poplarmark

Mark – my words

How much is my AV vote worth?

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.

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7 responses to “How much is my AV vote worth?

  1. Muirchertach 2011-03-22 at 10:14

    Does @CharlotteV know about this? She would seriously disagree with your second paragraph and I’d love to hear her full response to it as well as her full justification as to why AV and run off voting are different. Can you send her a link to this post and ask for a full (i.e. more than 140 characters) explanation as to why she has different opinion to you. Great post by the way. Thanks.

  2. DBirkin 2011-03-25 at 06:49

    Mark, you offer the answer to your own question. With run off voting, you reassess all remaining candidates again, there is a fresh round of campaigning, you get to hear from your preferred candidate and see who they support so you can consider that.

    This can cause the first round leader to actually get less votes when the losers votes are redistributed.

    Instant run off voting, doesn’t have ’rounds’ . That is nonsense. Who studies all parties before an election? No-one does or will and with AV they will list parties they don’t really understand in order to keep their vote from the last unranked candidate.

    Donkey voting.

    If someone really wants something, if we are trying to calculate each candidates support, we should value that more than someone’s 6th choice.

    In answer to your 2. There are many systems. Perhaps we should research. Ask people to rank by % in a few studies then work out the average 1st 2nd etc % and use that. Crude, but more accurate than saying all are 100%

    • poplarmark 2011-03-25 at 08:15

      “Who studies all parties before an election?” I suggest any voter who is concerned to make an intelligent and informed choice about who to vote for would seek to understand at least a few parties. On what rational basis can a voter award their vote if they don’t understand the differences between the various candidates and policies? You must imagine most voters vote semi-automatically, out of some engrained tribal loyalty. That’s what I would call “donkey voting”.

      • DBirkin 2011-03-25 at 10:23

        Yes, we can speak about what we SHOULD do in order to make an informed decision.
        However we KNOW that they won’t.

        I know many almost tribal voters, however the very important difference between tribal voters and donkey voters, is that tribal voters normally know about the party they are voting for.

        They may not have the understanding to place other parties around them, but they know their party and they know what they know and like what they like.

        By allowing theses people to place their party first while expecting them to make an informed decision on other parties is niave. This is why exhaustive run off is so much more better.

        If they cannot have their first choice, they know. They then can draw a line under their tribal support and look at the remaining candidates with fresh eyes.

        However exhaustive run off is not possible with general elections, so we have to get rid of the idea of rounds as rounds only work when given new information.

        We have to decide the winner in one round.
        There are preferential systems that do this, but these aren’t on offer. The only system that can do this in one round in this referendum, is FPTP.

  3. Neil Lovatt 2011-03-27 at 16:09

    Mark,
    There is an associated reduction in value (to the voter) from redistributed votes. This is because the voter is (by definition) no longer voting for their first preference and therefore they are receiving less value from the use of their vote. Therefore there is no need to talk about reducing the actual value of a reallocated vote (and you comprehensively answer that here) because it’s already degraded in the eyes of the voter being transferred.

    DBirkin there is some very weak evidence that multiple ballots end up differing from the AV result but this is very weak and highly marginal, moreover most difference result from the change in opinion over the time between the ballots rather than a bias from the previous results. However at that level you are just talking about the mechanics of the system rather than the principle and I’ll happily take AV over multiple ballot on cost grounds alone. Given the No2AV campiagn on costs I guess they would greatly favour that option as well!

    • poplarmark 2011-03-27 at 16:48

      Neil, I think you can see that I acknowledge your first point, when I say “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.”

      However, in terms of contributing to the result of the election, there is no justification for counting a lower-preference vote as anything other than a full vote. That’s what the No supporters want to happen.

  4. Jonathan Phillips 2011-04-05 at 17:09

    I’d like to vote Green (say), but there’s no Green candidate. I could live with the LDs, but they won’t get anywhere. I can’t stand the Tories, so I vote Labour. Does that somehow make my vote worth less than that of a convinced Labour supporter? Would it be worth any less (or indeed any more, as some of the antis seem to think) if under AV my vote went to the Labour candidate in the third round of transfers?

    Vote 1 for the party you support. If they weren’t on the ballot paper, would you vote for one of the others, given the more limited choice you now have? If no, stop there. If yes, mark them 2. Then: if that party weren’t on the ballot, would you vote for one of the others, given that the choice is more limited still? And so on. Until you decide you dislike all the remaining candidates equally. Cue flow diagram. Isn’t it easy? See http://bit.ly/fgHxR0.

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