No to the Alternative Vote

On Thursday 5th May there is a referendum on whether or not the United Kingdom should adopt the instant-runoff (“Alternative Vote”) voting system in place of the “First Past The Post” (FPTP) system that’s currently in use. There are rigorous campaigns for and against this, both from various political parties and from other campaign groups.

Having carefully considered each argument I’ve come to a decision on how to vote on 5th May and I wil be voting “No”. Here are the reasons why I have reached this decision. You may wish to note that none of these reasons are political. I don’t care about any of the party positions. I will admit that the party that I’m a card-carrying member of has a consolidated “no” position, but this had no bearing on my decision.

  1. The instant-runoff system, whereby you “score” the entire list of candidates in order of preference, is the same system that Nominet and the British Computer Society use for various internal elections, so I am familiar with using it already. Here’s the blunt truth about using it in practise: After I’ve marked my second preference, I really don’t give a monkeys about the remaining six candidates and so I assign their numbers arbitrarily, almost randomly. I expect many people will do the same if this system is adopted for parliamentary elections.  Such “votes” that make up the numbers in this way are at best a waste of time and at worst could give a candidate or party more representation than people actually wanted.
  2. It makes what is currently a very simple voting system (marking a sheet of paper with a cross, even illiterates can do it as long as they have someone to tell them which candidate is which) with one that is much more complex and arguably inaccessible to a small handful. This will have a detrimental effect on voter turnout if people believe that the system is more complicated and therefore prone to error. Low voter turnout is one of the most crucial problems with elections these days and anything that threatens it further is unacceptable. I’ve always maintained that voting in parliamentary elections should be mandatory, like it is in Australia. At no point should it ever be possible to apportion the result of an election to any level of voter turnout.
  3. It has the potential to allow more extreme political parties to gain disproportionately more representation than they would otherwise gain. I’m actually very surprised that pro-AV groups, who are typically on the left of politics, are advocating a system that could give parties like the British National Party more power and influence.
  4. Lastly, given this country’s track record with IT projects, I have little to no confidence that the costly and complex vote counting system that will be required will be up to the job. Arguably a minor concern when compared to the others, but still valid.

I’m not saying for a minute that the existing FPTP system is by any means perfect, because it’s far from it. Indeed, I’ve often bemoaned its shortcomings following various general elections after watching in dismay as carefully planned constituency boundaries deliver election victories which they ought not to have and wouldn’t have under a “fairer” system. I just don’t think that AV is the answer to this.

So there it is, I have imparted my decision and the reasons for it. If you’re undecided at this stage I hope that the points I’ve raised help you to decide appropriately.


  • Ricey

    Evenin. Similar to you I must declare a bias in terms of general support of a party that’s in favour of AV – or more accurately a lack of support of several parties that are mainly against it. But I would say:
    1. There is no compulsion to order every candidate, only those you’d actually be reasonably happy with (or all those you’d not be unhappy with). So you could just put a 1 or a 1,2 if that’s your choice.
    2. I suppose even ‘illiterates’ could bung a 1 on there instead of a cross. But if someone can’t count to 2 or 5, I expect they may also have problems reading the paper, knowing what the candidates stand for, etc, so I’m not sure the simplicity of an X really helps. I’m with you on the low turnout thing though, but I think AV could increase turnout in constituencies where there currently seems little point voting except as a protest.
    3. BNP are actually against AV as it would mean that while those that support them get their vote noticed but the party itself are less likely to get elected as they’d not be the second preference of any other voters. But if people feel the need to vote BNP then other parties need to engage with those voters and their reasons rather than treat them as irrelevant until they start to risk voting in the BNP under FPTP.
    4. I’d agree but so far as I’m aware there is no proposal to use IT to do the counting, just a relatively small increase in manual counting.

  • Ok, let’s take those points in order.

    1. There is no requirement to rank all candidates in the AV system on which we’re voting; it’s not quite the same as the one used by Nominet or BCS (or Australia, who also use that system). If you don’t want to see the Labour party get in, you don’t have to put a rank against them.

    2. I don’t think it is complex or inaccessible to tell people the following: “Rank the candidates in order of preference, with your favourite being 1 and your next best being 2 and so on. Stop when you run out of candidates you like; you do not have to put a number against any candidate you don’t want to see elected.”

    3. The BNP are telling their supporters to vote against AV in this referendum. Because we are not running multi-member seats, the system makes relatively popular candidates more likely to become elected, but extremist candidates less likely.

    4. No counting machines or IT project is expected (or needed) to handle vote counting.

  • Ricey

    Yeah, er, what I said.

  • mat

    Another point about parties such as the bnp, at the moment they can get in because despite most people not liking them, all those other votes could be split amongst the many reasonable parties giving none a good enough majority, meaning to win you might only need a small proportion of the total vote. So in places like Dagenham, enough people are racist cunts for them to have a chance.

    At least with AV, even if most people can’t agree on who should win, or come second, they will most likely be able to agree who should lose.

  • The debate over the cost of the vote counting machines is an interesting one. Since writing this post I’ve received the official “no2av” leaflet through the door, which states “£130million on electronic vote counting machines” in its “The cost of AV is” section. I’m happy to accept that this is an oversight on their part if that is what it is.

    The leaflet also allures to another matter that really should go into the blog post itself but I don’t like to change posts once they’ve received comments. The AV system is, apparently, rather unpopular in at least two of the just three worldwide countries that use it. Fiji has plans to scrap the system and in Australia six out of ten people want go return to the system we use in the United Kingdom. May we learn from their mistakes.

  • Ricey

    It would appear that Fiji’s plans to scrap the system are because their Prime Minister is in power due to a military coup which overthrew the recently elected government, and has repeatedly promised but not delivered an election since. In the same year as their PM made comments about AV, he also abolished the constitution and sacked the judiciary after they ruled the coup illegal. Not sure I want to follow that example.

  • Ricey

    The Australian survey asked 1012 people the following question:
    “Currently, elections for the *Federal* House of Representatives, or lower house, use a preferential voting system. This is where voters indicate an order of preferences for *all* candidates, and these preferences are taken into account when deciding which candidate wins. (PAUSE). An alternative system would be “first past the post”, where voters only vote for one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins. Would you personally prefer…?” “A preferential system” “A first past the post system” (choices offered randomly)
    That’s a bit of a false dichotomy as it offers ranking all candidates or ranking one. AV as proposed here gives the option of doing either and any inbetween. The poll got 57% FPTP, 37% preferential, 5% dunno. There’s an interesting split in that preference seems to shift from preferential to FPTP as respondents get older, perhaps they get hacked off with their governments. Certainly in their last election FPTP would have given them a stronger coalition government – but still a coalition. I think Australia’s had AV since the end of WWI and brought in mandatory voting shortly afterwards. Apparently now 29% want voluntary voting. The survey author says “When voters are dissatisfied with what’s on offer from the major parties, voluntary voting gives them a powerful form of political self expression – withholding their vote. Nothing could send a clearer message to political parties that they need to lift their game.” There’s quite some “political self expression” going on in the UK in recent elections!