If you want a preferential voting system, at least make it preferential

I feel like the kind of pedant that will jump on you for saying ‘less people’, rather than ‘fewer people’; or ‘something I like the sound of’, rather than ‘of which I like the sound’. ‘AV isn’t really a preferential voting system’, I say. Well, yes and no, as it were.

It is the case that, in AV, voters list their candidates ‘in order of preference’. But what does that mean? It doesn’t mean, as you might expect, that if no one’s first preference wins a majority, then everyone’s second preferences will be counted and taken into consideration. Only the second preferences of voters for eliminated candidates are counted, meaning that the second preferences of a majority of voters – i.e. those who voted for the two leading parties – are not even looked at. I don’t know about ‘preferential’; that’s a bit more like giving some voters preferential treatment over others!

So what is needed is a system that treats everyone’s preferences equally. Such a system does exist and is called ‘Bucklin voting‘, which I’ve discussed elsewhere: if there’s no majority on first preferences, every voter’s second preference is counted and added to the candidates’ totals. If there’s still no majority, third preferences are added; and so on till there is a majority for someone (or more than one majority, in which case you take the largest as the winning total) or until the preferences run out and the winner is the candidate with the highest total of votes.

The trouble with Bucklin is that it violates the so-called ‘later no harm’ voting criterion, which says that your lower-preference votes should not be allowed to harm the prospects of your higher-preference votes. For example, if a Tory voter put the Lib Dem candidate down as their second choice, this could help to elect the Lib Dem; whereas if (s)he and other Tory voters hadn’t voted Lib Dem as their second preference, the Tory candidate might have won.

I think you could get over this obstacle by, paradoxically, making it compulsory to list all or at least, say, five candidates in order of preference. Then you could say to voters: ‘Your first preference should be the candidate you most want to win; your second preference should be the candidate you would second-most like to win; and so on until your lowest-ranked candidate is the one you least want to win. The higher you list a candidate in order of preference, the more likely they are to win’. The fact of being forced to select candidates from the most preferred to the least preferred outcome ironically makes it easier to order your preferences ‘sincerely’ without feeling personally responsible for handing the victory to a less preferred candidate. ‘Well, if I have to list five candidates in order of preference, I might as well try and get the best result for myself’.

There would still be tactical voting, but I don’t actually think that’s such a bad thing if tactical voting enables voters to secure a better outcome for themselves. For example, a Tory voter might want to vote for the UKIP candidate as the one they’d second-most want to win. But then, they might think that if they did that, they could let the Labour candidate win (based on the second preferences of Lib Dem and Green voters). So they might decide to put the Lib Dem candidate down as their second choice; and if that candidate won, at least they’d have the satisfaction of having prevented a Labour victory.

It’s a gamble; but almost all single-member voting systems involve an element of that. And at least, this compulsory-ranking version of Bucklin voting allows all voters to put down their actual preferred candidate as No. 1 without fear of wasting their vote; and the tactical vote – if people choose to vote that way – can be reserved for the subsequent preferences. By contrast, it is possible to vote tactically under AV (despite what the Yes camp says), as I’ve discussed elsewhere; but it’s more difficult to work out what to do, and this could paradoxically produce a less satisfactory result for the electorate as a whole.

So the version of the Bucklin system I’m proposing is what AV purports to be – a preferential system – but does it better in that the preferences are all treated equally and so really mean something.

An academic question? Maybe; but like English grammar, I’d rather it was done proper.

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Alternative alternative voting systems, part eight: Bucklin voting

So far in this series of articles, I’ve looked at only single member-constituency systems, including AV+, which alleviates the disproportionality of single-member systems by combining AV with a regional-list element (which is what AMS does for FPTP). My discussions have concluded that the Alternative Vote (AV), which is the only voting reform we’re actually being offered, is the least good of all the possible single-member alternatives across a range of criteria.

I would say that, of all the established voting methods I’ve discussed, Approval Voting and score voting (of which my ARV system is an example) are clearly superior to AV in that they give more real choice and power to voters, and the results more accurately reflect the full range of voters’ sympathies. Of the methods I’ve ‘invented’, I would say Two-Member Proportional Voting (TMPR – a compromise between a multi-member-proportional and single-member-preferential system) and Net Voting (a system that resolves the absence of a majority for any candidate on the basis of candidates’ ‘net popularity’, which is the ratio of voters who like them to those who oppose them) stand out as potentially quite exciting alternatives that could really revitalise English and British democracy without going as far as full proportional systems.

