Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Is there a Christian view on Alternative Voting?

On May 5th this year, the country will be voting on the biggest change in our electoral system since — well, you pick your own comparison, but I would guess something like the introduction of votes for women.
I am referring, of course, to the Alternative Vote system, which will replace the present X on the ballot paper with a numbered preference. The instructions you’ll see on your ballot paper, in the event of the system being introduced, will be as follows:
Remember — use 1, 2, 3 etc at this election — this is an election using the alternative vote system. Put the number 1 next to the name of the candidate who is your first choice (or your only choice, if you want to vote for only one candidate). You can also put the number 2 next to your second choice, 3 next to your third choice, and so on. You can mark as few or as many choices (up to the number of candidates) as you wish. Do not use the same number more than once. Put no other mark on the ballot paper, or your vote may not be counted.
Now to me that seems pretty straightforward. Also, as one who is used to the STV system used in General Synod elections, it also seems both familiar and reasonable. The maths are rather different for those counting the votes (STV seems to involve either a big brain or a small computer), but there is nothing too complicated for the voter to grasp, and that is surely all that matters in this regard.
Above all, the AV system seems to me to be more fair. I am frankly tired, after innumerable elections throughout my lifetime, of putting casting a vote that I know will count for nothing or next-to-nothing, either because my candidate is a dead-cert or because they have no chance on the first-past-the-post system.
The fact that the Church of England has already adopted something very similar for its own elections suggests to me that Anglicans ought to support AV.
But of course I may be missing something. When a couple of dozen leading historians describe AV as a threat to our whole democratic way of life, you have to allow that they may be right (though of course you’d then have to ask whether the elections to General Synod ought to be regarded as ‘proper’).
Personally, I’m going to support AV unless someone can talk me out of it. But I’m surprised at the overall silence on this whole topic.
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  1. My reservation is from the perspectives of the consequences. Most people seem to recognise that AV will yield a hung parliament more often than our current electoral system, and it will even do so most of the time.

    People say that's a good thing, in that there is then the need to do things like talk, listen, negotiate and compromise. Arguably, that process is a restraining influence, and that is good. However, the problem is this: Those conversations take place behind closed doors, involving only senior politicians from the relevant parties and a few on the party national executives. We don't get a say.

    The result is a government that nobody voted for. In picking a candidate / party to vote for, each voter is making that same set of horse-trading compromises within their own choice. They can live with party P, because of policy A, even though that means putting up with B. It was a close call, though, because party Q had policy C that they also liked, but they weren't willing to put up with the fact that they would also get policy D, which they really couldn't stomach.

    Then you get a hung parliament. P and Q end up governing as a coalition. Guess what: Both parties talk and agree a compromise. The coalition will support party P's policy B, in return for party Q giving up policy C. They also support party Q's policy D, in return for party P giving up policy A. Our poor voter gest the two policies he / she did not want: C and D, and neither of the ones they did want.

    So in terms of the sheer honesty of the process, I prefer a system where all the horse-trading is done before the election, and we end up with several packages on the table to choose between. Then the package that most people want is what we get. Then we decide which compromises to accept, rather than elite few. Although a hung parliament has the appearance of restraining evil by forcing people to talk, in fact a better restraint comes from distributing the deisions amongst the entire electorate.

    General Synod elections are different. The "Whip" system in Westminster means that, apart from the significant free votes MPs are given on matters of conscience, the policies we get are shaped by party-politics, not by the candidates. We vote for the party who will govern and set the agenda. Synod is not party-political, even though are some informal groupings within it. It therefore matters that the candidates people vote for are the ones who are elected, a system best served by STV.

    So I would advocate: First-past-the-post is the most just for a parliamentary election with a strongly whipped party system. STV is the most just for a General Synod election.

    James Oakley, Kemsing, Kent

  2. Tom Watts, Winsford15 March 2011 at 11:42

    I recommend you read this report from Ipsos-Mori about AV and the issues involved from an attempted neutral standpoint: http://www.ipsos-mori.com/DownloadPublication/1412_RM-AVarticle.PDF

    Here's a couple of reasons why I will be voting against AV:

    1. Although it makes sense to people like you (and me) I think a lot of people won't understand what that paragraph you quoted above actually means, and what they are doing when they vote. I think people will think they get more than vote, which they don't. But explaining why not is difficult. The best explanation I have heard is "Number the candidates to show how you would like your single vote to be used if your first, second or third etc choice cannot win". But I still think your average voter won't understand the issues, either for the referendum or for an actual election.

