Tuesday 26 April 2011

Nun of Thee Above


The proponents of AV claim (and I hope that if you've been following these pages, you'll accept the claim is false) that AV guarantees that the winner has the support of more than 50% of those who voted. Even in those cases that the claim is true, it's still just a quirk of the fact that if a candidate doesn't get 50%, then they are repeatedly given additional votes until they do.

But if we really wanted all MPs to have more than 50% of the vote, even under First Past the Post, it would be quite simple:

If a constituency gives no candidate 50% support, then that constituency doesn't return an MP.

(Note that this approach wouldn't work under AV, since at least one candidate always gets more than 50%.)

It's a radical approach, but it has its pros and cons. The main pro is that it is something that would really encourage candidates to seek a broad base of support. The con is that it would leave many (perhaps most) constituencies unrepresented.

Under FPTP, and under AV, we do have a mechanism to indicate that we don't want any of the candidates to represent us at Westminster - we don't vote. At the last general election, 35% of the UK took that option, more than the fraction who voted for many of the winning candidates.

The problem is, there's more than one reason for abstention. It may be to wish a plague on all their houses, or it may be because we couldn't be bothered, or were away on business, or whatever. We can demonstrate that we really do care enough to go to the polling station, by turning up and then spoiling our paper, but even then there is no way to distinguish between the conscientious abstainer and those can't tell the sharp end of the pencil from the blunt one.

What we need is a genuine box in which to put our cross, labelled NOTA - None Of The Above.

Would it have much effect? Perhaps not.

Under FPTP, the NOTA votes would be counted and would certainly be of interest if NOTA came in third or second or even (dare we hope?) first place. But it wouldn't actually make any difference.

Under AV, NOTA would have less impact. The winning candidate would still get over 50% (it can't be avoided). If a voter put NOTA as their first choice, and then listed the other candidates, then they would be saying, 'I don't want any of these candidates, but if I have to have one of them, here's my order of preference.' Well, the fact is you do have to have one of them, and so your NOTA vote would instantly be dismissed and the process would carry on as normal with your second-choice vote being counted.

But what if, as suggested above, you could have none of them? What if, under FPTP or AV, NOTA was counted like any other candidate and could win. It would be rare I think, but it's an option that would allow voters to truly express themselves. Under FPTP things would be, inevitably, simple. If NOTA gets more than any other candidate then NOTA wins and the constituency returns no MP.

Under AV things are (inevitably) more interesting. The NOTA selection could go anywhere in the list that the voter chooses - top, bottom, or middle. And suppose you list the candidates in the order A, B, C, NOTA, D, E , F. That would be saying, 'I'm happy to have A or B or C as my MP, and of them, here's my order of preference. I don't want any of D, E, F, but if it comes to it, I do still have a order of dislike.'

That's really quite expressive. Under standard AV, however much you loathe and despise candidate F, you still have to list them to get the most of you vote, you put them last, seemingly suggesting that you would like them to be your MP, just that you'd like others more. By putting that NOTA break in there, you're effectively producing one list of candidates you like and another of candidates you don't, and putting the BNP (sorry, candidate F) at the top of that list. (It has to be said that this is a point of perception, not something that directly effects the result, but perception is important.)

There's still one problem, however. In a constituency where NOTA wins, the people don't get a representative in Parliament. The best I can come up with is that the runner-up gets forced to go to Westminster, but doesn't get a salary. I can see the fairness of it, but I can also see how it might produce an MP who slightly less than enthusiastic about their job - which was really the whole motivation for electoral reform.

But that's a detail. The important thing is to modify AV by adding this NOTA option. So who's with me? Who will make their voice heard? Who will climb up onto the roof tops and shout out the slogan to all who will listen:

'Vote NOTA-AV!'


  1. It is perfectly possible for a candidate to run in an election at present (under whatever system)saying "elect me and I will not go to Westminster to represent you". Indeed this is exactly what Sinn Fein used to do as I recall. Indeed one can have several candidates running on manifestos of "non-respresentation for reason X" and "non-respresentation for reason Y" etc. So isn't your "NOTA" option already there?

  2. Not on my ballot paper, it's not.

  3. If you feel strongly, you should stand yourself. Why should a "I will abstain in all votes" candidate be treated differently to a "I will vote for "A", vote against "B" and abstain in "C"" candidate?

  4. To amplify/calrify: I don't think you are proposing a different electoral system here. You are proposing a "state sanctioned" political party called "nota". Voting "nota" is a political act.

  5. "Under standard AV, however much you loathe and despise candidate F, you still have to list them to get the most of you[r] vote, [so] you put them last, seemingly suggesting that you would like them to be your MP, just that you'd like others more."

    If my alterations to this sentence represent the correct interpretation of it, I am bewildered by the idea that you get the most of your vote by having it elect someone that you don't support. There does indeed seem to be some feeling around that if you have your vote counted more often than another elector you are in some way advantaged, but all it really means is that you voted for a whole load of losers before your ballot paper came into play.

