Mark – my words
How much is my AV vote worth?
2011-03-21Posted by on
AV skeptics and campaigners for a “No” vote in the May 5th referendum frequently assert that because voters rank the available candidates, there must be some associated reduction in the value of a vote as it gets reallocated from a voter’s first preference, to their second, third and so on. This is wrong-headed nonsense, and it arises from a fundamental misapprehension of the purpose and operation of the alternative vote system. Reallocated votes should and must be counted at full face value, in order to preserve the principle of “one man, one vote.”
The first point that needs making is that AV is a form of run-off voting. In attempting to elect the candidate who is most acceptable to most voters, there may be several rounds in the contest, with the field of candidates being narrowed down each time by excluding the least popular choice. Each voter gets a vote in each round, and as the choices narrow, so the selection focusses onto the candidate who can command a majority of all the votes cast in the voting round. AV does the run-off “instantly”, rather than as a series of separate ballots, but the underlying principle is the same. The compromises involved in doing an instant run-off1 rather than a multiple ballot runoff make the system both quicker and more economical – clear advantages when what is wanted is a quick, simple and decisive election.
No-one would seriously suggest that in a multiple ballot run-off election, certain individual voters’ votes in successive rounds should count less if the voter had been prevented from voting for the same candidate as in an earlier round due to that candidate’s name no longer appearing on the ballot paper. That would be a nonsense. It would negate the whole point of the run-off. If a candidate isn’t standing, you can’t vote for them. Yet that devaluing of votes is exactly what is being suggested should be the procedure in an instant run-off, AV election.
Here’s another reason to reject the idea. As I’ve described elsewhere, under FPTP no-one questions how passionately people vote. One voter’s deeply sincere and committed “X” is never said to be somehow more valid than another’s hesitant, doubtful, perhaps even reluctant mark for the candidate she hopes will prevent her personal nightmare MP getting elected.
Thus it seems unreasonable to insist that the degree of enthusiasm or sincerity (or whatever) that informs a voter’s ranking of candidates in AV makes any particular position in the ranking more or less valuable as a vote. Rather, the places in the ranking merely serve to indicate which, out of a particular subset of candidates, the voter wishes their vote to count for. The ranking is more akin to an instruction to the returning officer than it is any absolute measure of the amount of favour the voter assigns to the respective candidates.
Each voter in an AV election has one and only one vote to award. At any given stage in the AV instant run-off, that vote can count for only one candidate. A lower-ranked preference counts if and only if all of that voter’s higher ranked preferences have been eliminated from the race and no overall winner has yet emerged. Clearly it would be impossible in those circumstances for their vote to count at all unless it were awarded to their next highest ranked candidate. Equally, it would be entirely inappropriate to take into account the lower preferences of voters whose first preference candidate is still in the running.
From the perspective of the voter who submits their more-or-less carefully considered ranking of the candidates, the descending order of preference clearly does indicate a result that they will find personally less and less desirable. If we then additionally penalise the voter by making their lower preference vote count less than a full vote towards the determination of the eventual winner, we add insult to injury.
There are still more reasons to insist on full value for all ranked votes. If the value of a re-allocated vote were to be factored down, according to its position in the voter’s ranking, it would cause all sorts of problems for the returning officer2, and the contest might prove unwinnable by any candidate, because the winning criterion – “more votes than all other candidates put together” – could turn out to be unattainable were some votes to count significantly less than others.
Finally, devaluing lower preference choices comes perilously close to saying that some people’s votes are less valuable than others. That’s a slippery slope that ends somewhere in the direction of the gas chambers.
1 In a multiple ballot run-off, voters have more information. They know which candidate or candidates have been eliminated. This, it is argued, may cause them to choose a different candidate to vote for in the next round. By forcing voters to rank all candidates from the outset, AV denies them this additional flexibility.
2 What should the fractional value of each transferred vote be exactly? How should the reconciliation between votes cast and votes counted for each candidate proceed when some votes are fractional? Should the turnout or shares of the vote be reported using whole or fractional votes? I’m sure there will be quite a few more such issues.