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Thinking about the UK referendum on AV

I just got my postal ballot for the UK referendum on switching from the current first-past-the-post system to the alternative vote (AV). I’m going to think out loud about which way to go.

Each campaign has a handy top three list. The yes campaign says:

MPs working harder to earn - and keep - our support: Your next MP would have to aim to get more than 50% of the vote to be sure of winning. At present they can be handed power with just one vote in three.  They’ll need to work harder to win - and keep - your support.

I’m not sure anyone campaigns to get less than 50%. Because AV means that the candidates with the least support are the first votes to be redistributed this inevitably means campaigning to capture votes from the fringes. It’s also a bit of a misdirection. Just because you end up with 50% of the vote after x rounds of redistribution doesn’t mean that you have the wholehearted support of 50% of your constituents.

A bigger say on who your local MP is: Ranking candidates gives you more say - in who comes first and who comes last. If your favourite doesn’t win, you can still have a say. It’s as easy as 1,2,3…

It is appealing to be able to vote your conscience and then vote reality. But as you’re still ending up with a single MP you’re not getting proportional representation (that would be STV or similar schemes) and there is always going to be a winner. Maybe better to have the courage of your convictions and actually make the hard choices involved in picking a single candidate to vote for.

Let’s say that you favor green policies and so want to send a signal by voting for the Green party. Green candidate off the table you’d vote for Labor. Under FPTP your vote for Green risks dividing the Labor vote and allowing a Conservative candidate in. Under AV you can happily vote Green #1, Labor #2 safe in the knowledge that your vote is going to be redistributed. You’re sending a signal either way, but the signal that involves a candidate losing their seat because their policies were not green enough seems like the stronger one, even if it’s more painful in the short term.

Tackling the ‘jobs for life' culture: Too many MPs have their ‘safe seats’ for life. Force complacent politicians to sit up and listen, and reach out to the communities they seek to represent.

To the extent that this is a problem it would seem that term limits would be the answer. AV will still produce plenty of safe seats. Very bad choice of a third argument.

The no campaign says:

AV is costly: The change to AV will cost up to an additional £250 million. Local councils would have to waste money on costly electronic vote counting machines and expensive voter education campaigns. With ordinary families facing tough times can we really afford to spend a quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers' money bringing in a new voting system? Schools and hospitals, or the Alternative Vote – that's the choice in this referendum.

Even if you take this number at face value it would be a small price to pay for better governance. Silly first argument.

AV is complex and unfair: The winner should be the candidate that comes first, but under AV the candidate who comes second or third can actually be elected. That’s why it is used by just three countries in the world – Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea. Voters should decide who the best candidate is, not the voting system. We can't afford to let the politicians off the hook by introducing a loser's charter.

How I hate the ‘something culture’ and ‘whatever charter’ lingo. AV isn’t particularly complex. In fact, because you don’t narrow your choice down to one it’s actually less complex than FPTP in terms of the reasoning that goes into your ballot choice rather than the trivial mechanics of actually voting. I think it is unfair though, more on this below.

AV is a politician's fix: AV leads to more hung parliaments, backroom deals and broken promises like the Lib Dem tuition fees U-turn. Instead of the voters choosing the government, politicians would hold power. Under AV, the only vote that really counts is Nick Clegg's. We can't afford to let the politicians decide who runs our country.

Reading the Jenkins' Commission report and looking at examples like Australia this doesn’t seem to be particularly true. The current coalition is the result of FPTP. Australia doesn’t have hung parliaments very often. In fact, AV can lead to larger swings in favor of one party.

My experience of AV in San Francisco is that I often ended up just voting for one candidate. I had a single preference and really didn’t care to rank a second choice (especially in the cases where AV was bizarrely used for two candidate races). This would be possible in the proposed UK system as well.

I think the real flaw in AV is that votes for least popular candidates are the ones that get redistributed, providing a second, third and even fourth vote. This seems fundamentally unfair and unsound. There is no perfect voting system but providing greater influence for minority views seems like a worse trade off than underrepresenting them.

Maybe instead of carving up the vote it would be better to carve up the parties?

I’ll be voting no.


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