The campaign for and the outcome of the General Election has put electoral reform firmly on the political agenda. Somewhat surprisingly the alternative vote (AV) has become the most discussed option for replacing the current first-past-the-post system (FPTP), embraced by Labour, and even allowed by the Conservatives to be voted upon in a referendum. This potential acceptance by the two major parties is understandable, as AV is for them the safest option, and least likely to break their joint hegemony over British politics.
When thinking about the different ways in which elections can be organised, the first question to be answered is whether one wants each constituency electing only a single MP, or multi-member constituencies.
Elections for single member constituencies can be organised in three fashions: first-past-the-post, alternative vote, and approval voting. But irrespective of which of these is used, all single member constituency systems are prone to disproportional outcomes, which means that the shares of votes and shares of seats can diverge widely.
AV thus does not solve the problem of dis-proportionality that lays at the root of many demands for electoral reform. It may even turn out less proportional than FPTP. In other words, it is also likely to yield parliaments where a vote share of only 35% yields 55% of the seats (as was the case for Labour in the previous parliament). because Labour and the Conservatives are most likely to be in a position to benefit from this, it is quite understandable that they favour AV if the call for electoral reform cannot be stifled any more.
What is ‘solved’ by AV is a ‘problem’ that hardly anyone cared about, namely that an individual MP be elected with fewer than 50% of the votes in his/her constituency. AV changes this by asking voters to rank their preferences for the candidates. If no candidate has an absolute majority of first preferences, then the one with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated, and his/her votes are allocated to the other candidates on the basis of the 2nd preferences on those ballots. Applying this, if necessary repeatedly, will guarantee that the eventual winner will have been supported by a majority in the constituency (a ‘majority’ that then consists of a mixture of 1st preferences, plus added 2nd preferences, possibly 3rd preferences, and so on). But this does not do anything to diminish the discrepancy between vote shares and seat shares across the country as a whole, and which motivates much of the support for electoral reform.
AV may even prevent a party that is more preferred than any of its competitors from winning in a constituency. Take, for example, a constituency with three candidates on the ballot, let’s call them Harriet, Chris and William. Voters are asked to rank their preferences for these on their ballot papers. A possible outcome would be the following:
40 % of the voters give 1st preference to Harriet, 2nd preference to Chris, and 3rd to William.;
35 % give 1st preference to William, 2nd preference to Chris, and 3rd to Harriet;
25 % give 1st preference to Chris, 2nd preference to William, and 3rd to Harriet.
Because none of the candidates has more than 50% of the 1st preferences, Chris is eliminated because he got the smallest number of 1st preferences. The 25% of the ballots which ranked Chris first are now allocated to William and Harriet, depending on the second preferences. In the example above, everyone who ranked Chris first ranked William second, so all these votes are transferred to William, who thus obtains a comfortable majority of 60% (35% + 25%) and wins the seat.
But actually, Chris, who was eliminated, was more preferred than either Harriet or William! 65 % of the voters prefer Chris over William (40% + 25%), while 60% prefer Chris over Harriet (35% + 25%). All that this shows is that the ‘majority’ with which William would be elected under the AV system, is an artificial one.
All in all, AV does not solve the biggest problem that leads to the call for electoral reform. It does not yield more proportional outcomes than the current FPTP system, which is exactly why both Labour and Conservatives can conceivably live with it without giving up their dreams of an absolute majority of the seats. And finally, AV can easily lead to the elimination of a candidates who is more preferred than any of his or her competitors.
In a next contribution to this blog more about other alternatives to FPTP.
Professor Cees van der Eijk