AV: A Horse of a Different Colour

Front of the official non-partisan brochure sent to all households with voters by the Electoral Commission.

Until recently, the letters AV had only one meaning as far as I knew: audiovisual. This shows my age, I suppose; IT has replaced AV. School AV Clubs had a reputation as a haven for losers (UK: saddos) who, when they weren’t hanging out at Radio Shack, met in the basement to share tips on vacuum tubes. (Okay, maybe not vacuum tubes.) Information technology students, it seems, are more likely to wear trendy sunglasses and compose PowerPoint presentations about how they’ve hooked the electric can opener to the internet and use their iPhone to feed the cat.

But AV is the acronym of the moment here: it means the Alternative Vote. British voters go to the polls on May 5 not only to elect representatives for local government, but to decide whether we should change the way votes are counted in future elections.

This is made complicated by the fact that media types—radio, television, and print—keep telling us how complicated AV is. This is increasingly irksome, because the proposed new system isn’t complicated. And there’s other incorrect information out there; even the BBC web site’s explanation says that under the current system, “it’s the person who gets the most votes who wins, but that could all change”. Wrong—in AV, the person with the most votes wins, too; what could change is how the votes are counted or, in effect, which candidates are taken seriously.

The traditional system is known here as “first past the post”, which I’m going to call FPTP to save typing. It’s a misnomer anyway, because an election is not about who can reach some goal first; in fact, the analogy to horseracing that people use here just confuses the issue further.

In FPTP, the ballot paper is printed with a list of names, and each voter makes an X (here called a cross) next to the name of one person; there’s no risk of hanging chads or rigged voting machinery since we use a simpler, cheaper technology: each voting booth has a little pencil on the end of a string. In AV, the ballot looks the same but voters may rank the names 1, 2, 3, and so on, if they want to. (You’re not required to rank them all.)

In FPTP, there’s one round of vote counting, so even if the person with the most votes gets nowhere near a majority (majority being more than 50%) of the votes, that person wins. In AV, if nobody gets a majority, they throw the person with the fewest votes out of the running, and count again. They repeat that until somebody gets an actual majority of over 50%. See? Not difficult.

Cover of a "NO on AV" leaflet I received, coming out swinging with "One Person, One Vote". I didn't get any "YES on AV" literature, so can't give it equal treatment.

Say nobody got a majority and you voted for the person who got the fewest votes. Your candidate is history. And since your first-choice candidate is now out of the running, when they recount the ballots, your vote goes to the candidate you marked as your second choice. Not so hard, is it?

In the UK’s last national election the Conservatives (aka Tories) got 36.1% of the popular vote, Labour got 29% and the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) got 23%, with 11.9% shared among smaller parties. Nobody got anywhere near a majority. The one thing you can be sure of in an AV system, like it or not, is that the candidate who wins will have more than 50% of the votes; the winner will be someone that at least doesn’t make more than half the country feel we’d be better off with a potted plant in charge. (Note: in the UK that would be a pot plant, and isn’t that confusing? What is a “pot plant” to an American is I think a “cannabis plant” here.)

(Now for some fine print – or as the British say, some small print: In the US, the significance of the popular vote in a national election is muddied by the Electoral College; in the UK the muddying comes in because the popular vote is not as important as how many individual Members of Parliament win for each party. But this doesn’t change how FPTP and AV work, so don’t worry about it now.)

American readers can think of this as the Republicans getting, hypothetically, 45%, Democrats 40% and an independent, say, Ralph Nader, getting 15% (fewer Americans than Britons vote for smaller parties so I’ve adjusted the numbers, and no, Nader’s never gotten close to 15%, but just stay with me here). It’s safe to assume that the vast majority of Nader voters would prefer a Democratic president to a Republican president, but the Republican would win even though that would give the country a president that most of the voters did not want. Under AV, Nader’s votes would be thrown out and, assuming I’m right that most of them would go Democratic as a second choice, the final result would be in the neighbourhood of Republicans 45%, Democrats 55% and the majority really would rule.

So the bottom line, the reason for considering an AV system, is that under FPTP you can win even if the majority of voters hate you and the horse you rode in on (there’s another horsy figure of speech) while an AV system can mean that the person with the most votes in the first round may not win, but you can be sure that the winning candidate is someone the majority of the voters actually have some confidence in. (Small/fine print: yes, we have a coalition government here, with two parties sharing power—supposedly—but the coalition resulted from political horse-trading between the parties after the election—equine metaphors are everywhere!—and is not the direct result of how the voters actually voted).

