Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Electile Disfunction

I won't deny it; I've been mildly opposed to the Alternative Vote ever since Gordon Brown first mooted it as an opening gambit in his attempts to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats back in 2009, over six months before the general election.

But one objection that I'd never really held with was the idea that AV is complicated. All the voter has to do, so they say, is write down the numbers 1 to 9 (or whatever) in order of preference. It's simple - in much the same way that solving a Sudoku is simple (or indeed that playing the flute is simple, according to Monty Python).

But the more I think about it, the more complicated it gets. Problems can occur in many areas, but the one I'd like to focus on is the phenomenon of the second choice marginal.

Let's consider an imaginary constituency with just Tory, Liberal and Labour candidates (or one in which other, less popular candidates have already been knocked out in earlier rounds of AV). I use real party names rather than abstractions such as A, B and C not to express any party bias, but because it's easier to follow and easier to decide whether such a scenario could really happen. Suppose the first choice votes are roughly:

Labour: 15,000
Liberal: 10,000
Tory: 10,000

'Roughly?' I hear you bellow. 'Surely we must be accurate here.' Well, yes and no. If this were a First Past the Post election, then those kind of round numbers are quite clear enough to show that Labour wins. Of course, even under FPTP we have marginals if the two leading candidates are close, and then accuracy matters, but under AV we also have the possibility of this kind of second choice marginal (or, indeed, third, fourth of fifth choice) where precise counting even for second place really matters.

More marginals? Isn't that one of the key aims of AV; to force parties to genuinely campaign in more seats, rather than just focussing on the few marginals that matter so much under FPTP? True enough, but you might find that what they're campaigning for isn't quite what you'd expected.

Under AV the winning candidate needs to get more than half the votes cast, so in this case the winning post is 17,500. (Odd, isn't it, that it's AV that actually has the fixed finishing post, and so-called First Past the Post that doesn't?) No one here has 17,500, so we have to consider those second choice votes.

We can ignore the Labour second choices, because they're never going to be counted, though they'll probably be mostly for the Liberals. The Tory second choices are likely to be mostly Liberal too. Admittedly there may be a lot of support from Tories for, say, UKIP, but we're assuming they've been eliminated by now. At this stage, a Tory's second choice can only be Labour or Liberal (or nothing, but that's another story).

As for the Liberal voters, let's assume they spilt 50-50 amongst Tory and Labour. In reality, there might well be more of a bias towards Labour, but it doesn't much matter. With Labour only needing around 2,500 to win, the Liberal spilt could be up to 75% pro Tory, and the mathematics would still be much the same.

So, we had Liberals and Tories on about 10,000 each. Time to be specific. Let's suppose that the Liberal got 10,005 and the Tory 10,000. The Tory drops out and his second choice votes get allocated. We've assumed they're mostly Liberal and very few Labour, and so it seems reasonable that the Liberals will pick up the extra 7,500 they need and will win. This is exactly the sort of result that AV is supposed to achieve. The Liberals come second in the first round, but win on the second round.

But just suppose it goes the other way. Suppose it's the Tory who gets 10,005 and the Liberal 10,000. Then the Liberal drops out and his second choice votes get reallocated. We've assumed it's a 50-50 spilt, so Labour gets 5,000 more votes and wins. Just read that again:

The Tory is more popular than the Liberal and therefore Labour wins.

And on top of that, the difference is the matter of just a few votes. Under FPTP a few votes will matter in a marginal, but at least there a vote for Labour will help Labour, a vote for the Liberals will help the Liberals. Here it's the swing between Tories and Liberals that determines a result between the Liberals and Labour.

So what's a Tory voter to do? In this particular constituency, they know that their favoured candidate has no chance of winning, so the next best option is for the Liberal to win. But if they vote Tory first and Liberal second, that actually increases the chance of Labour winning, by pushing out the Liberal on the first round and thereby getting his second choices counted. It's a better bet for the Tory to vote Liberal first and Tory second, so that the Tory drops out and his second choice votes go to the Liberal. It's classic tactical voting; if you're a Tory afraid of Labour, vote Liberal.

In fact, it's better than tactical voting under FPTP. Not only does the Tory vote for the Liberal mean one more vote for the Liberals; if it makes the Tory candidate drop to third, it means thousands more votes for the Liberal as all those second choices get counted.

And it's not just Tories who can vote tactically. Remember the set up: Liberal second place is good for the Liberals; a Tory second place is good for Labour. So why don't a few hundred Labour supporters tactically vote Tory? It costs a few hundred votes, but if it pushes the Liberals into third and reaps a few thousand Labour votes it's a worthwhile reward.

In both styles of tactical voting, there is a powerful psephological lever in operation. Switching a small number of votes away from your first choice party can actually liberate a huge number in favour of the result you want. It may take a fair deal of voter management from the political parties, but guess what? - they're good at that.

