Our Voting System Leads to Less Popular Candidate Winning

Feel free to just watch the videos!

Imagine the wrong person winning a position of extreme power just because the votes were counted badly….
On May the 5th you have a chance to stop it happening in the UK.

In some UK elections and the US presidency a widely-discredited voting system called first-past-the-post (FPTP) is used which can’t cope properly with more than two candidates.

(Scroll down for the video on the Alternative Vote)

In 2000 the US Presidential candidates were George W. Bush, an oil baron, and two environmentalists with a lot in common – Democrat Al Gore and Green campaigner Ralph Nader. Nader polled only 3% but pulled enough of Gore’s vote away so that Bush got more votes than Gore in several marginal States, narrowly giving Bush the Presidency.

Whoever gets most votes wins sounds great in theory, but with three or more candidate it can mean an unpopular candidate winning. Bush won because of Nader’s intervention. Who stands determines the result rather than actual preferences of the voters. This common failing of FPTP is called the spoiler effect.

We have rejected FPTP for governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and London and the elections of party leaders.

Sadly, we still use FPTP to elect MPs. Could the spoiler effect be changing results in constituencies in the UK? Yes, probably several, if not several hundred! Nader trigged the spoiler with 3% vote. Here our “minor parties” get 35%.

There’s a solution to FPTP. In the US it’s increasingly popular as more and more cities use it in their elections. Americans call it Instant Run-off Voting. We call it the Alternative Vote (AV).

AV is as easy as 1,2,3. You put a 1 by the candidate you genuinely like best; 2 by your second preference, and so on. You can even just mark your ballot paper with an X, which will count as a 1st preference only. Easy. You get an equal say like everyone else.

When the votes are counted, weaker candidates (like Nader) are gradually excluded. Then we work out how people would have voted if that candidate hadn’t stood. That would have been enough for Al Gore to gain a majority in enough States to the win the White House (as only a very few of Nader’s supporters had Bush as their 2nd choice). But if no-one has got a majority we’d keep excluding weak candidates until we find someone with more than 50% support.

AV helps community campaigners who reach out to voters beat candidates who think the way to win elections is to throw advertising money at them.

AV is widely supported in the US because all parties know they can be hit by the spoiler effect. In the UK some parties think the spoiler effect works in their favour and try hard to block reform with terrible scare stories. They haven’t realized that when MPs are out of touch with voters their decisions are always going to be bad. On May 5th there’s a referendum on whether MPs should be elected by the Alternative Vote. I urge you to vote Yes.

The author, Imogen Caterer is a Yes to the Alternative Vote activist. This is part of her personal Yes to Alternative Vote campaign.  P&P: I Caterer, 180 Storud Road, Gloucester GL1 5JX

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Probably the Most Popular Video on Voting Reform

With more than 15,000 views in 3 days. It’ll be soon be more watched than  the Prime Minister on the issue and far more than the No campaign’s video they are sending paid traffic to.


The Problems of First-past-the-post explained.

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The People want the Alternative Vote

Video on Alternative vote

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Why does AV let someone’s 1st Preference have the Same Value as Another Person’s 2nd Preference

One of aspect of the Alternative Vote that gives rise to a lot of adverse is that when candidates are excluded and their voters’ are transferred to their next preference AT FULL value, with no reduction in value because it’s the voters second preference rather than their first.
Why on earth should someone’s 2nd preference equal the same as someone else’s first?
I can appreciate why that sounds not only odd but extremely unfair. That was my 1st thought when I heard of AV was that was stupid/unfair.
Why does AV do that?
Because to AV the voter is King/Queen!
AV says voters are very, very important & you shouldn’t elect MPs w/o backing of 50% of them.
Every time AV tries to get for each voter their most preferred option. AV treats each voter like they matter.
Suppose you’re a voter who votes for candidates x for your 1st preference, y for 2nd and z for 3rd preference.
And your 1st preference gets eliminated…
If, say, AV then halved the value of the 2nd preference then not only would you have not got your 1st preference you haven’t got much hope of 2nd preference getting elected either, while other voters still have chance to get their first.
Instead we should be giving every elector the best chance of getting a person they prefer elected.
Voters are always people and (generally) tax payers. The Government is going to set taxes we’ll expect them to pay them so we might as well have some effort into getting their votes to count.
With the current electoral system, first-past-the-post, if you don’t back the winner then you shouldn’t have another chance to affect the result.
There’s a tendency in No-to-AV campaign to dismiss anyone who hasn’t backed the FPTP winner as a “loser” & Yes to AV somehow looking after “losers”.
This totally forgets that voters are people, usually taxpayers and therefore valuable.
Hidden advantages

One advantage of this is that it encourages more candidates to stand. Why? Because voters can move who they really want without fearing it will lead to their vote being wasted.
And, importantly, a candidate doesn’t need to fear that because he/she will take votes from a similar candidate and inadvertently letting in a totally unacceptable candidate.
This means bad MPs can be challenged by rivals in a similar part of the political spectrum if they do not look after their constituents well enough.
This all adds up to greater voter choice. Raising the possibility with AV that voters will be able to give their 1st preference to candidates that wouldn’t even stand under FPTP.
Giving later preferences equal value (when they are used) is vital for ensuring everyone has equal chance of getting someone they like as the MP.
The key to understand how AV behaves is that people are really, really valuable.

