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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


    Re: Lies, damn lies and voting system lies
    Mark Hymers wrote on Mon, 18 Apr 2011 16:59

    I'm struggling on this one. FPTP is shit - end of story. Unfortunately, AV is, in the words of the current deputy prime minister a "grubby little compromise". Only putting forward FPTP and AV as options in the referendum is a traditional British political class method of conceding as little as possible, as slowly as possible in order to avoid being strung up [0]. I'm really quite torn on this one because whichever way the vote goes, I lose, and so does everyone else in this country.

    [0] For other references, see most of the history of the British Monarchy and Parliamentary system.

      Re: Re: Lies, damn lies and voting system lies
      David Claughton wrote on Mon, 18 Apr 2011 17:36

      > Unfortunately, AV is, in the words of the current deputy prime minister a "grubby little compromise".

      My recollection is this was said about AV before the coalition was formed and was part of the Lib-dems attempt to get STV put on the table instead of AV. A bit of hyperbole is usual in these things.

      It's true that STV is a better system than AV, but in the final analysis AV is much better than FPTP and a step in the right direction. Although it lacks proportionality, it does have some things in common with STV such as preferential voting and the associated multiple rounds of counting, which should help in the case of a future proposal of STV - it will be easier to sell it to the electorate as we would be already half-way there in a sense.

      The other thing to consider is if the referendum fails it will probably be a considerable knock-back for voting reform and may mean we won't get another chance for decades, whereas if we get AV through, then not only will be get that improvement it might set the stage for a full "upgrade" to STV.

      In case it's not obvious, I'll also be voting Yes for AV - let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Re: Lies, damn lies and voting system lies
    tomás zerolo wrote on Mon, 18 Apr 2011 17:28

    Thanks, very insightful. And this goes to David Cameron:

    If poilitics is "about what you feel in your gut", don't be surprised when the outcome smells like shit.

    Re: Lies, damn lies and voting system lies
    Chris Cunningham wrote on Mon, 18 Apr 2011 17:39

    Why AVI is a truly Lib Dem-ish compromise (of course), if it makes electoral politics even slightly fairer in the public's eyes it opens the way to more progressive changes in future.

    Quite why the Tories think they have a chance of preventing AV is beyond me. If the general public thought that the Tories, and Cameron in particular, had any integrity then they wouldn't have had much trouble getting an outright majority of the vote in the last General Election against a Labour government lacking any obvious direction or principles at all.

    Re: Lies, damn lies and voting system lies
    Chris Cunningham wrote on Mon, 18 Apr 2011 17:40

    "Why AVI" should of course be "While AV". Accursed muscle memory.

    Re: Lies, damn lies and voting system lies
    Penny Leach wrote on Mon, 18 Apr 2011 20:19

    Ah, electoral systems. They're so interesting!

    We used to use FPTP in NZ and have since switched to Mixed Member Proportional (MMP: 0) for our national elections. For local body elections we're using Single Transferable Vote (STV: 1) which sounds quite similar to AV - indeed largely it's identical to a particular type of AV according to Wikipedia.

    I really like MMP because it seems to most of the time really manage to be representative of the electorate. There are still serious problems, mostly related to the sorts of compromises needed in order to reach coalition agreement, which can lead to "King Makers" which are basically very small parties that are able to bribe the government to compromise the majority position in order to be able to commit to some sort of coalition.

    However, although AV has obvious advantages over FPTP, I still prefer MMP, largely because AV is very confusing for people. Having something like AV as a local body electoral system is interesting academically while still confusing. But if the UK is anything like NZ, voter turnout for the national elections is much higher, so AV seems at that level seems definitely too confusing at a larger scale.

    0: 1:

    Re: Lies, damn lies and voting system lies
    Russell Coker wrote on Tue, 19 Apr 2011 14:05

    Most of the anti-AV arguments can be easily dismissed by reading some Australian history. It was implemented in Australia in 1918 and didn't cost that much. While hand-counted vote systems haven't changed much since 1918 the amount of resources of the country has changed a lot (for example the majority of the population used to be required for farming). In Australia it's voting for the upper house that takes all the vote-counting resources and yet it's still so small that no-one is proposing any changes on the basis of cost.

    Regarding "king makers", if a major party doesn't want to do a deal with one small party then it often has an opportunity to try another. If that isn't palatable then they can call another election. In the last Australian federal election the Liberal party could have formed a coalition government if they hadn't offended so many people - it seems that the possibility of a coalition will work to prevent major parties becoming too extreme to keep their options open.

    As an aside, I've just read about the House of Lords, are they having any discussions about changing that?


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