And what about recounts? Let's go back to that scenario where the Tory gets 10,005 and the Liberal 10,000. That means Labour wins. The Liberal isn't happy and there's only five votes in it, so it's worth asking for a recount. But the thing is, the Tory (with Nick Berry's Every Loser Wins ringing in his ears) isn't happy with it either - because Labour wins. So both the winning and the losing candidate (in the second and third place play-off) will be asking for a recount. At least under FPTP it tends to be the loser who wants a recount and the winner who doesn't. It puts the returning officer in a difficult position of perhaps having to act against the requests of both candidates.

And will those candidates have enough information to decide whether a recount is worthwhile. With different second choice voting patterns, it's quite possible that the Labour candidate would win regardless of who comes second. Would the Tory and Liberal candidates know that before deciding whether it's worth bickering over the few votes that determine second and third place?

Of course, we've been looking at a specific example which won't occur everywhere. But with 650 constituencies, this sort of thing could crop up more than once, along with other permutations that aren't even dreamt of here.

Putting the numbers 1 to 9 nine in order has never been more of a challenge.


  1. It would take a special kind of OCD to attempt to place nine votes in an effort to increase the likelihood of your first choice being elected.

    Most voters are not worried about their ninth vote but their first, and where AV should work well is in the case where a voter's true preference is not electable. For example, the Coalition for Free School Milk stands in your constituency, and this is your most important electoral issue; now you can vote for this first and still ensure that your vote "counts". This would seem to be a step in the right direction.

    I don't thnk that most people actually care which of the big two parties gets elected, so worrying about the obscure ramifications of the electoral process is an academic exercise (and thus entirely in keeping for you!) It's not that AV is good, it's just less horrendously bad.

  2. "I don't thnk that most people actually care which of the big two parties gets elected"??????

  3. OK let's let the tiniest minority feel special and allow them to have more of their preferences counted.

    Let's also call that democratic.


    If I was a labour supporter in the above scenario, I would be seriously upset that a second preference of a tory voter could give a less popular liberal democrat candidate a win, whereas my fellow labour supporters only had their first preference vote counted, and the most popular candidate lost.

    Not a sign of truly democratic system to me. Where fifth preference votes are given equal value in the count as first preference votes, yet not all second, third, fourth, fifth etc votes are counted.

    It is a deeply flawed system.

  4. Surely part of this is just a way to break the current three party grip? Change is good. Make people try harder and shake things up a bit. And allow me to show some support for smaller parties and still get a vote.

  5. But is the purpose of an election to allow you to show some support for smaller parties that you don't actually want to win?

    I'd have thought an election was there to determine who the MP is, not to act as a general opinion pole on the state of all parties. Sure that may be a side-effect, but it shouldn't be a goal in choosing an electoral system.

    There are much better ways of supporting smaller parties that have nothing to do with elections.

  6. To revert to my earlier point, people may claim to care whether Labour or the Conservatives win, but I seriously doubt that they do. They might care whether low taxation and fiscal rectitude are placed above preserving public sector spending but since the Conservatives never lower taxation (significantly) and Labour never increases public spending (significantly) the net effect of elections is that one of two very similar parties is elected.

    AV may not work, but FPTP definitely doesn't ... ultimately you are arguing to keep tight hold of nurse for fear of findng something worse, but in a context where nurse is drunk on the family gin every day and somethng worse is difficult to imagine.

  7. "FPTP definitely doesn't"

    I think you have to make the case.

  8. "Have to make the case"? Why so? Is this like the Maths teacher who demands that one shows the working despite having reached the correct answer, or are you sincerely in favour of FPTP?

  9. I think you have to make the case (and others may not) because in doing my working I've come to a different result from yours. Either we can shout our conclusions back and forth at each other, or we can look back at our working and see the point where our thinking diverges.

    As it happens, I'm not sincerely in favour of FPTP. I very slightly prefer it over AV - and it's hard to see how anyone turn more than slightly one way or the other on this, since the two systems produce such similar results.

    Having said that, the case I was asking is not which system is better, but that FPTP definitely doesn't work.

  10. Like you, I see very little difference between AV and FPTP, but you have presented your working as a disproof of AV, and would do well to consider the massive and immediate problems with FPTP before engineering abtruse theoretical problems with AV.

    You yourself object to the result of the last general election, blaming Nick Clegg (quite wrongly, though admittedly this meme is widely preserved) for settling the electoral result without undue respect for the votes cast or his own manifesto. Since this all happened on an FPTP system, you have already consented that the system does not work. I could give many, many other examples, but the main example is British Politics itself, one disgusting heap of ordure.

    Changing the voting system naybe rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic but, if you are definitely going to drown, what else will you do with your time?

  11. My post was not intended to be a 'disproof of AV'. It simply attempted to counter two of the arguments in its favour: that it is simple and that it avoids tactical voting.

    I'm not sure I actually object to the result of the last general election; I do object to the Liberal Democrat's behaviour after it. Elections in the past have produced results I object too, but I see little reason to believe that it wasn't me who was out of step with the general mood of the electorate.

    But certainly the last election result could be argued to show there are problems with the current system - particularly if you think balanced/hung parliaments are a bad thing. But that's a far step from saying FPTP doesn't work to such a degree that any other system must be better. I think it would be better to look for an alternative system that solves the problem identified.

