Everything you’ve been told about AV is wrong

Grover transferring beer
Not transferable: Dont ring the AV campaigners if you need someone to organise a piss-up. (pic by Alex)

If the AV referendum campaign has established one thing, it’s that the level of our public discourse is stupider now than at any time since the Stone Age. The yes camp has been inept and uninspiring; the no campaign has been an insult to the intelligence of every sentient being. Especially horses. Hardly a day goes by without one of the news channels resorting to a half-bred horse-racing analogy, presumably because the whole business of voting for members of Parliament is an arcane ritual that people can’t hope to grasp without the crutch of a clumsy sporting metaphor. And the worst of it is that both sides in the debate are incapable of understanding the basic tenets of what is actually a pretty simple voting system. Regardless of whether you vote yes or no, here are five notions you should flush from your system before deciding:

1. Under the AV system, supporters of lunatic fringe parties will get more than one vote.

This piece of idiocy has been discredited in more ways than Robert Kilroy-Silk, but it still gets trotted out, so here goes: at no stage in the AV process, either voting or counting, does any person have more than one vote. You can use Sarah Teather’s sweet shop metaphor if you like (if you want to buy a Mars bar but the Mars bars have run out so you buy a Twix instead, you do not get two chocolate bars), but I prefer boring old analysis of the facts. Suppose the Conservative gets 45% of the first-choice votes, Labour’s candidate gets 30%, the Liberal Democrat gets 20% and the Lunatic Fringe Party candidate 5%. Lunatic Fringe man therefore drops out and his second-place votes are redistributed. So the Lunatics get two votes, right? No, because – are you ready for this? – THE VOTES ARE TRANSFERRED, NOT DUPLICATED. The first-choice votes of the other parties’ supporters are still valid – so if anything, it’s these votes that count more than once, because they get carried forward while the Lunatics have to make do with their second choice.

If you’re still not convinced, next time you’re in the pub try topping up your pint from a friend’s glass while they’re in the toilet. According to the No campaign’s logic, when they come back the beer will still be in your friend’s glass as well as yours and they’ll have no reason at all to smack you in the face. Go on, give it a go.

2. Under the AV system, the loser wins.

Er, no, they don’t. A candidate wins an AV election by gaining a majority of the counted votes. Having a majority means having more votes than your opponent. And having more votes makes you the winner, not the loser. Even Sun readers should be able to understand this.
The difference is that not all the votes you receive are necessarily first-preference votes. But second, third and fourth-choice votes are still votes, no matter how hard John Reid sets his face against the idea. And there is no inherent unfairness in the system, no matter what those tiresome horse-racing analogies may lead you to think, that means the second-placed candidate after round one will inevitably charge past the leader when the votes are redistributed. The candidate who is in the lead can still win, and in fact is best placed to do so, but they have to gain a majority of votes cast.

In the same way, if I challenge John Reid to a drinking duel, he cannot just down his first pint in one swig and declare himself the winner. We have to keep accumulating more beer through second, third and subsequent pints until one of us is left standing while the other is sprawled beneath the table. So next time you see Reid on Newsnight protesting that ‘under AV, the loser wins’, imagine him hanging off the end of a bar spluttering ‘I AM THE CHAMPION’ through a mouthful of diced carrots. Because that’s what he’s really arguing for.

3. The AV system gives parties like the BNP a better chance of winning seats.

The argument here is either that BNP sympathizers will be less likely to vote tactically for other parties, or that they will attract lots of second and third-choice votes, thus increasing their chance of representation. Both notions are utter tosh. If the BNP finish in their customary fourth or fifth spot on first-preference votes, they will be eliminated at an early stage. Since they are out of the contest, not only are their first-choice votes redistributed, but second, third and fourth-choice votes for them won’t count either. The only way the BNP can profit from the AV system is if they garner enough first-choice votes to stay in the hunt until the closing stages. And if that happens, it won’t be the electoral system at fault, but the political culture that gave them a foothold in the first place.