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Why the Lib Dem vote goes down (even collapses) under AV or PR

Much of the speculation about what happens with AV or proportional representation  (PR)  is based on the assumption that the 3 major parties remain the same. Then in the case of AV what the transferred votes would do (and they are often assumed to boost the Lib Dems) or in PRs case they assume that the vote share remains the same and it is reflected in parliamentary make up.
Both assumptions are deeply flawed.
Change the rules of the game and the effect on the players is totally different.
Imagine you are playing Monopoly with a friend and you have just started building up a property portfolio. Then the rules change…  the price of property halves, the price of houses halves. Perhaps another friend of yours who didn’t like the rules before decides they can join in. (In Monopoly you’d need to give permission for that, but in politics a new political party could start anytime, especially if it was easier to get elected.)
Suddenly the nature of the game has changed – often many of those changes are subtle.  People buy themselves out of prison faster and hence buy more and different property. It can be hard to predict what will happen but things certainly change.
A change to AV or PR changes everything….
Both AV and PR encourage more political parties to be formed. AV because votes don’t get wasted if they go a party that has low support , so it is worth risking people voting for them and giving later preferences to larger parties. PR because it’ll it ensure a party gets representation once you have a certain (usually pretty low) percentage of the vote.
In Great Britain we have the choice between 3 major parties. Under AV or PR the choice will be much broader.
And what happens to the vote of the Lib Dems in those circumstances?
They have PR across much of Europe. They also have Liberal parties that are in the same party grouping as the Lib Dems in the European Parliament. And though European may speak different languages they still have many of the same liberal urges. Perhaps increased by their experience of war.
The UK Lib Dems polled 23% in 2010 (support increased by lack of choice between political parties). My brief click round at http://www.eldr.eu/ has revealed many of European Liberals polling around 13%, and in the past some have polled around the 5% mark.
With more choice at the ballot box the Liberal vote always go down. Unsurprisingly.

