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    Monday, 18 April 2011

    Lies, damn lies and voting system lies

    So we're just over 2 weeks away from our next set of local elections in the UK (May 5th), and alongside those elections we're also being asked about switching to a new voting system for future elections. For a long time we've used the simple First Past The Post (FPTP) system here, but now we have the possbility of moving to Alternative Vote (AV) instead.

    First Past The Post

    FPTP is simple to understand - the person who receives more votes than any single other person wins. But that simplicity is the only good thing, and there are many problems with it. It's unfair: in an election with 10 candidate, it's possible for a winner to have just 11% of the vote, even in the case where the other 89% of voters would consider them to be the worst option. It's also very susceptible to tactical voting, leading to nasty tactics in parties' election literature like claiming "party foo cannot win here, so don't waste your vote on them - vote for us instead!". See this Wikipedia article for more background.

    Alternative Vote

    AV is slightly more complicated. Instead of just placing a mark against their single preferred candidate, voters are able to rank as many of the candidates as they like. In the case that there is not a clear winner with more than 50% of the votes from the initial count, the lowest-ranked candidate is eliminated and second-choice votes from their supporters are counted and re-distributed for the other candidates. Iterate this process until one candidate gets more than 50% of the total votes. By re-calculating the votes this way, supporters of less popular candidates / parties should no longer feel the pressure to vote tactically and a more accurate picture of voter intention should emerge. The downsides? AV will tend to lead to slower, more expensive counting due to the potential for several rounds. It's still not real proportional voting, but it's better than FPTP in this regard. Again, Wikipedia has a good article about this subject.

    Other options?

    I'd be much happier to see discussion / trials of other voting systems. For example, Debian uses a variation on Condorcet called Cloneproof Schwartz Sequential Dropping which is an excellent system for fair voting, but it's very difficult to explain and counting votes is comparatively very expensive. It's bad enough getting ostensibly-intelligent Debian developers to understand this system; extending this to a national election would be impossible in my opinion. It's also not an option on the ballot here... :-)

    Politicians spreading lies

    I know this won't come as a major shock for a nationwide referendum, but there's a lot of campaigning going on. And, in the best traditions of political campaigning, there's a huge amount of bullshit being spread. The worst is coming from the "No to AV" campaign, as far as I can see. Without many positive things to claim, various members of the Conservative party (current government, with most to fear from a change of voting system, of course) are spouting outright lies and sowing FUD in all directions:

    1. Claiming that AV will cost £250 million, most of which would be for the cost of electronic voting machines. Except... there's no evidence that these would be needed, nor are there any plans to use them.
    2. Continuing on, highlighting the alleged "extra costs" of AV: campaign poster FUD saying that we need to choose between cardiac facilities for babies and AV, or between equipment for our soldiers and AV. Except... there's no evidence that costs will be that high, nor that we have to make such binary choices.
    3. Claims from senior Conservative figures that changing to AV would mean more votes and legitimacy for extremists like the British National Party. Except... there is no evidence that AV will boost minority extremist parties. The BNP themselves are urging their supporters to vote against AV. Finally, if these parties have a high enough proportion of votes that they should be getting seats in parliament then they should have those seats - this is one of the tenets of democracy. Why should we be choosing a voting system to deliberately disenfranchise people?
    4. Finally, even David Cameron is at it: "too much of the debate about the alternative vote (AV) had so far been dominated by 'scientific' evaluation of the two systems' merits. But for me, politics shouldn't be some mind-bending exercise. It's about what you feel in your gut - about the values you hold dear and the beliefs you instinctively have. And I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong." Well, it's nice that our Prime Minister wants to ignore all the scientific evidence and go with his gut feeling. After all, why would we want to think about choices like this?

    Don't swallow the bullshit

    If you're eligible to vote in the UK, please ignore the bollocks. Make up your own mind how to vote in this referendum, by looking at the facts. I've done that and I'll be voting in favour of switching to AV.

    13:03 :: # :: /misc/politics :: 7 comments