chances to people whose favourite candidates for the job have performed especially badly.

OK, that’s a gross simplification; but that’s how it seems to a lot of people, particularly hardened Tory voters, who can see that they are likely to be especially penalised as left-of-centre majorities gang up to overthrow plurality victories for their candidates. Shouldn’t the candidate winning most votes – whether a majority or not – be accepted as the winner, pure and simple?

Clearly, it’s not as simple as that, otherwise we wouldn’t be having the argument: FPTP is grossly unfair at an aggregate level and can just as easily hand a massive, disproportional parliamentary majority to Labour as it can to the Conservatives. But the AV cause hasn’t been helped by the Yes camp’s failure to put across what is in fact the central idea behind AV: that it is intended to function as an ‘Instant Run-Off Voting’ (IRV) mechanism, which is in fact what it’s called in the US, where it’s used for some local elections. (Contrary to what the No camp says, AV is extensively used in the US and also for Irish by-elections, not just in Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.) In other words, AV is like having a series of rounds of voting to pick a winner that eventually enjoys majority support. The process whereby AV eliminates the last-placed candidate and transfers the second preferences of people who voted for them to other candidates is supposed to be like an actual second ballot where the loser is eliminated and voters try again to find a winner. So it’s meant to be like the system in France and many other countries, where there is an actual second round of voting, except AV eliminates only one candidate at each round, and as many rounds are held as are necessary to eventually arrive at a majority.

I think that, seen in this way, AV would come across as fairer to most British people; but I can hardly recall any piece of campaign material from the Yes camp that has tried to explain AV in these terms. It would help this purpose if AV itself wasn’t so convoluted. For example, I think most people would get and perhaps like the idea of AV as a run-off if it indeed worked more like an actual second round between the two leading candidates from the first round, i.e. if you eliminated all but the top-two candidates. This is done for London mayor elections, and it’s called the ‘Supplementary Vote’ (SV). SV is a bit unfair in that you only get to choose one alternative candidate for the second round, and if your candidate isn’t one of the final two, your vote drops out. But you could adapt SV to be more like AV by allowing voters to pick as many alternative candidates as they want, so that their highest-ranking candidate still in the race is the one that gets their vote. Even if you didn’t go as far as this in adapting AV, you can hugely reduce the number of rounds by eliminating all the candidates that have no mathematical chance of winning after the first round, as I suggested in my previous post. This would make the second and subsequent rounds of counting much more obviously like an actual run-off.

Alternatively, I think that a simple system of first and second preferences only, with the totals of second preferences being added to those of first preferences in the absence of an outright majority in the ‘first round’, would do what AV does much more simply and fairly, in that everyone’s second preferences would be given equal weight.

I think that British voters would actually like a run-off-type voting system, where you get a second chance to pick a majority winner if one isn’t found in the first round. But AV as currently constituted isn’t the system for the job: it’s unnecessarily convoluted and involves too many superfluous rounds of voting. The reason why the reformers have gone for AV and not some other more obvious run-off method is that they’re hoping that once AV is accepted, people will more easily accept the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which also uses vote transfers.

It might help AV’s cause if the Yes camp explained it as an instant run-off system. However, the British, and English, people would more easily be won over to a more ‘sporting’ system of two rounds – winner takes all.

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