    2. It won't really lead to over 50% of the consituency supporting their MP, which is the claim. First, it depends on turnout anyway. Secondly, they will be voted in by people who really wanted someone else.

    3. The current system is criticised for the fact that it allows tactical voting. Tactical voting is still possible under AV (and under any voting system, according to the "Gibbard-
    Satterthwaite theorem"). Such tactical voting may lead to completely counterintuitive results, as explained in the article above. Part of the problem here (similar to point 1) is that the maths behind this is pretty complicated, and yet you're talking about real situations where people could think "if I vote like this I'll get the result I want" and the opposite happens.

    4. One of the obvious results of this system would be that there will be more Liberal Democrat MPs, because they are likely to be second choice candidates for a proportion of both Conservative and Labour voters. This in turn will increase the likelihood of hung parliaments (and we're yet to see whether that's really going to work).

    But basically, read that article, and then I'd be interested to hear if you still think AV is the way forwards.

  3. I've heard and made many bad arguments against AV. However this argument is nagging me - how is it any better than FPTP? why bother changing to a similar system if FPTP is bad? There's many problems with FPTP, but the only one AV deals with is the problem of plurality, which it does by swapped most-liked to least-disliked. This problem isn't really solved, but swept under the carpet. It's change for change's sake that will end the debate if change is made.

    AV will make our politics more bland and centrist (the way to get elected is to avoid having strong or controversial viewpoints and thus be disliked) and likely less proportional. AV makes voting more complex, possibly disenfranchising people through spoiled ballots, not just politically.

    I have to vote least-disliked anyway, so it's little change for me, other than perhaps being able to put a 2 (and perhaps a 3) in boxes. It's a pretty pointless referendum - as, despite the yes camp's and media's propaganda, we're not voting on voting reform, just voting change.

    It's worth pointing out that STV is used to elect multiple members in one vote, not single members - a different scenario. AV for single seats is used for Mayoral elections and such like, where roles are unique - which is complicated for MPs, because we're electing individual members to an assembly.

    Si Hollett, Amersham, Bucks

  4. "The fact that the Church of England has already adopted something very similar for its own elections suggests to me that Anglicans ought to support AV"

    Nice one John. Following the same argument, the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet should start wearing frocks and pointy hats!


  5. James, you say "I prefer a system where all the horse-trading is done before the election, and we end up with several packages on the table to choose between. Then the package that most people want is what we get."

    I think the problem with this is that you don't get the package that most people want; rather, you get the package that the largest minority wants. On average, in the last election the typical MP was elected by 47% of voters -- leaving aside the fact that a huge number of people don't vote, of those who do, most people vote for somebody other than the winning candidate. That's not to say that most people oppose him or her, just that we can't say.

    When you really have constituencies where there are more than two credible choices before voters, the current system completely breaks down, so that as in Brighton and Norwich you get MPs elected by fewer than a third of voters.

    I'm from Ireland but live in England, and so have voted in FPTP elections (general elections here, and in referendums at home), AV elections (a by-election and a Presidential election at home), PR-STV elections (general, European, and council elections at home), and one PR-D'Hondt election (the last European election when I was here). Of these, the ones in which I've felt my vote made the least difference were FPTP elections here.

    At home in various elections I've seen:
    1. My most-preferred candidate get elected on first-preferences alone.
    2. My most-preferred candidate get elected after receiving transferred votes from voters who were happy to support my guy though they would have preferred someone else.
    3. My most-preferred candidate get eliminated, but my vote then to transfer to somebody else I was happy with, so that she got elected.
    4. My most-preferred candidate fail to get elected at the final count, despite receiving lots of support from voters who were happy with them, even if not excited by them.

    So sometimes I win big, sometimes I lose, and most of the time I'm happy enough.

    In 2005 in Britain I voted Labour, and my candidate won by any standard, getting most of the votes in his constituency, but I was unhappy with the fact that nationally speaking Labour had won a huge majority with barely more than a third of the vote. I felt it was wrong that my team had won because the game was rigged.

    Since then I've been ardently in favour of voting reform, and though I don't think AV is the best system we could have here, politics is the art of the possible; I think AV is the best system of the two on offer. I'm pretty sure that in their hearts, most politicians know it is too, given that as far as I know all British parties use preferential voting when selecting candidates and leaders.

  6. Like Greg I'm from Ireland and have voted there. I like being allowed to say who my second best option is so that I can use my vote to vote for who I really want, even if I don't think they have much chance of getting in. That's what I have done in the FPTP system here but I have found it really frustrating not to be able to give a second preference when I know the person I voted for is going to be trailing and competition is likely to be fierce between other canditates one of which I greatly prefer to the other.

