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Mark – my words

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Is AV better than FPTP? (via Gowers’s Weblog)

Professor Tim Gowers treats us to a comprehensive rubbishing of the No to AV campaign’s arguments, some of which he proves to be false using mathematics.

It’s a long article, but well worth reading. I’ve seen no better single collection of reasons why anyone with a brain should cast anything but a “Yes” vote on May 5th.

Is AV better than FPTP? On May 5th the UK will vote in a referendum for only the second time ever. (The first time was in 1975, when we voted on whether to remain in the EU, or the Common Market as it was then called.) Now we have a chance to decide whether to retain our current voting system, misleadingly known as First Past The Post, or whether to switch to the Alternative Vote. Let me come clean straight away. Although in this post I shall try to write dispassionatel … Read More

via Gowers’s Weblog

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How to vote in an AV election

Faced with a ballot paper that allows you to rank any or all of the candidates in an AV election, how should you award your preferences? Which candidate should you give your 1st preference to, and which 2nd, 3rd, and so on? Should you even bother to mark preferences beyond your first?

Before going any further, there are some ground-rules that you must understand.

  1. You have only one actual vote to award. Your preferences merely tell the returning officer which candidate your vote should be counted for.
  2. The winner of the election will be the candidate who gets more votes than all other candidates put together. This means that there may need to be several rounds of counting, eliminating the lowest-scoring candidate each time, and redistributing votes that had gone to the eliminated candidate, according to those voters’ stated preferences.
  3. Your lower numbered preferences only take effect if and when the candidate(s) you gave higher rankings to have been eliminated from the contest. So if one candidate storms the contest with over half of all votes cast, your second preference will never be looked at. Similarly if your candidate has a decent percentage of first-preference votes, and thus has a good chance of winning if s/he attracts preference votes from less popular, eliminated candidates, then again your second preference may not be looked at.
  4. If all the candidates you marked a preference for get eliminated, your vote will no longer count. It will be like you never voted. There’s nothing to stop you voting for just one candidate, but bear in mind that your vote won’t influence the result if all your preferred candidates get eliminated.

So, given these basics, here’s the strategy I plan to adopt, and I humbly suggest the same strategy makes sense for everyone, irrespective of their political affiliations.

  • I will look at each of the candidates and choose the one I would most like to see winning, let’s call her “A”, and I’ll mark “1” next to her name.
  • Next I will imagine that A gets knocked out. Of the remaining candidates, which would I most like to win?  That’s “B”, and he will get my “2”.
  • Next, imagining that both A and B are eliminated, I choose my 3rd preference, C. And so on.[1]

There may come a point where I cannot choose between the remaining candidates, or I may refuse to endorse any of them in any way. At that point I stop marking preferences.

Through this entire decision-making process, I can vote entirely honestly. I know that my vote can continue to influence the election until the final outcome is decided. One of my favoured candidates may win, or I may end up having backed losers all the way. But I need not think that my vote has been wasted, because it can continue to count until the winner is elected.


1 I suspect there is never any point in marking your absolute lowest preference, the “nth” out of “n” candidates, because the contest will always stop when it comes down to two candidates, and votes for the losing 2nd place in the final round won’t get ever re-allocated.

Busting some No to AV myths

No voter in AV gets more than one vote, nor is any voter’s vote more infuential than any other.  This has been established in legal precedent in the USA.

There is no question of multiple bites of the cherry. All voters’ votes are counted in each round of the AV runoff (unless all candidates they indicated a preference for have been eliminated). If your single first-preference vote turns out to have been for the winning candidate, your vote has nevertheless been counted exactly the same number of times as that of a voter whose preferred candidates have been successively eliminated. And who knows, his final preference may have been the same as your first, and been the one vote that pushed that candidate over the winning line!

Consider a BNP supporter whose second preference is UKIP, and third preference is Conservative. When the BNP candidate is eliminated, this voter becomes to all intents and purposes a UKIP voter, indistinguishable from someone who voted UKIP as their first preference. When the UKIP candidate is eliminated, our voter is supporting the Conservative party. His vote is no less valid because his desire for minority representation has been thwarted.

Some people get very exercised about lower-preference votes being somehow less worthy than first-preference ones. But in this country we’ve never been in the least bit concerned to examine how enthusiastically a voter’s single vote is awarded to a candidate under FPTP. I  would venture to suggest that any given individual’s level of committment to his FPTP vote could be any of: highly positive; cynical, opportunist & tactical; a chore, undertaken out of a sense of duty; a coerced act; an act of despair; and much else besides.

Allowing voters to express any or all of these sentiments on a single ballot paper, from which ultimately only a single vote will count in the eventual result, seems to me to be self-evidently a superior and more empowering form of democracy.