    Whilst there are problems with British politics (I don't perceive them as being as catastrophic as you do) it seems to be a leap to say that changing the electoral system is the solution. I hate to argue by analogy, but that's like proposing a leg amputation as the cure for a brain tumour, on the grounds that something must be done.

    (Actually, in the case of AV vs FPTP, it's more like proposing a nail clipping.)

  12. People may be arguing that AV is simpler and avoids tactical voting, but I am not one of them. Pretty clearly, it is more complicated, since it necessitates multiple votes and recounts. My guess is: more spoilt ballots, more contested results, more inaccurate votes, more expensive elections and so on.

    AV permits tactical voting, in the sense for example that I might choose to vote for "all except", but the reason that I like it is that it permits non-tactical voting which, for a contrarian such as I, the existing system does not. My political aspirations are not served by any of the current main parties ... with AV I would have the opportunity to make a genuine conviction vote, even if I didn't (or couldn't). Currently, to vote Monster Raving Loony is functionally the same as not voting ... with AV it is not, and an improvement is intellectually satisfying, even if it makes no actual difference.

    The problem with AV is that even its adherents are very lukewarm about it one gets passionate about a system that is expensive, unwieldy and offers no prospect of better government. If a referendum was not the price of doing business, AV would have probably been taken back to the drawing board.

  13. I'm not sure where the disagreement with my blog is then.

    As I mentioned above, I see that AV allows you to vote for a party that you don't actually want to win, but I question whether that's really the purpose for which we have elections. If you support the Raving Loonies then why not campaign for them or finance them or appear at their rallies? Support for smaller parties is an important thing, but it's not the same thing as electing an MP.

    Having said that, FPTP does allow you to vote Loony. The difference with AV is that having voted Loony, you get the chance to say 'No, I didn't really meant it - I'm voting Labour.' At least under FPTP you really have to believe in who you vote for. An FPTP vote for the Loonies is a sincere vote.

    And that leads to the real issue. Under AV, how can we tell the real Loonies from the Labour Loonies? HOW CAN WE TELL?

  14. There's a little loony in all of us, Jasp ... and, speaking personally, I've voted for at least three parties in general elections. Potentially serial votes aren't necessarily a sign of inauthenticity. It would be nice, though, for the compromise to be the vote of last resort.

    I think that the source of our disagreement is this though: to my mind, you oppose AV for an arcane, theoretical reason and therefore, by default, support a system with real evident problems.

  15. Re your first paragraph; I have voted for precisely three parties in general elections over the years. As for the last two sentences, I can't make head or tail of them.

    As to your second paragraph, you have (I and guess I may be partly to blame for attempting to be analytical rather than polemical) got completely the wrong end of the stick.

    I object to AV because it's a piddling little tweak to the electoral system which will make no practical difference and is only presented to us so that politicians can say that they at least did something.

  16. Don't let the best be the enemy of the good, Jasp. AV is not much of a change but it is a valuable change in approach, and any system that makes more seats change is an improvement (since voting politicians out is the only real change we can effect in the UK).

    As for my two impenetrable sentences, try this: "Just because I vote for more than one party, it does not mean that one is my real vote and one is my fake vote. Given that the party that will win is likely to be a compromise, why not give people a chance to express their actual political opinion before landing upon that compromise?"

    Finally, a vote against AV does not prevent politicians from saying that they did something. The referendum is happening precisely so that the Conservatives can say that they met their obligations to the LDs. So don't comfort yourself that you are punishing the politicians by voting against AV ... you are doing exactly what the majority of politicians would want you to.

  17. Personally, I think the ability to vote out governments is more important than the ability to remove individual MPs, but that's not really pertinent here as evidence suggests that AV and FPTP are much the same in that respect.

    I think I've already agreed over the point "why not give people a chance to express their actual political opinion before landing upon that compromise?", but with the caveat that the mechanism that gives them that chance doesn't adversely affect the way that the compromise over the actual winner is reached. By blog attempted to indicate ways in which it might.

    But I realise I should be a little clearer on why I'm going to vote no in the referendum. It's not so much that I object to the piddling little tweak, it's that I object to there being a referendum on something that will make so little practical difference. When I'm concerned about politicians saying at least we did something, the something in question is giving us a referendum. It's keeping the people happy by letting them decide on the trivial issues and leaving the politicians to carry on dealing with the big stuff.

    But unfortunately, with our First Past the Post referendum system, there is no box I can tick to express that. To abstain simply implies a lack of interest. The only way I can see to vote in any referendum that one objects to is to vote against change, thereby showing that the referendum was unnecessary.

    For what it's worth, if we had AV and were voting to switch to FPTP I would probably (presuming AV was working in broadly the way I think it will) vote for the status quo there too.

  18. I doubt that any politician or media outlet will interpret your vote in the way you intend it, but I suppose that I can respect your decision on the basis that you now give.

    The British government hasn't exactly been spamming us with referenda for my political lifetime .... it is vanishingly unlikely that we will ever be presented with one on a major issue ... but if you really want your vote to say "don't bug me", fair enough.

  19. True enough. There's never been a referendum that we've been old enough to vote in. I just hoped when one came along, it would matter.