Only about 10-15% of the electorate are likely to support Liberals (and their parties) in the ballot box.
So about 10% goes off the Lib Dem vote (before people hit them with disgust over fees) There are more political parties to choose from. Lots more options if a coalition government needs forming.
This is NOT a recipe for Lib Dem power.
And I know at least one man who knew full well it wasn’t.
Paddy Ashdown. (Lib Dem leader 1988-1999).
My first job was working for Berwick-on-Tweed MP Alan Beith. One day Ashdown spoke to the parliamentary researchers and told us about the European parties and how he expected the Lib Dem vote to collapse. It’s his commentary, not mine. That’s why I recall the 5% figure. It was that bad then.
“So what’s the point of PR?” I blurted out, unaware how stupid my question was in front of a load of Lib Dem researchers.
Paddy looked off into the middle distance (you know how he did), his tone changed so much softer and he declared “Oh, PR. PR changes everything.”
Beyond that he was lost for words…. Novel.
So why did he campaign to cut his support in half? Was he mad?
Why be a Lib Dem?
It goes back to this. Why get active in politics? Why give up all those hours?
Everyone gets involved in politics for the promotion of highly cherished beliefs. Later on they may be corrupted by the desire for power, sadly.
For Conservative Party members they may well voice it as a desire for people keep the money they have earned. For Labour re-distribution of wealth is often a key concern.
For Lib Dems (and the Liberals / SDP before them) fair votes is a key rallying crying. It is vital that people’s votes count, that parliament reflects the will of the people.
And they will follow that even it puts them out power.
And it usually does!
2010-11 is a complete aberration. For most of this and last century voting reform is a topic of odd-balls. Neither of the two major parties was in favour nor was there any hope they would be.  To campaign effectively you must accept the powerlessness of 3rd party status with an electoral system built for two. Only when the 3rd party vote started climbing (as it did) would the discussion become more mainstream.
But to finally get fair votes and bring in a new plural democracy with parties of different competing views and, ideally, a system that encouraged parties to talk and have mature discussions rather than the mutual expressions of hatred often thrown across the Commons benches. That, they believed, would make it all worth it.
If he had done it then it would have been Paddy’s life time achievement,  even if his party started to wither as a result.
It never happened….
What about AV and coalition?
AV gives a real chance of additional political parties. It increases the chance of them getting elected as well, though not as much as PR. Nor does it guarantee seats in proportion to vote – shame!
But especially with the Green Party on up we have a real chance of 4 major British parties pretty soon. More choice for voters and options for coalition that leave the Lib Dems out.
The Lib Dem vote really could sink (even without tuition fees) .
However, the new parties are likely to favour of PR (vested interest & also, maybe, principle).
Because people vote for their real first preference under AV it will reveal just how distorted the electoral system is (Labour voters will appear in the South; Conservatives in North. Both were previously hidden by voting tactically for the Lib Dems) More parties will probably make the system APPEAR even more distorted whereas FPTP would hide these differences by people voting for the large and highly diverse parties called Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.
This makes it easier to switch over to some form of PR.
(Sadly STV/PR for the Lords is likely to lead to a serious break in the 2.5 party system because people will still be looking to the Commons because the Commons forms the government. I think we could get some interesting characters elected by STV though!)
Rightly or wrongly, the Lib Dems didn’t believe they could get PR in the coalition negotiation (there were serious concerns about whether Labour could deliver its MPs to vote for a referendum containing that option).
So they opted for AV. It gave them some of the characteristics of PR (including multi-party potential) and an increased chance of further reform. In no way was it a sell out – remember Ashdown’s dream.
How to keep the Lib Dems in power?
According to the IPPR with FPTP we are now trending towards more hung parliaments. http://www.ippr.org.uk/publicationsandreports/publication.asp?id=798
If someone actually wanted to keep the Lib Dems in power then keeping FPTP would probably be the best strategy.
FPTP mainly allows 2 parties to complete but can just about allow another in some seats. That party is almost exclusively the Lib Dems in England and often in Scotland and Wales too.
Since no others have a reasonable chance of getting through the Lib Dems hold the privilege of being third party and if either of the 2 parties doesn’t have enough seats for a government. They are likely to turn to the Lib Dems and often that may lead to coalition government.
Ironically, FPTP gives far more power to the Lib Dems.

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AV, People Power and the Flintstones

Daniel Finkelstein had it right in the Times on 5th January. Though it was strange to have Fred and Barney (seemingly from the Flintstones) wandering around the debate on whether the UK should change to the alternative vote (AV).
The relevance of Fred & Barney  is they  are alleged (in this instance) to be stone-age rabbit hunters who realise if they work together they could hunt bigger game. The next morning they set off to put their new plan into practice but then neither can remember if they agreed to hunt bison or stag. And depending on which they choose they have to go in different directions.
What’s the solution? (And humour me for another paragraph and I’ll tell you what the heck this has to do with AV!)
The answer depends on what are the exact rules of the game. How much more valuable is bison/stag compared to rabbit? Can Fred and Barney contact each other in some way? How many times they play the “game”? And what they think the person will do. Changing any of these rules can have a dramatic effect on how Fred and Barney behave and the ultimate result.n It’s called game theory. There’s an entire branch of Maths devoted to studying this kind of thing!
If you changed the rules Fred and Barney would behave very differently and if you change rules of the voting system our latter-day Freds and Barneys (David Cameron, Nick Clegg, David Miliband, Caroline Lucas etc) would behave differently. As well as the voters (another Freds and Barneys who behave differently as rules change)….
Bets are off as to the ultimate effect of AV on party-held seats in the Commons, that the endless speculation of what party will do better under is AV is pure crap.
It’s often based on asking people what their second preference vote after an election campaign designed for the FPTP electoral system, and being given a choice of candidates and parties that have come forward (or held back), in part, because of the voting system itself.

It’s take a lot more than that it take educated guesses as to what might happen. See my next post on the effect of the Lib Dem vote based multiple multi-party situations (i.e. Europe).

Change all that and the whole “game” of politics changes – forever.

It is entirely possible there will be new parties under AV (with the fear of wasting one’s vote gone, people could give their preference to something new.) Those new parties could even lead to the end of one of the current ones. More independents may be elected (same logic as new parties). And there’s a general consensus that a politics where people try and find common ground emerges (as party’s attempt to get the 2nd or 3rd preference of other party’s supporters).
So how do we decide which is the better voting system?
Here Daniel Finkelstein and I divert. He kept his powder dry on whether AV was better than FPTP to focus on his main point  that changing the rules, changes the behaviour of the parties and the result.
Being a political-journalistic hack created under FPTP Daniel Finkelstein speculates about some of the effect on the behaviour of political parties…but doesn’t mention the effect on voters (and secondarily on MPs behaviour), which is the most certain effect change in the voting system.