Three arguments for AV and against FPTP

I was challenged on Twitter by @ticobas :

Hi Mark, what in your view are the best three arguments FOR #AV, aka the three biggest problems with #FPTP?

Here is my response.

  1. AV gives MPs more legitimacy by requiring a higher level of support: the AV winner requires “more votes than the other candidates put together“.   FPTP on the other hand  allows your MP to be elected with a minority of votes, when majority of voters might positively disfavour the winner. (Technically, FPTP allows the Condorcet loser to win, AV does not.)
  2. AV Encourages honest voting for truly preferred candidates: voters need have no fear that their vote will be wasted by giving it to a minority candidate; conversely, FPTP  encourages dishonest, tactical voting. (Technically, tactical voting is possible in AV but it is problematic and risky. See this LSE paper.)
  3. AV is a simple evolution of the familiar current FPTP system; it retains the constituency link, it is very similar to vote in (instead of X, you mark 1, 2, 3, …), it is very similar to count and won’t take much longer; it produces arguably equally decisive results nationally – no more likely to result in coalitions than FPTP. But it is a system that is better adapted to our multi-party electoral environment. FPTP really only works when the contest is two-way. See the IPPR report downloadable from here.

I hope this helps. Please feel free to comment – I promise to approve all non-spam comments.

I take on Sir George Young!

A nearby MP, Sir George Young, had a letter published in the local paper, which I quote below.  In it, he parrots some of the absurd party-line misinformation that is typical of “No to AV” campaign,

Look closely at the impact of AV!

RICHARD Kidd had a letter published, urging your readers to vote yes in the forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote.

I take a different view. Under our current system of First Past the Post, we give everyone of voting age one vote each, with the candidate that gets the most votes winning. That sounds fair to me; but we are being asked to replace First Past the Post with what will essentially be a third past the post system. The two parties with the highest votes will have to wait to see what happens to the votes of the parties who come third, fourth and fifth. So the party that is placed third will have more power than the party that is placed second, and indeed more power than the party who polled the most votes in the first round.

Richard Kidd suggests that under AV all winning candidates would have to get over 50 per cent of support, but this is wrong. As the Electoral Commission have said, because voters don’t have to rank all of the candidates, an election can still be won under AV with less than half the total votes cast. Only three countries use AV – Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Two of them have made voting compulsory, with fines for those who don’t vote. There is more to AV than meets the eye and I urge voters to look exactly at the impact AV might have on our democracy.

In response to this I sent the following letter to the paper.  A bit long, but I was trying to write something that would be easy to understand.  We shall see if my response is published!

Sir George Young MP (Letters, 17 Feb), either doesn’t understand how the proposed AV system works, or he is deliberately attempting to muddy the waters and confuse voters into thinking that AV is complex and unfair, when in fact it is the opposite. Please allow an AV supporter to clarify.

All that happens with AV is that instead of choosing just a single candidate from the ballot paper, you can vote for several candidates, and you rank them according to your personal preferences.

If you want to vote for Sir George, and no-one else will do, simply place a “1” against his name instead of an “X”, and you’re done.  If you want anyone but Sir George, place “1”, “2”, “3”, etc. against the other candidates in the order you like them, but leave the box by Sir George’s name blank. Once again, that’s all you need to do as a voter. It’s hardly rocket science.

The counting is basically the same as it always has been and in fact need not take any longer than at present. First preference votes (the “1”s) are tallied up, and if Sir George has more than 50% of the votes cast, as indeed he did last year, then he’s elected.  There would be no difference at all.

But if Sir George gets less than 50%, the alternative votes start to count. This is the whole point of the AV system, to ensure that the person elected as MP has at least 50% of the votes.

The easiest way to understand it is to imagine that the election is immediately held again, but without the candidate who got the least votes. No-one actually needs to vote again, because (we hope) the people who voted for the eliminated candidate already expressed their 2nd, 3rd, etc. preferences for other candidates. Everyone else’s candidate is still in the race, so their votes stand.

The second preference votes of the people that voted for for the eliminated candidate are therefore distributed to the respective remaining candidates. At this point, Sir George could well pick up enough 2nd preference votes to get elected, and it wouldn’t even have taken very long, because the fewest possible ballot papers needed to be re-examined.

In close-fought seats, several rounds of elimination and re-allocation of preference votes may be needed, but overall it needn’t take very much longer than re-counts take at present.  It can certainly all be done by hand, so there’s absolutely no need to spend millions on dodgy unreliable electronic counting machines.

Contrary to Sir George’s allegation, there is no question of “the party that is placed third” having “more power”. Parties don’t cast votes at elections. Unlike MPs, voters are independent individuals and we may vote for whoever we choose.