books etc. by
In Britain on 5 May 2011 there was a nation-wide referendum. The
At present, the UK uses the first past the post
system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the alternative
vote system be used instead?
That over-complicated system was rejected (by 68 to 32 percent
of the 42 percent turnout).
Reformers would be better advised to push for the simpler Approval
The Other AV
The 2011 referendum on electoral reform was a
long-awaited chance for Britain to grow out of its primitive system of
voting. That system seems simple and obvious; yet whenever there are more
than two candidates it causes serious unfairness.
But the only method we were allowed to choose
instead was not the best, and it was rejected, because it was complicated
enough to cause confusions, suspicions, misunderstandings, and ourright
There is another system, Approval Voting, that
has been shut out of the discussion, yet is far simpler and does as good
a job and in some respects a better. If this had been the alternative
offered in the referendum, it would have had a better chance of being
understood and therefore accepted. It should be the system offered
in any future effort to make voting fairer.
First though I hate to have to do it
I must say something about the names of these three voting systems.
The ancient system, used not only in Britain but
in the U.S.A. and elsewhere, is commonly called First Past the Post. This,
besides being clumsy enough to stumble over (how many times have people
said or written FTPT instead of FPTP?), is a metaphor and an inaccurate
one. It doesn't mean that whoever first reaches a certain total wins,
it means that whoever gets the most votes wins. It used to be known as
One Man One Vote, so I call it One Person One Vote, OPOV.
The best and second simplest system is called
Approval Voting. That characterises it well enough. It means that
the winner is the one that the largest number of voters could live with.
The system that was on offer was being called
Alternative Voting. There are four objections to that term: It does nothing
to describe the system. It (deliberately?) suggests that the system is
the only alternative which is far from true. It could hardly have
continued to be used if the system had become the established one. And
it steals the AV acronym from Approval Voting, whose name dates from 1977.
AV is one of the many forms of Preferential
Voting. It is used in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji; actually
the form of it used in Australia is even more complicated. It is called
in the USA, and was previously called in Britain, Instant Runoff Voting
which does not mean that it produces an instant result, only that
the runoffs are not separate elections (as they are in France).
It has also been called Ware's Method, and by other names.
What's wrong with One Person One Vote?
It forces you to choose between the candidates
you consider good.
Suppose A or B could win and C has only an outside
chance; you don't like A, you could live with B, but you like C as well
(Many people have been in this situation at every
election of their lives.)
If you give C your heartfelt vote,
you make it more likely for B to lose to A. If you give B your realistic
vote, the true extent of support for C will not be known. And even if
B and C together get more votes than A, A typically wins.
From the point of view of the individual, this
is the agonising voter's dilemma or the problem of whether
to vote tactically. From the point of view of a party or philosophy,
it is the problem of the split vote and of spoilers.
people who weaken a side, sometimes deliberately, by offering themselves
The system often allows a candidate to win who
is approved by only a minority, indeed by fewer than another candidate
These unfair results have happened in countless
real elections. Solving these problems the split vote and the unrepresentative
win is the urgent purpose of electoral reform.
What is Preferential Voting (AV)?
The rule is that you may vote for as many of the
candidates as you wish, and you must number them in order of preference.
If no candidate gets at least 50% of first preferences, then the candidate
with the smallest number of those is eliminated and that candidate's ballots
are reallocated to the remaining candidates according to the next preference
on each ballot. (The next preference is the second, unless
that has already been used, in which case it may be the third, fourth,
or lower.) This process is repeated until one of the remaining candidates
gets at least 50% of the remaining votes.
This system would have been an improvement in
that you could give a form of your heartfelt as well as your
realistic vote, and the winner would usually (not, as proponents
claimed, always) have been voted for by more than 50% of those voting,
whether as first or other preferences.
Confusions, suspicions, misunderstandings
Sure, it isn't as complicated as astrophysics.
But it's complicated enough to go wrong.
Most people need to read that rule at least twice,
and many never really grasp it. Easy enough to understand that you must
write 1, 2, 3, etc. But it is not
easy to feel sure of what will happen to your vote afterwards, as it travels
that process of reallocations. If voters cannot clearly imagine the consequences
of what they do, is the system truly democratic?
I've talked with well-educated people who did
not realize that you don't have to rank all the candidates. Even the Yes
to Fairer Votes campaign, which championed this system, sometimes got it
wrong: I went to a meeting at which mock ballots were handed out, and
the instructions on the AV Ballot Paper were: Put a
number next to each candidate . . . until all candidates
have been given a number!
The instructions went on: The higher the
number, the less you favour them, much like a top 5 list of favourites.
For there was some danger of voters getting that wrong, and thus doing
the exact opposite of what they intended. (If any did, it could never
And there was some risk of voters spoiling their
ballots by inadvertently writing two 2s, or a 3 and a 5 but no 4.
The Electoral Commission's booklet, distributed
a month before the referendum, looked like a desperate effort to deconfuse
the public. It took four pages to explain the Alternative Vote,
with pictures of piles of votes.
And were the reallocatings to be done in a flash
inside computers, or by manual re-counting as those pictures suggested,
and how long would it take? It was not easy to get answers to these questions,
in fact it took me weeks of requests sent to officials. The answer was
that the Electoral Commission did not plan to introduce any voting
machines; and that the Bill decreeing the referendum required that,
after each round of reallocating and re-counting (in each constituency),
the detailed numbers must be made public.