Just like if you change the pay-out for going past Go in Monopoly from £200 to £50 you can’t guess who’ll win but you can tell cashflow is going to be a lot tighter.
So what difference does AV make? And is it desirable?

Let’s start by looking at what FPTP does.
Sorry, if this sounds patronizing but one thing I’ve learnt from chatting on twitter is that we may think we are talking about the same thing when  we use terms like “safe seat” we often aren’t.

1)      Creates “wasted” votes. There are a number of interpretations to the term “wasted vote”. Here’s one popular one.  If your vote doesn’t go towards electing someone or directly stopping them being elected then it wasted.

Also where it known by the MP that an individual’s vote is routinely for a party with little chance of taking the seat (and they do tend to know about their regular correspondents) the MP can afford to ignore that individual. Where there are a lot of wasted votes MPs can pay little attention to whole districts were that party is supported (e.g. social housing areas in Tory seats)

2)      Creates safe seats. This is where, except for something extra-ordinary happening, the seat remains a racing certainty for the seating party and MP to hold it. Safe seats routinely have lower voter turnout. Something extra-ordinary could be the  “cash for questions” scandal and Labour and Lib Dems standing down in favour of Martin Bell (Tatton, 1997), but get generally the MP is secure, and can therefore ignore the wishes of the voter.

3)      Inspires Tactical Voting. Tactical voting is a game strategy, like Barney hunting rabbits when he really wants bison. It is deployed by the electorate that understand FPTP and have found their way round some of it flaws.  It is an attempt to avoid to having your vote wasted by the system at the price of voting for a party you don’t really like. It is used by people who prefer another candidate but don’t think they will win, so they vote for the candidate most likely to beat a candidate they like least.

The reason why they do this is to ensure they at least prevent someone they don’t like being elected.

The disadvantages are massive, though, they reduce the chance of the support of their most favoured party growing over a number of elections and eventually taking the seat, their vote will count in the national share of the vote as support for another party and they could have guessed wrongly how the election was going anyway

4)      Also encourages political parties to put out leaflets claiming “x can’t win here”. This is an attempt to gain tactical votes. Shame more leaflet space isn’t devoted to discussing real issues but then the FPTP encourages tactics rather principles.

And what would be the difference with AV?

1)      Your vote matters no matter which is your first preference candidate. With AV you get multiple preferences. If you vote for a candidate that doesn’t have much support in your constituency and that candidate is eliminated then your vote goes to your second preference until someone is elected. No one need to go to the polling booths with the feeling that their vote won’t count. There’s an option of voting for independent candidates or a new 4th party may emerge because you can’t waste your vote.  And as any politician could benefit from your later preference they will be more inclined to listen to you.

2)      Personal Safe Seats eliminated. Some parties would still be assured to win certain seats (e.g. Kensington and Chelsea is like to remain Tory, at least for the first AV elections) Personal safe seats do disappear however. An unpopular MP could be challenged by an UNOFFICIAL candidate claiming to be of the same party and showing themselves to be better candidate. Previously this was rarely done with FPTP because the vote could split and let in another party. But with AV preference voting people could be put their preferred candidate first and then back the other one and let the electoral system work out the winner!

And MPs, aware of this potential scenario, could just pay more attention to their constituents and often prevent themselves from being challenged in this way.

3)      Tactical voting disappears under AV. It was a strategy used to compensate for the worst of FPTP. With AV, voters give a 1st preference to their 1st preference; a 2nd preference to their 2nd preference. If they can’t get the candidate they want it their vote moves to the next choice. There’s no need for tactics.

4)      The “x can’t win here” could stay around for a bit (while voters and parties get used to the system) but is likely to be replaced by political comment and attempts to win broad support (i.e. other parties second and third preferences.)

Are these changes desirable?

It’s clear that AV gives much more power to voters. For some, it would seem obvious that AV is better because of that.

However, having listened to the NO2AV campaign on twitter I note that occasionally they let out the sentiment that voters aren’t the ones that really matter – like “The trouble with AV supporters is that they think voters are the most important. They aren’t.”

What is? I can only guess that it is “Strong Government”.

And if you are used to governments created by FPTP why would you want to change that model?

To really have strong government you must have a strong connection between people and government. A government out of touch with the people inevitably makes a lot of errors. MPs out of touch with constituents routinely misrepresent them too.

In summary

We only get a vote for the Commons every 4 to 5 years that is our main input. We live with government decisions day in day out. We should have maximum power of influence. Yes to AV.

Unlike FPTP I believe in allowing people’s voice to be heard… please leave a comment below…

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