Wednesday, May 04, 2011

voting preference

So are you ready to vote in the most bizarre referendum known to mankind?

For readers outside the UK, I should explain. As a result of last year's general election, the junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, insisted on a referendum on electoral reform as a part of the deal that took them into government. It's been a mainstay of their political mantra for a generation.

However... In all honesty, I would have to say that I am rarely stopped in the street by people desperate to reform the way we elect our MPs. Of all the issues facing us as a nation, this is hardly at the top of most people's agendas - outside the political classes. Even inside the political classes, really. Still, here we are. And rather than facing a referendum on an issue that has vast popular opinion driving it, we are facing a referendum on a politically driven matter.

So what to do? Vote, of course. Yes, but how?

Andrew Goddard has a Fulcrum article on the issue. He argues for a Yes to reform vote - yes to AV, the alternative vote, the change. Andrew & I were at university together - actually, we were on the CU committee at the same time. He's very bright, and often the thinking person's conservative (theologically speaking). I found his piece a little... presumptuous, I am afraid, and took the opportunity to write a few comments on the forum page attached to the article.

Don't take my piece there by itself as meaning I think you should vote No. It means you should think and question and not accept lazy propaganda. This is democracy we are talking about, and democracy is to be protected at all costs. AV as a system is used in Australia (where voting is compulsory), Fiji & Papua New Guinea. Nowhere else. That's not the greatest recommendation for a system that will be used in the Mother of Parliaments. The Australians are looking at changing it.

If I have a serious question about AV, it is this, and so far no-one has answered this for me satisfactorily: under our current system everybody has one vote. Everybody is equal. Everybody, everywhere. With AV, you may vote as many times as you like placing the candidates in order of preference - 1,2,3,4,5 and so on for as many candidates as there are in your constituency. So a constituency has 5 candidates: you have 5 votes. Or it has 12 candidates: you have 12 votes. Or it has 3: you have 3 votes. But you don't have to use all of them - you could just vote 1,2 and leave it there. The politically savvy will work out whether voting on down the list will advantage their candidate; others will not know if this works or not. People will have different numbers of votes, and some will be disadvantaged by this system. We will not all be the same any more. We will no longer be equal at the ballot box.

I am not answered here by references to choice: choice is about taking responsibility, and voting for everyone is not taking responsibility. I have stood in a voting booth and stood and stood as I weighed my choice, a choice I have already weighed for weeks and then have had to seriously make in that moment. That is choice. One vote that counts. The same as the next person's.

Democracy is about everyone having an equal say; until I am convinced a replacement system takes seriously the right of everyone to be treated equally, and does not exist principally for the benefit of the politically adept, I am not sure I can wholeheartedly support it.

BUT - more than that: I do ask that everyone who may vote tomorrow does so. Yes or No; think about it, pray about it, read about it, consider the arguments before you and make up your own minds. It may be an esoteric referendum. but when we have the chance to participate in the democratic process, we should. It's one of the ways we get to change the world.


Marcus Green said...

Martyn Quick left some replies on my Facebook page. I have no intention of writing full replies there - because it's not the place, and because some people who read this couldn't read that. So: here is part of his reply, and then I'll add my answer.

Hi Marcus - in terms of the points you raise in your blog, I'm not sure they all hold water. You say that only three countries use AV... but don't mention that (according to reports I've seen) the most popular form of "election" used is actually dictatorship. So saying only three countries use AV is a red herring... by that logic we should abandon democracy completely.
Second point... the number of votes is also misleading. Each vote is only counted once in every round of voting. As long as you put every candidate down in order, you have the same voting power as everybody else in your constituency.

Martyn, I'm not going to spend time on the tyranny stuff; it's a bit of a red herring itself isn't it? We are talking methods of electing democracies here. The Fulcrum site has an interesting answer piece talking about single transferrable vote, but we are dealing with AV or the system we have.

Your second point tries to address my question, but I'm afraid I'm not at all convinced. Not everyone will go by your "as long as..." sentence - from ignorance and from tactical voting. And still, there will be differences from constituency to constituency. Sure, everyone has one vote per round - but for some it will be their only vote, for some it will be their third choice. That choice will be strongly strategic for some, and a system that rewards the politically adept and leaves others confused must be questioned. So my questions remain - and if you wish to discuss further, please do so here rather than on my Facebook page!

Anonymous said...

The reports I've read suggest that the UK is the only country in the world where fptp is used without at least having voting rounds, primaries etc.

The suggested system will lead to a decrease in tactical voting, as voters will no longer worry about their vote being wasted if they vote for their *real* first choice, rather than a major party - as many currently do.

Stephen Gower said...

It all depends on your definition of equal: 1 vote = 1/110,924 of a constituency at the last General Election for a voter on the Isle of Wight, but 1 vote = 1/60,275 for a voter in Pontypridd, which doesn't seem very equal to me. I don't see that AV will change that, but I don't buy any argument that AV brings multiple votes or any more inequitable votes than FPTP. It's still only one ballot paper per voter, and therefore one vote per voter.

The other inequality factor in the current system is that a vote in a marginal constituency is "worth more" (in terms of influence) than one where there is a safe seat. In this, AV will make a small improvement - research by nef suggests there would be 44 more "very marginal" seats and 60 fewer very safe seats. Under that research "the most powerful 20 per cent of voters [in FPTP] have 21 times as much power as the least powerful" - which would reduce to 18x under AV.

So, now you see that individual votes are closer to equal under AV rather than FPTP, I trust you'll be voting Yes to AV tomorrow. :-)

Martyn Quick said...