    I'm really not convinced that people will not be able to understand that they should vote for who they want in order of preference giving your number one favourite your number one vote. It's not a completely alien concept!

    Elizabeth Bridcut

  7. Any argument that Preferential Voting (as it's more precisely called) is inherently LESS democratic than FPTP voting is bunk.

    (1) Australia has used PV for decades, and our democracy doesn't seem to have collapsed.

    (2) No-one gets more votes than anyone else. That's deliberately and wilfully misunderstanding the system.

    The more accurate way to think about it is:

    For 6 candidates, there are 5 rounds of voting. After each round, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. We assume that anyone who voted for a non-eliminated candidate still wants that candidate to win, and thus keeps the same vote in the following rounds. Those who voted for an eliminated candidate get to vote for someone else instead, according to their preferences.

    But, that arguments that PV is anti-democratic are bunk doesn't make PV inherently better (or even more democratic) than FPTP. Functionally, the advantages of PV vs FPTP are only:

    (1) enables meaningful "token" votes: voting for a minority candidate doesn't negate your ability to have an effect on the "real" election.

    In PV, I can say "I'd REALLY prefer this guy, but since they are unlikely to win, my choice between X and Y is ...". In FPTP, you can't do this.

    (2) avoids split-vote issues.

    The biggest problem in a FPTP system is that two similar candidates are almost guaranteed to lose against a single contrasting candidate, even if the majority would prefer either one of the two similar candidates. This is because similar candidates will split that voting bloc between them, and thus individually end up with fewer votes.

    In a PV system, one of the pair will be eliminated in favour of the other, thus preserving the voting bloc.

    Conclusion: I think PV is a fairer and superior system, but it is neither more nor less likely to protect against hung parliaments and the like. The advantages of PV are essentially constrained to a single electorate; across multiple electorates there's little difference between FPTP and PV.

    Andrew White

  8. Thanks to all who have posted so far. I've looked at a couple of the suggested links and I'm still personally much more in favour of AV than FPTP. I liked the last point especially, about Australia. In fact I didn't realize Australia operated an AV (PV) system which suggests (a) it hasn't had the consequences suggested by the historians' letter and (b) nobody there or here wants to make a big 'thing' of it and suggest they would be more democratic and more stable if they changed the system to our own.

    I suspect AV would disrupt the two-party system, but that has been under strain for some time. And personally I'm not that bothered by hung parliaments. Rather that than a one-party state, anyway!

  9. Like Andrew, I'm from Australia, and so I've only known some form of preferential voting and I'd agree with what he's already said. Notable differences between the UK and Australia which need to be taken into account are:
    1) Voting in Australia is compulsory; &
    2) Our third-party alternatives are comparatively weaker than the Lib-Dems - the Greens are currently getting 12-13% of the vote, but only have 1 seat in the House of Representatives.

    Australia is currently experiencing a hung Federal Parliament - the last one ended in 1941, so they don't happen all that frequently. They've been a bit more common at State Government recently, but hung Parliaments haven't lasted more than 1 term. One party gains a working majority with the support of independents and/or minor parties. If they do a good job, then voters reward them with a majority in their own right at the next election.

    Roger Gallagher
    Merrylands Australia

  10. Mark Gillespie, Erith, Kent16 March 2011 at 13:58

    Some great ideas coming up here, guys. It's given me a lot to think about. However, if we're talking electoral reform I feel we need to consider more than the system we use to vote: better electoral campaigns would be a start, with parties giving positive reasons to vote rather than reasons NOT to vote for others.

    Half of me likes the idea of voting being made compulsory - in fact probably three-quarters of me would prefer it.

    And at the end of the day I think that AV (as we are calling it here) would result in a more democractic form government, even if coalitions are more common.

  11. Is that 'the' Mark Gillespie? (You'll know if you are.)

  12. One of the Mark Gillespies17 March 2011 at 07:58

    I'm certainly one of them. This is the one who met you at Piper's School in 1980.

  13. That would be 'the' Mark Gillespie, then!

    Gosh, that was a long time ago. Was I ever really 30 years old? How're you doing?

    I've never managed to find a trace of the CYFA Arts Workshop on the internet, but we had some fun doing it.

  14. John, this is an interesting read. But even in the comments so far I see little sign of a Christian approach to this issue, just a rehashing of the old secular arguments. I have tried to do better in my blog post Towards a Christian view on the Alternative Vote. So please give this a read.

    Peter Kirk, Warrington