The Pros and Cons of the Alternative Vote

The 5th May has the potential to be one of the most important days in the political landscape of Britain for many years to come, as a referendum is to be held on whether to stick with the current ‘First Past the Post‘ (FPTP) voting system or switch to the Alternative Vote (AV) system. The sytems in a nutshell work like this:

First Past the Post (FPTP)

An FPTP ballot requires you to mark one box of your ballot paper with an X to indicate your favoured candidate. The ballots are counted and the candidate with the highest number of votes wins.

Alternative Vote (AV)

An AV ballot gives you the option of ranking your preferences in a given election. Instead of indicating your favourite candidate with an X, you would use the number 1. You may then, if you wish, place a 2 against your second favourite candidate, a 3 against your third favourite and so on until your apathy levels reach maximum or you run out of candidates. If a particular candidate has more first preference votes than the other candidates combined then we have a winner, otherwise the second preference of the last placed candidate are used and so on until someone has a majority.

Let’s have a simple example:

Three candidates are vying for 15 votes. Alan gets 4 votes, Brenda gets 5 votes and Charlie gets 6 votes. Under the FTPT system Charlie wins. Let’s say that Charlie’s policies have divided the electorate greatly and Alan and Brenda are running on similar policies to each other. In an FPTP system this doesn’t matter as Charlie doesn’t need a majority to win, however if the ballot was done using AV, and assuming that Alan’s voters would prefer Brenda as a second favourite, then Brenda would have won with 9 votes.

So what are the pros and cons of each system?

FPTP gives a clear winner. This has been attributed to a strong government, and less likely to give a hung parliament, whether this is true is a matter of debate. FPTP is also easier to count and is a well known system. By comparison AV is only used to elect a government in Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, although it is often used for things such as student government elections.

AV will allow more local support for MP’s although it is debatable whether this has anything to do with a government. Fringe votes are also likely to have more effect under the alternative vote, since these are the votes likely to be redistributed, leading to questions about the ‘fairness’ of this and whether the votes from the fringe voters are the ones that a should be determining governmnents.

Since the proposed version of AV allows optional ranking of candidates, an interesting question is whether people would use the rankings, and what are the implications if not.

An important consideration is the wider issue of electoral reform. This has been offered as a compromise between the current system and other systems like proportional representation and single vote transferral. Regardless of whether you vote Yes or No to AV on May 5th will we get to look again at these other options.