The AV Referendum

16 April 2011
When I first heard that there was to be a referendum on AV I was unsure whether I would vote in favour or against. Like FPTP, AV is a winner-takes-all system utilizing single-member constituencies, and in most the result would be the same. Ultimately I decided to vote in favour, as it is the lesser of two evils.

What is being asked

It is a choice between AV and FPTP for use in general elections. The same Act that put it to referendum also reduces the number of MPs in such a way that is regarded as gerrymandering by some, but these provisions go ahead regardless of the result of the referendum.

Who is for & against?

Most Conservatives, some Labour party elders, and the BNP, are against. LibDems, the Labour front-bench, UKIP, the SNP, PC and the Green Party are in favour.

Is AV proportional

No, but neither is FPTP. This is why some people in favour of PR are voting against. However the vast majority of those in favour of electoral reform in general regard No2AV as a campaign to keep FPTP.

Don't most campaigning for a Yes vote hate AV?

Yes, but all of them favour the similar STV, and regard AV as a step in the right direction. Memories of how Conservative lords filibustered the introduction of PR for the Euro Elections in 1999 spring to mind, and they know any No vote (regardless of whether it was pro-FPTP or anti-AV) will be used as a roadblock to future reform.

What do they prefer?

Multi-seat STV. In single-member constituencies STV and AV give identical results, but in multi-member constituencies it tends to give proportional results. It is just about the only voting system that allows cross-party voting, so it is particularly favourable to voters who are voting on issues where parties don't take uniformly opposing views.

AV and hung parliaments

A main plank of anti-AV campaigning is that AV will lead to more coalitions. Since just about every argument on AV uses Australia, the outcome of Australian general elections will be considered here. Australia used FPTP until 1919, which is when it switched to AV.

In the 7 elections between 1900 and 1918, FPTP resulted in three hung parliaments (1901, 1903, 1906). In the 40 elections since AV was adopted 1919, only 2 (1940 and 2010) were hung. During the same time period, the UK held 29 general elections under FPTP, of which 6 (Jan 1910, Dec 1910, 1923, 1929, Feb 1974, 2010) resulted in hung parliaments. In short, FPTP produces more hung parliaments.

Other anti-AV remarks

Much of the focus by the anti-camp has been on faults (both supposed and actual) of AV, rather than the virtues of FPTP. In cases of actual shortcomings these are faults that FPTP also has, and in others they are making unreasonable assumptions on theory versus practice. Common points against being:
AV allows most popular party to lose
So does FPTP, and in the UK this happened 4 times last century (December 1910, 1929, 1951, and February 1974). This is a fault with single-member elections in general than the voting system.
Not one person one vote
This is also framed as some votes are counted several times, usually in reference to people who vote for "fringe" parties. The dishonest part of this is the strong implication that such votes are weighted differently, when in actual fact they are being reallocated.
Fringe party transfers will decide elections
This assumes that the difference between the top 2-3 candidates is small compared to the cumulative vote of fringe party candidates. It also assumes that there is a statistical bias in which of the top 2-3 candidates fringe votes transfer to, which implies that parties such as the Socialist Workers and the BNP vote the same way.
AV elects the least-unpopular candidate
This system is Condorcet Voting, not AV. Condorcet Voting is based around hypothetical run-offs between every possible pair of candidates, whereas AV uses a one-by-one elimination process. A fundamental difference between Condorcet and AV is that AV puts a bias on candidates getting higher preferences, and as a result a candidate has to have a significant portion of first-preferences to have any prospect of winning.
AV is too complex
This is always wheeled out as an excuse against change. Anyone who can can handle STV can certainly handle AV, and STV is currently used in Scotland and Ireland (both Northern and the Republic). Therefore to say that AV is too complex implies that the English & Welsh are idiots in comparison to the Irish and Scottish.
AV is too expensive
This is largely based around the assumption that AV would have to be counted using machines. One thing to keep in mind is that such machines were invented in the 1960s, whereas AV can trace its history back to the 1850s.

What converted me

Deciding my local councillor did not represent my views, as he voted for residents parking despite it being rejected by local referendum. I then saw that tactical voting to get him out would involve voting for the Green party, which would be self-defeating considering how anti-car they are.

Who will benefit?

Difficult to say, as modelling one election under a different system requires notoriously subjective assumptions. For instance, there have been studies that show AV to both favour and disfavour the Conservatives.