Mark – my words
One of the arguments against the Alternative Vote (AV) system is that its claim, that the winner of an AV election must have over half the votes cast, is false. This objection hinges on the question of which body of votes the winner must get more than half of, and the linked issue of “exhausted votes”.
The actual wording which defines how an AV winner is decided is there for all to read in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. It’s a lovely piece of plain English, and it states: “if one candidate has more votes than the other candidates put together, that candidate is elected.”
Obviously that condition may not exist when the first preference votes are counted. The first round of counting in an AV election is identical to the one and only count that happens in the present, First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. We know all too well that FPTP often results in a winner who has substantially fewer votes than “the other candidates put together”. In fact, fully two-thirds of MPs in the present House of Commons were elected with a clear minority of the votes cast. AV improves on FPTP by insisting on a greater level of endorsement of the winning candidate.
To that end, AV is a form of runoff voting, and may require several rounds of counting in order for a winner to emerge. So long as no candidate “has more votes than the other remaining candidates put together”, the lowest-scoring candidate — the one with the fewest votes — is effectively eliminated from the contest. As the Act says,
the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes shall be dealt with as follows—
(a) each vote cast by a voter who also ranked one or more of the remaining candidates shall be reallocated to that remaining candidate or (as the case may be) to the one that the voter ranked highest;
(b) any votes not reallocated shall play no further part in the counting.
Case (b) applies where all a voter’s preferred candidates have been eliminated. Their ballot “shall play no further part in the counting”. These are referred to as “exhausted votes”.
The objection I hear from No supporters says that exhausted votes should be included in the total number of votes which the winner has to have more than half of. An example may make this clearer. The table shows an AV election over 4 rounds. After each round, for the sake of simplicity, the votes of the lowest scoring candidate are divided equally among the remaining candidates and the exhausted pile.
|Candidate||Round 1||Round 2||Round 3||Round 4|
At round 4 only two candidates remain, and A is declared the winner, having “more votes than the other candidates put together” – because there’s only one other candidate remaining. However, candidate A, with 1300 votes, clearly does not have more than half the 2700 ballots that were turned in at the election, even though he has more than the 1100 votes that B has accrued.
Does this matter? The rules, established in the Act, are explicit: exhausted votes “play no further part in the counting”. We may assume that voters whose votes became exhausted were unable or unwilling to express a preference between the remaining candidates. It therefore seems fair that their votes should lapse, as though they had not voted at all. Alternatively you could view it as being no different to what happens to the votes of voters in a FPTP election whose candidate does not win. Their preferred candidate or candidates simply lost. They certainly didn’t get enough votes to win.
There’s a third possibility: exhausted votes should continue to be counted, but counted for a special, virtual candidate called “none of the above”. I plan to explore that concept in a later posting, but as it’s not a possibility that’s entertained by the current AV legislation, arguing about it is a rather sterile activity in the face of the decision we’re being asked to take on the 5th of May.
Meanwhile, is the objection valid? Should the entire concept of AV succeed or fail on the basis that its claim that the winner of an AV election must get over half the votes can be shown to be false, albeit only in some circumstances and under a set of assumptions that don’t match the relevant legislation?
To my mind, the objection doesn’t invalidate AV at all, but of course you may have a different opinion.