What is the alternative?

Next month, a referendum will ask voters in the UK

At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

Official Poll Card

Official Poll Card

When our Official Poll Cards dropped through the letterbox last week, I realised I did not have much knowledge about the question I was about to be asked. Which way should I vote? I cannot say I have a passion for politics, but I do have a sense that I “ought” to vote. I decided to do my homework.

The BBC’s Q and A on the topic seem straightforward enough, and are certainly easier to wade through than the garish colours of the yes and no campaigns. (It occurred to me that these colours are probably used to avoid the red, blue or yellow of the main political parties in the UK.)


Yes or No?

Critics of the current (FPTP) system point out what they see as its key weakness – that a candidate can be elected having won less than 50% of the votes. This happened to two thirds of the MPs in the current parliament. An AV system forces candidates to appeal to a broader section of the electorate, in the hope of winning their second or third choice slots.

The No campaign, on the other hand, argue that AV is complicated and costly to implement. I do think that AV is more confusing. Whilst the concept of ranking candidates is intuitive, it is more complicated under AV to think about the details of the vote you cast – is it better to rank a candidate you are neutral about, third choice or not at all? This pair of blog posts discuss tactical voting under AV in some detail.

Should I follow the campaign of the political party I voted for in the general election? It seems that each party is supporting the Yes or No campaign based on which would result in the best outcome for them at a subsequent General Election, not that one would expect them to behave otherwise.

My PhD research involves conducting simulation studies, albeit not on voting theory. Would be possible to simulate the results of the general election under AV, to see how much difference it would make if we were to change the voting system?

Take the most recent General Election in the UK, in May 2010. Using the vote counts from the 2010 election, would it be possible to conduct a simulation study? One could make some assumptions about how voters might rank subsequent candidates based on the first choices that they indicated on their ballot papers, and see how the outcome would change if voters ranked one, two, three or more candidates in addition to their first choice. The assumptions would be crude and would not represent the results of candidates’ campaigning with the AV system in mind.

The closest thing I found to this suggestion was a paper published in Parliamentary Affairs. Simulating the Effects of the Alternative Vote in the 2010 UK General Election. This study, by David Sanders and colleagues from the University of Essex and the University of Texas at Dallas, is somewhat more sophisticated than my idea.

Surveys conducted around the time of the General Election campaign asked voters how they voted, and further, asked voters to complete an electronic ballot form that mimicked an actual AV ballot. In comparing the two sets of votes, the authors report that not all voters voted for their first preference as expressed on the AV ballot paper, in the FPTP survey. This is to be expected, as some voters will vote tactically in the FPTP system.

The survey data used in this study is sizeable. However, there are not sufficient respondents in each constituency to evaluate what the outcome might be constituency by constituency. Working with the data they do have, the authors simulate the behaviour of voters in different constituencies. Their simulations suggest that AV would leave the Conservatives as the strongest party in England; however the Conservatives would be somewhat worse off than under FPTP. This has implications for the structure of the subsequent coalition. According to the simulation, under AV the Liberal Democrats would have won sufficient seats to be in a position to form a majority coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour, something that was not possible in May 2010 when further parties would have had to join a potential Labour-Lib Dem coalition to form a majority.

This simulation study is an interesting exercise, but it is still some way from representing how voters might have behaved had they witnessed an election campaign which was conducted with the AV system in mind. So I throw this question to the floor.

Should I align my vote in the referendum with my politics? Is there a way to decide how to vote based on logic? There was some debate about whether to impose a minimum turnout on the referendum – which was decided against. Will sufficient people vote in the referendum to represent what the British public wants? If I am not passionate about politics, is it worth my time to vote at all?

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13 Responses to What is the alternative?

  1. cromercrox says:

    Thanks for this interesting post, Erika. Electoral reform is all very well, but this particular plebiscite was the result of a shady deal between the two parties in the governing coalition – one led by a slimy PR spinner, the other by a leopard who doesn’t mind changing his spots – without much consideration of such high-minded things as the representation of the people. My worry is that the state of politics in the UK is at such a low that people will simply ignore this referendum – even though it might change our voting system fundamentally for centuries to come. I can see the benefits of AV – I remember we used similar things in student politics years ago and the system seemed sensible – but in the current climate of apathy I think one should vote to maintain the status quo.

  2. Erika Cule says:

    Now you mention it, Imperial College Union does not use FPTP – we use a version of Single Transferable Vote, in which voters rank the candidates.

    Since coming up with the idea for this post I have been looking out for comments on the referendum. The opening of last week’s Now Show neatly summarises the choices available. (Listen again is only available until the end of this week, folks.)

  3. Great summary, Erika! I happened to read this just a few minutes after posting about the need for electoral reform in Canada, which has a FPTP system that is essentially identical to the UK’s. We have a situation over here where a party voted for by just over 20% of eligible voters (roughly 38% of the vote on a 59% turn-out) got to form a minority government, but a party that got almost a million votes (in a country of ~32 million) has no representation in parliament and was excluded from last night’s leaders’ debate. I think the system is broken, and I’m happy to see that the UK is starting to consider other options; maybe if you set a precedent, other members of the Commonwealth with similar systems might follow suit!

    I don’t know if AV is the answer, although IMO it’s an improvement on FPTP. I don’t think straight PR is the answer, either – the strength of the current system is that each MP represents a specific constituency, which I think means better representation of regional issues. Having voted in the first couple of Scottish parliament elections, I would favour the mixed member system used there – you vote for a specific candidate in your riding, by a FPTP system, but you also have a second vote, for a party rather than for an individual. The MPs elected by FPTP take their seats as in Westminster / Ottawa, but there’s a second pool of seats in parliament that’s divided up between the parties under a PR system, based on the second vote. I think it’s a great system that gives smaller parties (e.g. the greens) a seat or two, and makes people feel that their vote actually counts – at least, the second part!