In this post and the next, I’ll be discussing two further established single member-constituency systems that rank alongside Approval Voting and score voting as much more satisfactory reforms than AV: Bucklin voting and run-off elections.

For an explanation of how Bucklin voting works, I’ll just quote direct from the summary in Wikipedia: “Voters are allowed rank preference ballots (first, second, third, etc.). In some variants, equal ranking is allowed at some or all ranks. Some variants have a predetermined number of ranks available (usually 2 or 3), while others have unlimited ranks. First choice votes are first counted. If one candidate has a majority, that candidate wins. Otherwise the second choices are added to the first choices. Again, if a candidate with a majority vote is found, the winner is the candidate with the most votes accumulated. Lower rankings are added as needed. A majority is determined based on the number of valid ballots. Since, after the first round, there may be more votes cast than voters, it is possible for more than one candidate to have majority support.”

The version of Bucklin voting I will be discussing is where you’re allowed unlimited rankings (up to the number of actual candidates) but can’t indicate equal rankings.

The main advantage I think Bucklin voting has over AV is that it eliminates the ridiculous situation whereby the second and subsequent preferences of most voters (i.e. those who’ve given the leading parties their first preferences) are not counted and cannot influence the final result, whereas the result can be determined by a relatively small number of second preferences (i.e. those whose first preference was for a minor party). This anomaly means that the winning ‘majority’ under AV can actually be smaller than a latent majority for another party comprising first-preference votes for that party plus the non-counted second preferences. For example, if a Lib Dem candidate was in third place behind Labour and the Conservatives once the votes for all the other parties had been transferred, the Lib Dems cannot win, even though they might have the highest total of first and second preferences combined – because the second preferences of Labour and Tory voters (most of which might be for the Lib Dem) are not counted.

Bucklin voting overcomes these imbalances in AV because, if there is no majority of first preferences for any party, the second preferences of all voters are added, and so on with third and fourth preferences, etc., if required. In practice, in many constituencies, just adding the first and second preferences would be enough to generate a majority for one or more candidates, so you don’t need to go any further – which makes Bucklin voting much simpler, more straightforward and easier to count as well as being fairer.

So, for the above reasons, I would award Bucklin voting three points out of five against the criterion Does every vote count, and is every vote counted?, compared with two out of five for AV. There still would be a lot of preferences that wouldn’t count for anything in a Bucklin election: after the second or third preference, there would hardly ever be any point in voters listing further preferences as the result would already have been determined, and this could mean that genuinely ‘popular’ parties who gained a large number of, say, third and fourth preferences could end up being passed over by the system. Plus, as a single-member system, Bucklin is not particularly proportional, so a lot of voters’ preferences would not help to determine the final result.

On proportionality, my second criterion, I would still award Bucklin three out of five, because it’s clearly better than AV, which scores two. It’s better because it provides a more accurate reflection of the range of preferences of all voters. In particular, in England, the Lib Dems would probably have performed much more strongly in 2010 if the election had been held using Bucklin voting compared with AV, which would barely have improved their performance over FPTP. (According to the Electoral Calculus, the Lib Dems would have won 88 seats under AV based on their vote share in 2010, compared with 57 under FPTP. Using Bucklin, I’m sure their seats tally would have been considerably higher.) This under-performance under AV is for the reason I outlined above: the Lib Dems were the leading second preference of most voters in 2010, but under AV, in many seats, the vast majority of those second preferences would not have been counted. In Bucklin, they are. Have the Lib Dems been misled by the advocates of AV (such as those in the Electoral Reform Society or the Labour Party) into thinking AV is the best compromise for them between FPTP and STV, whereas Bucklin voting would be much fairer and more favourable to them, if they’d had but the wit to look into it?

As for my third criterion, Does the system foster accountability?, I would say Bucklin voting performs at least as well as AV, if not better. So I’m awarding it three out of five. Under Bucklin, winning parties definitely need to solicit the support of voters for other parties because they need their second preferences to be sure of winning. This means, though, that Bucklin would encourage a drift to the centre of the political spectrum as the leading parties competed for support from each other’s voter base.

The same advantage or disadvantage, depending on your point of view, has been adduced for AV: parties need to court each other’s voters. But I would say that, in AV, this actually means that parties have to broaden their appeal in both directions: towards the centre and towards the more extreme fringes of the political spectrum. This is because, in the AV process, the first votes to be redistributed to the larger parties are those of supporters of minor parties such as UKIP, the BNP and the Greens. Therefore, Labour and the Lib Dems will have to appeal to Green voters as well each other’s supporters; and the Tories will have to appeal to UKIP supporters as well as Lib Dem voters. Hence, AV could bring about more polarisation between left and right wing while at the same time leading to more voter disappointment, because the parties will alter their policies and messages to appeal to the broadest church but will not be able to deliver in a way that satisfies many who’ve supported them.