All this enabled the No To AV campaign to spread
stories that reform would cost millions of pounds. Fictitious, in that
there would have been no new machines; but the counting process might
well have required more people.
A conspicuous example of a mistaken idea came
from no less a statesman than David Owen, leader of the former Social
Democratic Party, in an article in The Independent on Sunday (13
March 2011): . . . the second preferences of
the least popular candidates have the most influence. Because the first
candidate to get eliminated under AV typically a fringe or extremist
candidate gets their votes redistributed first, they have the best
chance of determining the final result. Wow, that sounded like a
penetrating criticism that we hadn't thought of! But think it through.
It doesn't matter that the 14th strongest party's votes are the first
to get redistributed, since the 13th, of which there are more, will get
redistributed next, and so on up to the 3rd.
If Lord Owen could get lost in the logic, anyone
Two sharper questions about Preferential Voting (AV)
What if you write 1 for a candidate
who gets eliminated, and no 2 for anybody else? To whom will
your vote be reassigned? Answer: To nobody. It is thrown away, or as the
Electoral Commission said is not used. More broadly, this
is what happens if none of the candidates who survive to the last round
is one to whom you've given a number. Your vote will not be part of the
final totals. If, say, the final reallocation results in 51% for A and
49% for B, those numbers exclude everyone who gave preferences only to
C and D. In most constituencies, for example, people who can bring themselves
to vote only Ukip or only Green will not be counted in the final totals.
So we should more truly say that the winner will have been voted for by
at least 50% of those whose votes count.
And: What effect will it have if you rank the
candidates you approve B and C, say as 1 and 2, or the other
way around? Will you still disadvantage the one to whom you don't give
your first preference? It took me quite a bit of figuring with
different scenarios to realize that it makes no difference. Whether you
rank C as 1 or 2, your vote will eventually go to B. More generally,
for all of the names that you approve, it doesn't matter which number
you put beside any of them. It's a decision you are required to
make, sometimes a dilemma, but a dilemma whose resolution doesn't matter.
So why rank at all? Why not just tick?
That is what is done in Approval Voting, which
has been described by me and other authors since 1977, but has been used,
without being called by a specific name, in various elections since ancient
times. It is essentially the system used in almost all elections for members
of boards and other councils.
In Approval Voting, as in AV, you
can vote for as many candidates as you wish. The difference is that
you don't have to rank them. If there are four, you can vote for
one or two or three. Of course voting for all would have the same non-effect
as voting for none. As in One Person One Vote, whoever gets the most votes
wins. That's all.
Suppose that roughly 40% approve Conservative
only, 30% Labour only, 15% Lib Dem only, and 15% approve both Labour and
Lib Dem, in either order. Then the approval totals are Conservative 40,
Labour 45, Lib Dem 30.
Given the distribution of the voters' real wishes,
there is unlike under One Person One Vote, AV, or any
other system only one possible outcome. That distribution
of the voters' real wishes is made manifest in those simple figures.
AV records it either too simply (A
and B get X% and Y%, and all the votes for the eliminated candidates go
unstated) or with an excess of detail that varies according to how voters
resolve their unnecessary dilemmas, and is impractical to publish. It
might take up a whole page to report that in a certain constituency X
voted for Green 1, Conservative 2, Lib Dem 3, BNP 4 . . . ,
Official Monster Raving Loony Party 15 and all other combinations
that voters happened to make.
Various other situations kinds of distribution
of the voters' wishes are explored at www.universalworkshop.com/ApprovalVoting.
Approval Voting has been described as a
surprisingly simple costless reform. It is the next simplest after
One Person One Vote, in that nobody has to do any ranking. It is simple
and costless in that the ballots are counted only once, there is no reallocating,
no re-counting. It sounds surprising, in that you can vote for more than
one and the votes add up to more than 100%. But, just as in the elections
for boards, where you may vote for up to six people out of twenty, nobody
who votes for two or more candidates has more power over the result than
those who vote for only one.
A pleasant advantage of Approval Voting over AV
is that people can have real-life experiences of it at any time, thus
becoming comfortable with it. A situation arises in which a group of people
has to select three out of nine options say, as the short-list for
further action, or recipients of an award. They each write down as many
of the options as they think fit. They soon have the result. Alternative
Voting would be no alternative, because it would be impracticable
to do all that reallocating.
What about Proportional Representation? Many regard
it as the real reform beyond AV. But it is not a method of
casting votes; it has to do with the number of seats being voted for.
If a region is to have 10 seats, then those can be shared among parties
in proportion to the numbers of votes cast under One Person One Vote,
or (much more fairly) under Approval Voting. But not under the intricate
results of AV, because only the first preferences could be
used (think, for instance, of the false result for voters who rank not
some but all of the options). So the voter's dilemma would be reintroduced;
in fact, the system would reduce merely to a needlessly complex version
If AV had been instituted and we had
then gone on to get Proportional Representation, we would then have had
to go back to using OPOV as the voting method. Unless . . .
I say no more.
AV lost. Its needless complexity
slight, but sufficient to cause misunderstanding was the underlying
reason for its failure. Has it discredited the whole idea of electoral
reform? Do we have to go on chafing under the maddening unfairness of
Those who have not given up on reform may be well
advised to begin listening to the few small voices that have been trying
to call attention to Approval Voting. This surprisingly simple costless
reform has been consistently shut out of discussion, presumably
because its surprisingness has prevented the pundits who control our press
and our politics from noticing its elegant soundness.