    However, you’ve got to work with the system you’re in before you can change it. It’s a VERY tight three-way race in my riding, with the left-of-centre vote being split fairly equally between two of the three major parties. I want to vote tactically, but the polls keep fluctuating and it’s hard to know who to vote for. Whoever wins will get in on ~30% of the popular vote, which sucks even if it’s the one I eventually decide to vote for!

    • chall says:

      which party was the one not repsresented in the debate? As for the whole election thing in Canda, it’s so obviously good for strong regional parties compared to a “country wide smaller party” due to historical reasons (Quebec). I remember the discussions a few years back when they wanted to change the distribution in the parliament due to the fact that BC has fewer people than they “should”, since BC and the west has grown more since the seats were distributed.

      (sorry for adding long comment about canada in the uk thread)

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Don’t apologise – I started it!

        The Green party were excluded, despite taking part last time, running candidates in every riding, and getting almost a million votes in 2008. It’s been very controversial, especially because the leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois (who have seats in the house, but only run candidates in one province) was included in both the English language and the French language debates. I don’t like the Bloc but think they AND the Greens have a right to take part – I wouldn’t vote Green under the current system (I might under a different system), but I’d like to hear what they have to say. On the flip side, it’s impossible for me to vote for the Bloc even if I wanted to!

        • chall says:

          Cath> yes that would be what i referred to….thanks for the reference (Green), having a base all over Canada but not enough to get any seats (due to the “winner takes it all” as I refer to it, and no “evening out mandates” makes it really hard if you’re always the “third option”). When I took polisci it was the “social party” (NDP I think was the name) that had some similar issues with having a solid 3 million voters but spread all over so they didn’t get much representation (apart from Saskachewan i think… not important really for the discussion, just my memory lane).

          I guess one option would be for the Green party to form a “local” party and make it more individual – i.e. like Bloc does in certain places outside of Quebec (I think they did that in New Brunswick back in the day prior to referendum of “what will happen to the east if Q goes solo”)

  4. I would recommend you check out the various posts written by Australian elections/voting systems expert Antony Green. He’s been dissecting some of the more ludicrous claims by the No camp in the UK (since the system proposed for the UK is already in use in 2 Australian states).

  5. Erika Cule says:

    Voter engagement or lack thereof is addressed in the ICU voting system using incentives. Students vote online, and if a student completes “ballot papers” for all the available positions then they can nominate an ICU club of their choice to receive a 50p donation. Candidates standing for a position are forbidden from canvassing Imperial College Union club members via mailing lists. However, club presidents urge their club members to vote because they can obtain a few pounds for the club’s funds. Turnout is still pretty low though.

    We also have RON (re-open nominations) standing for every position. RON’s manifesto is typically the most entertaining of the lot, and he does sometimes win.

    Maybe electoral reform in the UK could take inspiration from student politics.

  6. chall says:

    Very interesting post Erica. I hadn’t realised that AV was in effect in California. I’ve always thougth that it was one of the alternatives when it was a smaller group of people who voted, due to the difficulty of counting/recounting all the votes.

    Is there any discussion about excluding people? I can see that AV is in the long run sort of that, I guess if there is someone you absolutely not want to have, you can hope that they are in the bottom numbers apart from those who like them really much?!

    On the other hand, how many numbers are you supposed to fill in? 1-5 or all of them? And what happens to the ballots with no number on them? Are they counted as “unfilled” or “non valid” or just valid for the number one/i.e. x on them?

  7. Erika Cule says:

    @Chall, I don’t know what the voting system is in California, I can only speak for the UK (and now Canada!). One of the difficulties I see with AV is to do with your last comment on how many candidates you are supposed to rank. As I understand it, you do not have to rank all the candidates, you can rank as many as you choose. If you want to vote “against” a candidate you do not want to get elected, is your vote more powerful if you do not to number them at all or if you rank them last? What would happen if the entire electorate decided to only rank one candidate (as they would in FPTP) if AV is the system in use?

    • chall says:

      hm, I wonder if they wouldn’t have done some studies of that in the places where they implemented the system?! (Looks like Australia has it too in some states.) I mean, I’m sure there will be a way to make any system “uneven” or “trick the system” but at least it would be good to know some of the problems up front so to say?!

      I guess for me, the main problem I have visulising it is the “winner takes it all”/”personal MP” since I’m not used to it as much and it makes it harder for me to really understand the politics that is going on in the chamber – like party votes etc. Although, I guess the main thing with this would be that you would only have one person per party for the ballot?! So, maybe that would make more sense…. jsut need to think about it a bit more 😉

  8. vrk says:

    You know, I don’t about your area, but AV was used in the 2010 local elections in Brent,(*) and that’s surely not the only council that uses it. It’s not a totally alien concept to UK citizens. If I could vote in the referendum, I would vote for AV, as it is clearly a superior system compared to first past the post in this country. This is a bit like the choice between building new coal power plants (FPTP) and nuclear power plants (AV). Both have serious problems, but it is better to replace coal plants with nuclear than stick to status quo.

    (*) I was peeved that I can only vote in local elections, since I’m not a UK citizen, but my better half, being Canadian, which is part of the Commonwealth, could also vote in the parliamentary elections. Go figure.

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