On May 5th the UK will have a referendum on a change of voting system. I will be voting for a change, because I think the order-of-preference voting (technically, the Alternative Vote or AV system) makes more sense than the existing winner-takes-all system. (technically, First Past The Post or FPTP) Here’s why.
AV Doesn’t Throw Away Information
This is a bit of a philosophical point but it’s the key one from which everything else flows. I’m a democrat, and so I think that elections ought to represent the will of the people. I’m also an information geek, and so I think that we should try to incorporate as much information about the will of the people as possible.
When you have a choice between two candidates, FPTP gives you all the information you need: if they’re choosing candidate X, that means that they prefer candidate X to candidate Y.
With more than two candidates, FPTP fails horribly. Someone might prefer candidate A, but how do they feel about B and C? This is important information about the will of the people, and we’re just not hearing it - and if we don’t hear it, we can’t incorporate it in the process of choice. How on earth can it be considered democratic to actively ignore what people think about candidates? Out of the two options presented to us, I believe that FPTP is more undemocratic; I shall be voting yes to change and yes to AV.
FPTP Leads To Horrible Disproportionality
Moving from a constituency level to a national level, if about half of people in the country vote Whig, then about 50% of elected representatives should be from the Whig party. That’s sort of what representation means. No, I know we vote for candidates, not parties, and I’m a big supporter of that, but overall I believe it ought to average out nationally. Of course, it doesn’t. Here’s how seats/votes stacked up over the past nine elections:
Not only is this disproportional per se, (the variation between the green and the blue lines) but some of the disproportionalities are really hideous. (the variations of the points from the green line) You can get 25% of the votes but only 3% of the seats, but then you can get 27% of the votes and 32% of the seats. In other words, 2% of the country gives you 29% of the power. This is why I call it “winner-takes-all”.
But it gets worse - for every political party there has been an instance where more votes from one election to another has lead to less seats.
Wikipedia plots some of the elections as ring charts which makes the disparity nice and obvious.
This is 1997. Both Labour and the Conservatives got substantially more seats (outer ring) than their vote share (inner ring) would suggest.
This is 2001. Both Labour and the Conservatives got substantially more seats (outer ring) than their vote share (inner ring) would suggest.
This is 2005. Both Labour and the Conservatives got substantially more seats (outer ring) than their vote share (inner ring) would suggest.
You may spot a pattern there.
How on earth can it be considered democratic that more votes would lead to less representation? Out of the two options presented to us, I believe that FPTP is more undemocratic; I shall be voting yes to change and yes to AV.
AV Is Already Used For All Parliamentary Elections
MPs elect the Speaker using AV. By-elections of hereditary peers uses AV. Chairmans of Parliamentary Select committees are elected using AV. The Deputy Speaker is elected using STV, which is the same voting process as AV (rank the candidates in order of preference) but the results are computed slightly differently. Outside of Parliament, Northern Ireland elections are held under STV, and mayoral elections are held under SV, which again uses the same voting process as AV.
Finally, all three major parties use AV to elect their leaders. You think about that.
And now, some objections
FPTP is fair
No, FPTP is unfair, and AV is unfair, and SV is unfair and STV is unfair, because it’s been mathematically shown that all voting systems are going to have unfair situations. The question is not whether or not it’s fair, but whether or not it’s democratic.
What you really want is Proportional Representation
Well yes, but I’m not being offered Proportional Representation. I’m being offered the choice of a very undemocratic system or a slightly less undemocratic one. I’ll have the slightly less bad one, thanks.
FPTP is simple
Sure, getting a wrong answer is easy. Getting the right answer takes slightly more work.
People can’t understand AV
Any argument which denigrates the intelligence of the electorate is undemocratic.
But very few other countries use AV!
So what? No really, I mean, so what? Very few other countries drive on the left, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, and it doesn’t mean it’s good either. That’s just meaningless propaganda rather than substantive argument.
And this leads me to a final problem. The campaigns on both the yes and the no sides are being run by politicians and political lobbyists, which means that they are often inaccurate, often disorganised and prone to rely on rhetoric rather than substance to make the case. That’s fine, and in the spirit of democracy, if that’s how people want to roll, they should be allowed to go with it.
But we have a rare opportunity here to do something really good, and if we want it to happen, we can’t look to the yes2av campaign to help. We have to do it ourselves. Why not share this post with others, or this graph, or, for the more mathematically inclined, this post, or this video, or - even better - write your own post about why you’ll be voting one way or another.