4. AV eliminates the need for tactical voting.

No it doesn’t: it just shifts the goalposts. In a FPTP election, if you’re a Liberal Democrat voter who dislikes the Conservatives, but you live in a constituency where Labour is stronger, you vote Labour to keep the Tories out. The Yes to AV camp will tell you that under AV you can vote with your conscience, choosing Lib Dem as your first preference and making Labour your second choice. The obvious rejoinder here is that stating a second preference is in itself a tactical vote, because the purpose of it is to keep the Tories out. But even then it’s not quite that simple.

Let’s construct another fictional scenario. Opinion polls are showing that the Conservatives have 40% support in a constituency, Labour 30% and the Lib Dems 25%. The Tories fear that when the Lib Dems are eliminated, there will be a wave of second-place votes that will carry Labour to the finishing line. If the Tory candidate is a sufficiently callous, scheming bastard (this is a fictional scenario, remember), he could persuade a portion of his supporters – say 6% of the electorate – to give their first-preference vote to the Lib Dems. This now puts the Lib Dems in second place with Labour in third, and when Labour are eliminated from the contest all their second-preference votes from the Lib Dem supporters go up in smoke too. The Conservatives will now win unless the Labour voters can give a big block of second-place votes to the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems’ best insurance strategy, therefore, is to cultivate the second votes of Labour supporters.
It’s true that tactical votes are more difficult to orchestrate under AV, because there are more variables in voting, but in close contests it will still play a role.

5. In an AV election, candidates have to get 50% of the vote to win.

Except that they don’t, because some ballots are discounted altogether. It’s still possible under AV to vote for one candidate only – so if you’re a Lunatic Fringe supporter who loathes all the other parties (and probably the rest of humanity) equally, you will not have a say in the final count, mercifully. The same applies if you pick the Lunatics as your second preference and your first choice is also eliminated. When a party drops out, all the votes they received perish with them, whether they’re first, second, third or fifteenth choice.

Let’s revisit the last scenario (it’s OK, we’re nearly finished). Imagine that tactical voting gives the Tories 34%, the Lib Dems 31% and Labour 30% on first preference, with the Lunatic Fringe getting 5%. Transferred Lunatic votes put the Conservatives on 36%, the Lib Dems on 32% and Labour on 31%, with 1% declining to state a second preference. Now Labour drop out, but because their supporters are in a huff with the Tories and the Lib Dems, they either refuse to state a second preference or go for the Lunatics. So the Tories win the contest with 36% of the total vote. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the principle of the perishable vote.

Now for a final twist: imagine that half of those Lib Dem voters had put down Labour as their second choice. This means Labour had 47% of all first and second preference votes, enough to beat the Tories, but lost out because they were eliminated ahead of the Lib Dems. Had a handful of Lib Dem voters tactically switched their first preference to Labour, Labour would have won the contest.

Head hurting yet? Go for a pint. But make sure John Reid gets his round in.

12 comments

  1. And if you’d filled in your ballot paper like that it would have been marked as spoiled and not counted, due to there being two ‘1’s. Another reason you should vote no.😉

    • (explanatory note: point 3 was originally labelled with a 1. This was obviously intended as an illustration of how the third-placed candidate finished first, and not a cock-up in any way, lord no. Thanks to Graham Linehan for pointing it out first, all the same)

  2. Normally the election will be won by the 2nd or 3rd round, so point 5 is not that important. Don’t forget FPTP elections are more likely to have multiple recounts because that extra one vote matters so much.

    As your explanation shows gaming the system is much harder, but letting ‘not perfect’ being the enemy of the good is foolish.

  3. Thanks for the write up.

    I’m still a bit fuzzy on what will happen in the case of two parties like the BNP and UKIP in the same constituency, say UKIP get to second or third place, but all the BNP voters who were disqualified get their second choice of UKIP redistributed.

    I can see this being a problem in some areas, especially where voter turn out is poor. Should I be worried?