Ok - possibly mentioning dictatorship is also a red herring. However, the first argument seems to be saying "AV is not as popular as the current system, therefore it is not as good". What I was saying is that popularity and quality are not the same thing. (For example, lots of people buy the latest single from an X-Factor winner... when it's clearly a load of rubbish.) I don't see how you can't dismiss something because it is not popular, which is what the "Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea" line of argument is all about. A more correct argument would be explain why it is inferior to our current system.

As for the second point, surely the point is that everybody gets to use their highest available active vote and this is the same for everybody. If one's first choice is for someone who is still in the race then one continues to use your first choice vote (which is surely what you want). If one is now down to one's third choice, it is because the first two choices are now out the race, so one gets to at least keep using a vote and so have some input into a system that otherwise would no longer involve the particular voter.

In terms of ignorance about how to vote, etc., it seems to me that the one thing that one should do under AV is rank everyone who you find acceptable. That way you always get to have your vote used for someone. I won't go as far to say that you should vote for everyone, since your last choice is never going to be used (by then one would already be down to just 2 candidates) and, more importantly in my opinion, certain parties are just unacceptable to vote for (BNP for instance).

I also wonder, though I'm not certain and haven't thought it all through carefully, whether tactical voting is actually less important with AV than with our current system. For example, in the current system if you preferred Labour, but lived in a Con-LibDem marginal, then you might well vote LibDem in an attempt to keep out the Cons. Under AV, you could vote Lab, find that your man came last and then the second choice LibDem vote was used. My gut feeling is that tactical voting is less needed under AV, but I could be wrong.

Marcus Green said...

Stephen - a great response, many thanks. Great, but not flawless!

Look, I'm all in favour of reforming the voting system. I hardly think we have an ideal system - but reform needs to be done really carefully, because it's hard to undo it and because we will be electing governments on the back of it. I am a committed democrat (in the general, non-American sense of the word) and will support anything that advances democracy, but will question anything that I see may harm it. Inadequate reform is harmful.

You are totally right to point out that constituency reform should occur. Seems to me some people were for that and some against, and some of those who proclaimed themselves in favour of reform opposed this taking place at this time because they felt it confused the issue. Oh well. AV per se doesn't address this, and so though I agree with the point, it's not strictly relevant.

One ballot paper per voter is not one vote per person because of the number of preferences that may be expressed. In a seat with 10 candidates, but essentially a three way split for the main vote, should you order your preference for every candidate, or is it more tactical to simply express a first choice? I've played with this a bit - and I don't know the answer. If I do the wrong thing, I could end up stopping my first choice candidate being elected. Hmm. This is a complicated system, where not every vote is equal, and not everyone is equally able to understand what the effect of their vote will be! You make too simplistic an answer for me here.

I do like the suggestion that there would be more marginal seats and fewer safe seats. But the last election (indeed most elections) reveal that even safe seats can come into play with good opposing candidates and well-fought campaigns.

However... I am not a fan of the concept that a vote in a marginal is "worth more" than that in a safe seat. A vote is a precious thing. It is not about winning - it is about expressing intent and desire and having the freedom so to do. In a democracy, winning is not everything; and the responsibility of MPs is to represent everyone at the end of the day, whether they voted for them or no.

Thanks for the response. I'd like more like this, please!

Anonymous said...

Everyone's vote would be counted once; in each round of voting - very simple. very fair.

And I don't buy into the idea that "some people aren't informed enough" to know how to use it to their advantage.


If you only like one, vote for only one. Then in each round, only that vote will matter. If you like two, then order them,if your first choice is eliminated, your vote will continue to count in the next round.



A candidate should not be able to win if he does not at least have notional support from half the constituency.

If 70% of a constituency would rather have anyone but the guy that got elected, we do not have democracy.

...I'm voting Yes

Marcus Green said...

I love it when you sound passionate Mark!

But - Notional support? Half the constituency? I'm not sure what the first phrase means, and without compulsory voting (not included in this referendum) the second isn't on offer.

Let's chill the rhetoric. We always have democracy if people vote, and the largest opinion expressed carries the day. We may not like the result, but that too is a part of democracy - we are free to comment, to complain, to advocate alternatives. A majority of 50.01% isn't much different to an MP elected by 33% of those who voted in a constituency at the end of the day - many people will still be unhappy, many people will not have voted for him/her by first choice, and the MP will still be elected to represent everyone in that constituency.

As for simple & fair, it's not so fair if you voted for one candidate & that candidate got knocked out in the first round, is it? As I have heard it described, AV is really about multiple elections on one ballot paper; but if you are unlucky enough to be in that position you don't get to vote again. You are disenfranchised. And it may not simply be the extremist parties that suffer this - the collapse of the Lib-Dem vote in certain places could mean that a passionate Lib-Dem voter who did not want to support the Tories or the Labour party, or UKIP or BNP, but might vote Green as a second preference - except the Greens aren't standing in that constituency - votes 1 Lib-Dem. And they get eliminated. And the voter is then disenfranchised for the remainder of the process. Other people continue to have power that he/she does not have.

Now - no system is perfect. But to replace an imperfect system with one that is equally flawed or more so seems to me an unusual move. Should there be reform - yes, I think so. Is this it? Hmmm...

I am glad to hear your decision, and glad that you are voting - I hope everyone votes, whether it is yes or no. I will not be voting yes today. Or no for that matter.

I postal voted a couple of weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

Passionate? Me? Never.

I think this vote comes down not to arguments, or ideology, so much as is does to the simple question "does this sound like a good idea to you?".

For me it does.

I'd rather elect the least objectionable candidate, than a candidate who has the most votes, but may be unacceptable to 70% of the voters*.

*notice how I say voters, your point about contituencies is valid.

mmp said...

confession time: i forgot!