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Confused by AV?

For those confused by the many arguments being bandied around over the merits or otherwise of the Alternative Vote, the Political Studies Association have just released a short, and relatively easy to understand, briefing document on the pros and cons of the Alternative Vote.

It’s written by Alan Renwick, of the University of Reading, with advice from a large number of other academics. It’s especially good on myth busting, noting that many of the claims made both by the Yes and No camps are over-played. For example:

AV would uphold the principle of ‘one person, one vote’. Every voter would still be treated equally; each vote would count only once in deciding who is elected in each constituency.

AV would not eliminate safe seats, though it will probably reduce their number.

Other conclusions include:

AV would probably not change turnout at elections. Nor is it likely to change significantly the number of spoilt ballots.

AV is unlikely to change the structure of the party system fundamentally. But it is likely to increase the Lib Dems’ seat share somewhat, at the expense of the other main parties.

AV would probably make coalition governments slightly more frequent (but changes in how people vote mean coalitions are already becoming more likely under FPTP).

AV would probably sometimes exaggerate landslides.

Minor parties under AV would probably win more votes, but not more seats. AV would be likely to increase the bargaining power of some minor parties, but not of extremists such as the BNP. It did not help Australia’s One Nation party.

AV would be unlikely to increase the number of women or ethnic minority MPs.

AV would be unlikely significantly to change  the standards of  MPs’  behaviour or the relationship between MPs and voters. It might make some MPs focus more on constituency work – which might or might not be desirable.

Philip Cowley

Published inAV campaignBritish Politics


  1. TimJB TimJB

    If I vote for a candidate who comes last in the first round and there is no clear winner then my vote will have been counted once. If my second choice then leads to someone gaining the threshold I will have had 2 chances to influence the outcome. How is that not being counted twice? It may mean that my vote is meaningless until I agree with enough people but it doesn’t disguise the fact that I will have effectively voted twice.

    • Phillip Khan-Panni Phillip Khan-Panni

      AV is about majority preference. If your first preference does not work, under FPTP your vote has been wasted. Moreover, the ‘winner’ may have attracted less than half the votes. But AV takes account of ‘preferences’, not merely votes. It discards your ‘failed’ preferences and counts only the preference that contributes towards a victory. The winner therefore always has the backing of at least half the votes cast. A much fairer system.

    • Vicky Seddon Vicky Seddon

      No, because your first “vote” is eliminated when that candidate is eliminated; AV means that your vote (and that of everyone else) continues to count unitl the very last round (provided you have voted sufficient preferences)

      At any one time, only one of your preferences is in play

  2. RF RF

    Because every person’s vote is counted in each round. They are all counted the same number of times, it doesn’t matter if it’s someone’s second preference because their 1st preference is no longer counted. Some people might have a problem with all preferences being treated as equal but I don’t. It makes a vote more of a statement of consent than direct support, but many people don’t vote for their favourite candidate under FPTP anyway because they know it would never count for anything – which means grossly exaggerated mandates for the big two.

  3. TimJB is right and RF is wrong.

    If I cast 2 preferences it has exactly the same impact as 2 other voters casting 1 preference each, i.e. I get 2 votes to their 1.

  4. RF RF

    I’m sorry but you are tragically wrong. The winner under AV is whomever has 50% +1 in the final simulated round. In that final round each voter gets ONE SINGLE VOTE. For some it will be their 1st preference, for those whose 1st preference was knocked out in a previous round it might be their 2nd or 3rd (not very likely to be more than that unless there are lots of very similar candidates). It’s not unreasonable to question whether lower preferences should be considered equal to a person’s 1st choice, but it is total hogwash to say that anyone gets ‘more than one vote’.

    If you are so keen on the principle of one person; one vote, presumably you are in favour of PR, which is the only kind of system which does treat everyone’s votes equally?

  5. spookluke spookluke

    To quote the paper linked:
    “The claim that AV gives some voters extra votes is a fallacy

    Many supporters of FPTP have argued that AV gives some voters extra votes. This is wrong. Under AV, each voter’s vote has exactly the same value.

    In the first round of counting, everyone’s first preference is counted as one vote. In the second round, if your favourite candidate is still in the race, your first preference still counts for one vote. If your favourite candidate was eliminated, your first preference now counts for zero but your second preference counts for one vote. From each ballot paper, only one vote is being counted. This remains true at each stage of the counting process.”