    • Still, though, the BNP and UKIP’s combined votes would have to outpoint all the other parties combined. Say UKIP get 25% in a close contest and the BNP score 10%, and all the BNP votes drift to UKIP: that’s still only 35% of the votes cast. Ordinarily they would need a substantial number of lower-preference votes from the main parties. And if UKIP are polling strongly, it’s quite likely that supporters of the main parties will use their second and third preferences tactically to block them out. Frankly, there’s no straightforward answer to your question, but a party is extremely unlikely to win an AV election without the backing of at least 40% of voters. And if either UKIP or the BNP manage that, it’s not the voting system that’s the problem.

  4. “A candidate wins an AV election by gaining a majority of the votes cast”

    That’s wrong.

    They just need a majority of the votes which remain in the final round of counting (which may very well included only two candidates).

    Plenty of votes might have been thrown away before then, making it possible for a candidate to win even though a minority of voters backed them.

    For example, if you live in a Lib Dem/Tory marginal and don’t include the Lib Dems or the Tories anywhere in your list of preferences then your vote may very well be thrown away before the final round of counting.

    But the winning candidate only needs a majority of the votes that are left. So if 20 per cent of votes get thrown away then the winning candidate only needs 40 per cent +1 of the total votes to win (ie, more than half of the 80 per cent that are left).

    Look at it this way – there is no guarantee that any candidate will actually get votes from a majority of voters. But in that situation, someone would still become the MP.

    • They would still have demonstrated more support than most winning candidates under FPTP. Anyway think about what it means if you choose not to fill in lower preferences – if you can only countenance 1 or 2 of the candidates winning and have no preference at all between the others, then you would presumably abstain from voting if a run-off ballot got down to only those other candidates. That’s all those lost votes represent: abstentions.

  5. um ok, red face, you actually made my point yourself in point 5.

    But doesn’t your point 5 contradict the claim you make in point 2?

    Maybe I should just go to the pub.

    • It’s still a majority in the sense of being the greater share, but yes, it’s not 50% of all the votes cast. So ‘majority of the votes counted’ would be more accurate. And if you add in spoilt ballots (a big issue at the last Scottish Parliament election), the proportion of votes cast could be even lower.

  6. […] Everything you’ve been told about AV is wrong « WordsForPress If the AV referendum campaign has established one thing, it’s that the level of our public discourse is stupider now than at any time since the Stone Age. The yes camp has been inept and uninspiring; the no campaign has been an insult to the intelligence of every sentient being. Especially horses. Hardly a day goes by without one of the news channels resorting to a half-bred horse-racing analogy, presumably because the whole business of voting for members of Parliament is an arcane ritual that people can’t hope to grasp without the crutch of a clumsy sporting metaphor. And the worst of it is that both sides in the debate are incapable of understanding the basic tenets of what is actually a pretty simple voting system. Regardless of whether you vote yes or no, here are five notions you should flush from your system before deciding: (tags: electoral.reform) […]

  7. Generally agreed, except I think in 4 you’ve underplayed the difficulty of orchestrating the tactical electioneering – it requires absolute reliance on poll figures and somehow targeting a very specific proportion (and only that proportion) of your own voters to get them not to vote for you. The other thing it involves, namely encouraging voters of other parties to place you second-preference, I wouldn’t describe as tactical or underhand at all – it just means parties have to engage with a wider range of voters, which is arguably a *strength* of AV.

    In any case, nowadays the Conservatives would definitely want Lib Dem voters to come third, because anyone who would still vote Lib Dem first preference would put the Tories second.

    • You couldn’t be more wrong about LD voters putting Tories second.

      I think one of the major reasons why the Tories are so scared of AV is that they are unlikely to pick up many second preference votes from any party.

      A growing number on the left of the LDs would look to include Greens in their top 2, … and actually this is where how much of the detail of the votes is published gets interesting. Because under AV (as with FPTP, but the information is never recorded) it would be possible for a smaller party like the Greens, to receive 100% of 2nd preference votes, but be eliminated at the first round, while clearly being the party best reflecting their constituency.

      The influence of the publication of preferences on the elected members would be really interesting, and could inform far more effective campaigning and pre-election negotiations between parties, to make the policy approach of coalitions parliaments less of a shock.

      But in short, no, very few LDs would choose Tories as their second preference – and the few that would will probably have defected by then as predicted by the rats-sinking-ship theory anyway.

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