    I have no problem whatsoever with my paper being counted once only, whether because I voted initially for the winning candidate or because I only found one out of the field of losers palatable enough to support.

    I also have no problem with your suggestion of a NOTA option on the ballot paper, and would certainly use it were there a requirement to place all votes. Probably also if there were no such requirement.

    One of the consequences of your last two posts is, of course, that even in the (currently) unlikely event that the referendum were to pass, the issue would not be settled and it would be open to campaign for particular nuances to be added.

    If the referendum passes, there is opportunity for improvement; if it doesn't, I see very little likelihood of reform coming from any other quarter.

  6. @Stephen,

    I can see how having a candidate standing on such a platform might be a good way to gain momentum for the idea, but it's not the end point. For a start, it would be expensive for large numbers of candidates to pay for deposits and campaigning.

    But I think you're missing the point of what I'm proposing NOTA means. Voting Sinn Fein, although it includes not being represented in parliament, signs the voter up for many other things. In the same way, when you talk about not going to Westminster for reason X or Y, the reason becomes important.

    What I'm suggesting NOTA means is that there is no candidate who I want to represent me in parliament. In FPTP that's unlikely to happen - in a reasonably wide field we can all find at least one person who is acceptable. But in AV it means a lot more, putting a divider between those candidates who are acceptable and those who are not.

    If NOTA were a human candidate then they might feel obliged to campaign, to explain why voting for nobody is a better idea than voting Labour, or whatever. That's not the point. All the NOTA candidate can say is, place me between the candidates you find acceptable and those that you don't. It's a dull slogan after repetition. And even then, there would be unfairness across constituencies, as one NOTA candidate said it with more charisma than another.

    If I were to stand as a NOTA candidate (and I think it would be true for most people) then it would be dishonest. Under FPTP I pretty sure I'd be able to find someone in the field who was tolerable, thus I wouldn't vote for myself.

    Under AV I wouldn't (unlike, I presume, most candidates) be campaigning to be placed as high on the ballot as possible. Personally I might place NOTA below the Greens and above the Loony, but I would campaign for other voters to place it where they felt appropriate.

    Thus NOTA is not the same as another party - it's part of the electoral mechanism.

  7. @Sordel

    Yes, I did over simplify. Under AV not voting for a candidate or placing them last are identical, since last votes can never get counted. However, if there are two (or more) candidates that you don't want to support, say Tory and Lib Dem, but if push really comes to shove you'd prefer the Lib Dems, then you need to rank them above the Tories on the ballot.

    At least with NOTA you can put that above both, and enough people agree with you then neither the Tory or the Lib Dem gets elected. (Though as I say, what happens then I know not.)

    In your last point you seem to be saying that a switch from AV to NOTA-AV is possible, whereas a switch from FPTP to NOTA-AV is not - or at the very least the former is more likely than the latter.

    I think this is questionable. Constitutional change is rare - new schemes need to bed in before being changed again. Thus it could be the case that the status quo is a better bet for a bigger change in the future.

    Even so, you're suggesting a tactical vote at the referendum - vote not for what you want but for what will give you the better chance of getting what you do want.

  8. I can see that a "nota" option/party (see above) would give an individual voter the ability to express their opinions more accurately. But this is always true when more parties/options are present on a ballot. The only difference between a "nota party" and a "nota option" that I can see would be that if it were an option then constituency work would have to be carried out by a civil servant of some sort rather than an elected individual. I still prefer the "party" model by this criteria. Indeed I would like to nominate Jasper as leader. Would you second me Sordel? I think we should get this settled quickly, as if three or more candidates come forward it may be difficult to decide how the leader should be elected.

  9. Jasper, I am new to this blogging lark - so hadn't refreshed by browser to see your last two comments!

  10. I take your point about a "nota option" being more personality neutral than a "nota party" - but if we go down that route we should surely start addressing questions like "I support the policies of party X, but I think that their candidate is a lazy idiot... what should I do?". I see this as a separate issue to whether or not a nota option/party is helpful.

  11. I don't understand why a nota candidate would feel the need to campaign against other candidates. Similarly, I don't see why it would be dishonest in some way.

  12. I think the urge to campaign could be resisted, but if it were a grass roots campaign, then it would need to be publicized and explained. It would be easy for the mark to be overstepped.

    I think any candidate who stood and then voted for someone else would have there motives questioned. It could be explained in the case of the NOTA candidate, but only by pointing out that they weren't really a candidate.

    In both cases I can see how having a NOTA candidate might be away to shoe horn the idea into the existing system. But the candidate would be barring themselves from doing so many of the things that are almost definitive of a candidate (campaigning, voting for themselves, wanting to win) that it reveal itself as a kludge.

  13. I take it that you will not be accepting my nomination then?

  14. Also, if the idea of "nota" is basically to express a dislike of certain parties then I don't know how effective it would be in practice. Under AV it would be eliminated first almost all the time (because virtually everyone has at least 1 positive choice). Would its routine elimination before the BNP, for example, give the right impression? Similarly, under FPTP it would be routinely beaten by the fringe parties for the same reason... It would only be the "geeks" who looked in detail at the voting stats who would notice its true level of support relative to other parties.