Bucklin, by contrast, encourages genuine competition for the centre ground, which could bring about more consensus politics. Another way of viewing that, though, is that broadly held opinions that are not shared by the party-political establishment – such as support for leaving the EU or creating an English parliament – would not get a look in as the parties made cosy coalition deals involving policies that had not been supported by a majority or even offered to the electorate. Hence, while Bucklin would make politicians more accountable to voters from across the three main parties, it could allow them to ignore popular demands that they do not want to hear.

On the fourth criterion, Does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their political and personal preferences, and send a message to politicians?, I would award Bucklin no more than two out five: the same as AV. This is for the reason set out above that, after two or three rounds, there’s no point listing any further preferences. Sure, on the first preference, voters can indicate what, in my article on the 3CV system, I described as their emotional or conviction vote: the party they feel most sympathy for but often would not vote for under FPTP because they can’t win or for other ‘prudential’ reasons. But then, in the second preference, voters will often feel constrained to vote for whichever of the parties that can actually win that they feel able to support to some degree. After that, listing any further preferences would largely be academic. Indeed, you would not want to indicate a preference for any party that might stand a chance of defeating your top-two in a third round of voting.

My fifth criterion is: Does the system mitigate [or perhaps ‘obviate’ would be better] tactical voting? Here, I think Bucklin does slightly better than AV, which is prone to a legion of pernicious tactical-voting conundrums, as my previous two posts have argued (see here and here). So I’d give it three out of five. Under Bucklin, there’s no need to vote tactically with respect to your first preference, because, however you vote, if a party you don’t like wins over 50% of the votes, you could have done nothing to prevent it. Your second preference, however, could well be a tactical choice: voting for your ‘second-best’ choice to defeat the party you don’t want to win. But then again, as a second-preference vote, this is technically your ‘second-favourite’ anyway. By contrast, in AV, owing to the complicated logic of trying to ensure that the right two candidates get into the final run-off, you could often feel forced to put down your tactical vote as your ‘first preference’; for instance, in one of the scenarios I’ve described where Tory voters might feel obliged to vote Lib Dem first, rather than Conservative, in order to defeat the Labour candidate.

One other tactical ploy under Bucklin voting could be so-called bullet voting: where supporters of one of the parties in contention to win the seat would not offer any subsequent preferences in order not to harm the prospects of their candidate (e.g. Tory voters not listing a second preference for the Lib Dem candidate in case that helped the Lib Dem to win on second preferences). However, I don’t think there’s anything objectionable about this, and it’s not really tactical voting in the ‘pure’ sense: you could just say it’s voters listing only one choice because they want only one party and no other to win. This could, in any case, equally back-fire on such voters in that, by not voting Lib Dem as their second preference, Tory voters could indirectly help the Labour candidate to win. So voters’ behaviour in this respect is more likely to be shaped by the dynamics in each individual seat rather than being a systemic failing of Bucklin voting.

Finally, How easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? Well, much easier than AV, for sure! In fact, I’d say it’s pretty simple and easy to understand: if there’s no majority winner on first preferences, then the second preferences are added (and subsequent preferences if need be) until one is found. It’s much more transparent and obviously fair than AV, as all preferences of all voters are treated equally. Plus it’s easier for voters to work with the system to try and get a result they want, as it’s much easier to predict what the impact of different voting strategies will be: ‘if I put party A ahead of party B as my second preference, will I get my desired result?’ So I’ll give Bucklin four out of five here.

So how does Bucklin shape up in comparison with the other systems I’ve discussed in this series? See the table below for comparison:

Criterion FPTP AV AppV ARV TMPR AV+ NetV 3CV Bucklin
Does every vote count?

3

2

3

4

4

3

4

3

3

Is the system proportional?

1

2

2

3

3

3

3

3

3

Does the system foster accountability?

3

3

4

4

4

4

4

4

3

Does the system let voters express their views?

1

2

3

4

4

3

4

3

2

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

1

2

2

3

4

2

3

3

3

How user-friendly is the system?

3

2

4

3

3

3

3

3

4

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

12

13

18

21

22

18

21

19

18

So Bucklin performs as well as Approval Voting but less strongly than the score-voting ARV system – but, obviously, much more strongly than AV. Why hasn’t it been considered?

Next time, run-off elections.