poplarmark

Mark – my words

More votes than all the other candidates put together

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
A 1000 1020 1075 1300
B 800 820 875 1100
C 600 620 675 (eliminated)
D 200 220 (eliminated)
E 100 (eliminated)
Exhausted 0 20 75 300
Total 2700 2700 2700 2700

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.

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2 responses to “More votes than all the other candidates put together

  1. TRT 2011-04-18 at 14:15

    This is the bugbear that I am wrestling with at the moment.
    I understand perfectly what you say, my gripe is on HOW the election summary will be reported. I know that the full proceedings will have to be reported, but there’s always a summary and that’s the one MPs will quote and that people remember.
    In your example, you could say the winning candidate was returned with either a 54% majority or a 48% share. Does the legislation say how the election results can or should be used after the event? I doubt it.
    If 52% of the people in his or her constituency DIDN’T want A to represent them in parliament, I don’t want A spouting off in their literature that they had the ‘mandate of a clear majority (54%)’.
    You’ve seen what it’s like already with party political propaganda, knocking the other parties, trying to swing tactical voters with confusing and misquoted figures from the previous election. I want to see legislation about THAT aspect of it.

  2. poplarmark 2011-04-18 at 15:43

    Once again, the Act is the source of your answer. It’s rather buried, in Part 1 of Schedule 10 which covers amendments to the 1983 Parliamentary Elections Rules act. At point 8, it says this:

    In rule 50 (declaration of result), in paragraph (1), for sub-paragraphs (a) to (c) there
    is substituted—
    “(a) declare the number of votes obtained by each candidate (including
    any reallocated in accordance with rule 45A above), starting with the
    candidate with the fewest and proceeding in order to the candidate with
    the most;
    (aa) declare which is the candidate who (in accordance with that rule) is
    elected;
    (ab) declare the stage at which each eliminated candidate was eliminated and
    the stage at which the elected candidate was elected;
    (b) return the name of the elected candidate to the Clerk of the Crown;
    (c) give public notice of the name of the elected candidate, the number
    of rejected ballot papers under each head shown in the statement of
    rejected ballot papers, the number of votes allocated to each candidate in
    accordance with voters’ first preferences, and for each subsequent stage
    of counting—
    (i) the name of the eliminated candidate,
    (ii) the number of votes reallocated to each of the remaining
    candidates, and
    (iii) the number of votes of the candidate eliminated at the previous
    stage that were not reallocated.”

    As I read this, the results are to be declared using the numbers of votes, rather than percentages. I don’t think there is any legislation that prevents parties claiming whatever they like about percentage results. Under FPTP they tend to make rather fast and free with claims about the size of their “majority”, even if they get elected with a clear minority of those who voted. When you add into the equation the fact that the turnout at elections is usually well below 100%, obviously any claim to be representing a majority of the electorate is going to be a little suspect. As far as I know, no current MP has the support of over 50% of his/her electorate.

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