  6. Rob Ford Rob Ford

    The claim that some voters get extra votes is indeed a misunderstanding. Will Straw put it most succinctly:

    “If you go to the pub and order a pint of Carling but they are out of Carling and you choose a pint of John Smith’s instead, you’ve still only had one pint.”

    Whereas FPP equates to going home whenever your first choice pint isn’t available.

  7. Matt Matt

    One question I don’t think anyones really asked is why on earth do first preference votes hold the same value as second, third, fourth preference. A first preference vote is a positive vote. It is a “I want you” to be my MP vote. A second or any other preference is a negative vote, it is either a ‘well I guess I wouldn’t mind” or it’s a “Well I’ll vote you because the other guy is a twat” vote. Neither of which constitute a proper democratic endorsement.

    This will produce perverse results. Like one candidate who gets 46% of first preference votes being beaten by a candidate who gets 20% of first preference votes. And, as the BBC 5 Live poll showed today, that many people will just want to have one vote, and this will create candidates winning with less than 50%. Which I don’t particularly care about, but clearly the Yes campaign would!

    This truly is a sad and shambolic system. To have an electoral system based upon negative voting is a sad state of affairs. Either keep FPTP, or go the whole hog and have MMMP like they have in Germany. AV is the worst of all systems.

    Plus we will probably lose the only British institution worth following the political cycle for…that being BBC Election Night.

  8. Andy Andy

    In Australia – Greens voters know that they are never likely to win but they still vote Green- they then fully accept that they will need to vote for another party most likely the ALP if they want to defeat the Liberals.

    Greens and the ALP know that this is two distinct votes. This argument that it is one vote counted in different rounds is academic. In practice it is two separate votes as once cease to exist and then is replaced by another at full value.

    Greens resent this as they don’t get representation and are merely propping up the ALP time and time again.

    Greens say removing AV is the first step to true democracy in Australia, they want to move to a system that is one person- one vote- one value.

    AV is a lazy system that rewards the those at the fringe of the constituency with another chance at influencing the vote.

    Also the 50% argument doesn’t ring true after the first round. You only need to look at the recent NSW election to see more and more people just voting one. So in each round more and more people drop out and the 50% of the total vote gets further and further away.

    AV is not perfect and neither is FPTP but moving to AV is retrograde and will damage public good will when people realise it wont change anything much and is not PR. when the move for PR comes people will say but hold on you offered us this wonderful system that didn’t actually turn out to be what you wanted and now you want us to go to a system that you always wanted but didn’t offer us when you had a chance.

    Which one of the Yes campign will be the first to say .. I know I was backing AV but actually I am going to go back to my anti-AV stance of 2009-10 and say that AV isnt good enough and that we need another change.

  9. Graham Graham

    An excellent analysis of the debate!

  10. Seb Gonzalez Seb Gonzalez

    Philip Cowley wrote this article and yet states:

    AV would probably not…
    AV is unlikely to…
    AV would probably make…
    AV would probably sometimes…
    Minor parties under AV would probably…
    AV would be unlikely to…
    AV would be unlikely significantly to…

    Lot’s of unsubstantial statements that can be proved either way. Fact is FPTP has produced coalition governments before and will again if people continue to vote the way they did last election – There’s more than 2 parties so the more people realise and decide to vote beyond major red vs blue then it will happen again and again. The advantage of AV is that a DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY of people’s votes chooses the winning party. Not a select group of 15%+/- that picked Tory or Labour.

    • Hi Seb

      I’m guessing you didn’t bother to read the detailed paper that the piece links to… That will have provided you with plenty of evidence, justifying the way those sentences were phrased.

  11. Dave Jackson Dave Jackson

    If there’s anything tragic about this whole saga, it’s that we’ve been denied an actual discussion of what the future of democracy in Britain should be. It could be that a tweaked voting system is the future – just as it may transpire that we’d be best served by PR, an elected head of state, an elected upper chamber or an ‘English’ Parliament – but the referendum ‘debate’ hasn’t really illuminated anything at all, except perhaps the lunacy of discussing a nuanced and complex issue in this context.

    I can appreciate the evolutionary nature of our system, and maybe it is the worst kind of naivete to hope for some sort of ‘Grand Debate’ in which there is a genuine intellectual challenge to our current way of doing things. The idea of Parliament composing a unified ‘democratic blueprint’ for the coming decades and the people ratifying it is probably pie in the sky.

    But is this referendum campaign any less mad?

  12. Rob Rob

    Some good points here, personally I’m voting FPTP but will put AV as my second choice.

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