Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Alternative Vote #6: The Don't Know Campaign Decides

Tomorrow, we have the rare chance to vote in a referendum that will determine whether the current First-Past-the-Post (FPtP) voting system will be replaced with the Alternative Vote (AV). After researching the valid arguments for and against (and weeding out the irrelevant and false), I have decided to vote YES! 
The arguments posted in this series have judged AV along two lines: 1) the impact it will have on government and policy, and 2) the impact it will have on the voting system.  

Charles Roddie's account of why you might vote NO begins from the starting point that a good voting system is one that leads to the government you most desire. He identifies the changes that AV would bring as i) more seats for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and ii) an increase in the likelihood of hung parliaments. The first issue is subjective and if, like Charles Roddie, you are strongly opposed to 'left' leaning policies, then you might want to vote NO. A note of caution when judging AV on policy outcomes though: as Charles Roddie says, there will be unknown indirect effects (Will new parties form? Will incumbent parties change their tactics?) and there is little cross-sectional or time series evidence from which to predict how the British political landscape might change. The second issue is important because it questions the ability of AV to produce stable government. Whilst coalition power play is unwelcome if it distracts politicians, AV is a tried and tested voting system that has shown to produce tolerably stable governments. 

The issues Alisdair Cairns and Andrew Mell raise in their posts help to explain why AV is superior to FPtP when judged along the second line - how well it translates votes into political seats. 

If you are not used to mathematics, then Alisdair Cairns' post is quite technical but helpful to really understand how the winner under the two systems might differ. I think you can summarise the results as saying that AV is slightly better than FPtP at selecting popular winners (satisfies the majority criterion and clone independence) and discarding popular losers (AV doesn't let a condorcet loser pass).

AV does fall down in terms of 'consistency' compared to FPtP (AV doesn't satisfy monotonicity, participation or convexity). This means that, in theory, perverse results could arise. For example, non-monotonicity says that your favourite candidate might be more likely to win if you rank them lower. Non-participation implies that there are cases in which not turning out might improve the chances of your favourite candidate. In defense of AV, I would say that non-participation represents a special circumstance rather than the norm, and that in order to manipulate non-monotonicity one would need to know who all others were voting for, which is infeasible.  

Moving on from theory, how will AV change how votes are collected in practice?

Over the last 50 years there has been a significant drop in the share of the British electorate voting for the two main parites. Whereas in the 1950's over 90% of voters favoured Labour/Conservative, at the last election it was 67%. Nonetheless, FPtP continues to disproportionately represent the two main parties in parliament because of the plurality rule. Under the current system it is possible for parties with less than 40% of the vote to get most of the seats in the Houses of Parliament, which is a gross failure of representation. Can this be a legitimate voting system?!

Andrew Mell also reports that, currently: Most MPs win without a majority of votes, a significant number of voters vote strategically, and turnout has fallen below 60%. 

AV would be a step towards bringing our voting system up to date with the will of the voters. AV requires that a candidate achieves at least 50% of votes to win, which means that it is more representative. The ranking of preferences under AV also means that you can put your favourite candidate first without fear of your least favourite winning. (In case you need a reminder of how FPtP and AV work, see my post on how the proposed system works.)

The super majority rule under AV also means that winning candidates will have to work harder than they do under FPtP. Since Andrew Mell's post went up, the new economics foundation has estimated that AV will increase the marginality of 44 safe seats. MPs in these constituencies will no longer get away with complacency and they will have to increase their effort.

That preferences are better reflected in results under AV, and that there will be heightened pressure on representatives to respond to the concerns of constituents, will help increase the incentive to vote.  

Charles Roddie's post highlights the fact that we should be suspect of what politicians (and others with high stakes in a particular party) say about AV, as it is in their self interest to promote a system that increases their likelihood of their re-election. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats asked for the referendum, and I understand that 99% of the NO campaign funding came from Conservatives! Rather than being honest about their interests in the voting system, politicians have been outright lying about how AV works.  Andrew Mell raises the issue of the trumped up claims from the NO campaign that AV will be expensive (for more on this see post #1 too). There have also been misleading descriptions suggesting that AV counts some people's votes more than once. In fact, each voter's ballot is considered in each round (as long as they want it to and indicated a ranking). If your preferred candidate is winning, then you are fortunate that your lower preferences need not be considered. 

I think AV is a small but worthwhile change to improve the effectiveness and legitimacy of our democracy.

Have you made up your mind? x

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