  15. Gosh, you are absolutely right. It doesn't matter how many people place NOTA above BNP, if no one puts NOTA first (which they won't) it's out first round.

    The entire proposal is based on a miscalculation, and I withdraw it unreservedly.

    (The mistake is an example of the same AV quirk that means that if the vast majority of people put a particular party second - the Lib Dems, say - then it's still out in the first round due to having few or no first round votes. And yet if it could limp through to the second round, it might end up winning. It's amazing how AV can sucker you into to thinking it's a reasonable electoral system.)

  16. I think we've been here before... Consider a single round of voting. Are not the factors that determine which candidate comes top as equally "quirky" as those which determine which comes last? Both will be determined to a very large degree by which other candidates happen to be in the field (and hence steal votes from them). In AV this "quirkness" mainly determines the order in which the low popularity parties are eliminated. In FPTP the same "quirkiness" determines who wins the election!

  17. Is it too late to second Stephen's nomination of Jasp for leader of NOTA now that we know it will be knocked out first time, every time?

  18. All I can say is the quirkiness fooled three Cambridge graduates (two of them PhDs) into believing that this NOTA crap could fly for several hours before anyone spotted that NOTA would always come last. It says little for the transparency of AV.

  19. Let's not be so negative. It seems quite possible that once they hear of Jasper's candidature, the major parties will do the honourable thing and stand aside for the good of the country. Up against the Loonies surely Jasper is a shoe in? Sordel, I take it that you second my motion?

  20. Actually, like many errors, this is quite instructive. Previously we discussed the idea that AV is more favourable than FPTP to candidates who receive some sort of support from a majority of electors (as opposed to candidates who receive strong support from a minority).

    What the NOTA debacle reminds us is that this does not (at all) mean that AV favours consensus candidates unless they are also strongly supported.

    NOTA might get a lot of second and third votes but that doesn't matter if it's knocked out in round one. First votes become super-important for parties who are in the disqualification zone in round one. (And of course after the last disqualification every round is effectively "round one" again.)

    So, AV doesn't favour consensus candidates as much as one might hope. The trash parties with votes in the hundreds really make no difference when their second, third, and fourth votes are distributed ... everything is still massively weighted towards "where the 1s go".

    This illustrates why AV is calculated to make so little difference to the voting landscape. We get distracted by the luxury of having so many votes from the fact that only one of them really matters.

  21. @Stephen It has certainly strengthened Jasp's candidature for PM that he is willing to propose as the fruit of sober reflection a policy that bears not the scrutiny of 12 hours. He may have undone his good work, however, by neglecting to defend it adamantly for three years in the teeth of all reason.

  22. More seriously than before... We shouldn't forget that if all the voting data is available (as discussed yesterday) it would be possible to tell which parties nota would beat in a head-to-head run off. This would be the main point of a nota option/party as I see it. My point earlier today was merely intended to say that on the night of the count such comparisons would not be obvious.

  23. @Sordel

    You are absolutely right that AV does not favour consensus candidates as much as widely supposed. AV is, in my perception, a compromise between FPTP and Condorcet methods:


    which aim to find a candidate which would beat all other candidates in a head-to-head run off.

  24. The problem with the Condorcet method (based on your link) would be that it invites burying as a tactical voting approach, which I think would make it a bad system for UK general elections.

    That article does throw up another problem with AV, however, which I had not considered. It works fine if you do (as I would) and vote for a weak party before a strong party (e.g. Free School Milk first, Liberal Democrats second and no one third.) Unfortunately, if a voter approaches their ballot paper in a different way, it backfires.

    Say a voter in what was previously a Lab/Con marginal votes LD first, then Green, then Free School Milk, then Stop the War, then No Student Fees, then Gay/Lesbian Alliance, then Monster Raving Looney, then UKIP, then Labour. That voter just voted Labour, because once the LDs get knocked out, there is no one else for their vote to go to but Labour. This may confuse some voters who think that - once LDs get knocked out - their vote goes to their second preference. Indeed, they may consider that they have placed Labour so low that they think their vote for them will never get counted!

    (And of course, their support for the marginal parties will not register at all in the results unless the raw ballot paper data becomes known.)

    So the "correct" vote is now to put LDs eighth so your vote is counted for the lesser parties, and preferably you would put the lesser parties in order of least likelihood of being voted for. Which is just stupid if you actually want to show support for a lesser party. ("I can't put my key election issue, Free School Milk, first because my support for Gay/Lesbian Alliance might not get counted.")

    So now I'm blaming the Referendum, which gives you two options: the first of which (keeping FPTP) is unbearable and the second of which is unpalatable.

  25. Ironic that it's the dumbest thing I've said on AV that has caused the scales to fall from your eyes. (My plan all along, of course.)

  26. The internet has decreed...

    Best AV poster: http://i.imgur.com/Zb9tJ.png

    Best AV video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiHuiDD_oTk

    Beer and Cats...enjoy...