Note that I’m saying this is the reason to consider using AV, not that AV is the fairest system; you can make a good case for either of these systems being more fair than the other, but neither side here seems to be doing that; instead, when they stop the blathering and buzzwords, their arguments—especially those from the “No on AV” side—are enough to make a horse laugh (there she goes again).

Those who like FPTP say that in AV some voters get to vote multiple times, and we’d be abandoning “one man, one vote”. Wrong. In every count and in the final count, every voter would get one vote only; we’d just be throwing out the no-hopers and counting votes only for serious contenders. The “Yes on AV” people say in response that AV saves third-party voters from throwing their vote away or having to vote tactically (as in “I want to vote for the UK Independence Party but they can’t possibly win and I really hate Labour, so I’d better vote Conservative”), and that if the voters know they can’t vote for the person or party they want, because it doesn’t have a chance, they often don’t vote at all (as in “I want to vote for the Green Party but they can’t possibly win so I won’t bother”).

Think if we put a picture of a doctor on it, voters will think it must be good for them?

I’ve also heard the “No on AV” crowd say we must not change the voting system because some voters may not understand it and therefore will only vote for one candidate; opponents say the “No on AV” people think voters are too stupid to count to three. Let’s face it: the clueless (to paraphrase Jesus Christ on this Easter Sunday afternoon) will always be with us, and we can hardly optimize a voting system for people who don’t have two neurons to rub together. If a voter only marks the ballot paper for one person, it may be that they find only that candidate acceptable, and that’s their right.

Only three other countries in the world use AV in national elections—Australia, Fiji, and Papua-New Guinea, and it isn’t universally loved even in those places—although some smaller elections, even within the UK, already used AV. Some people seriously suggest that the mere fact that so few other countries use AV means we shouldn’t consider using it here. When a Conservative MP made that suggestion on TV last week the editor of Private Eye (a long-established periodical satirizing politics here) replied that “most of the rest of the world is starving”, then, must be a “pretty solid argument for not eating.” After the laughter, he went on to say “I don’t know why I said that, I’m more or less on your side, but it’s such a terrible argument.”

And that’s what’s surprising about the run-up to this election. (Note: run-up is not necessarily anything to do with horses.) The arguments put forth by both sides, but particularly by the “No” side, are mainly flimsy or nonsensical.

The “No” campaign funded paid political broadcasts and advertisements in the days just after the Grand National—the most important steeplechase here, comparable in importance to the Kentucky Derby, but with 30 fences to jump—and one that Americans outside the racing world might well have heard of, especially if they remember Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet”. The political broadcast included an imaginary jockey being interviewed after the race, saying he’d thought he’d won, but the judges tell him he didn’t win after all. Seemed pretty stupid to me; I don’t vote for political candidates based on how fast they can run.

More irritating is the one in which a teacher, who obviously doesn’t understand AV, gives a garbled explanation to students, writing random numbers on the board, which none of them can understand. I really resent the idea that numbers are inherently confusing and the average person is terrified of dealing with percentages, especially when understanding AV requires only one such figure: 50%.

It's really sad that the "No" campaign would play on people's confusion by using the racing metaphor, which has nothing to do with elections unless you want to give up on voting and use footraces to determine who gets to be in Parliament.

They’re counting on us being blinded by numbers in other ways, too, because their own numbers don’t add up; they complain that an AV system will make elections more expensive to run than an FPTP system, but they add into their calculation the cost of the referendum vote. I’m slightly in danger of voting for AV simply on grounds that the “No” people are so irritating.

Still, I think the “No on AV” campaign will probably win. Change is always difficult and confused people usually stay with the devil they know; in this case the media, often accused of a liberal bias, was on the side of conservatives in convincing the public that AV is big, scary and difficult and totally beyond our tiny minds.  And the “No on AV” campaign has more money; FPTP is liable to keep those who’ve always been in power in their offices, and those who support what Americans call “third parties” don’t have as much money for campaigning.  (I didn’t even get a “Yes on AV” leaflet, or I’d probably be irritate with their shading of the truth and poor arguments, too.)

In any case, AV now crops up in all kinds of conversations, from “Are you going to watch the royal wedding?” to “Did you remember to set up the iPhone to feed Mr PawPaws, dear?”.  On May 5 we’ll find out which the voters prefer, first-past-the-post or the proposed alternative vote. Until then, it’s neck and neck and it’s anybody’s horserace.



Filed under Culture, Current events, Law/Politics/Government

5 responses to “AV: A Horse of a Different Colour

  1. I am loving your blog Mary Ellen as it makes me feel like I am getting a taste of what it is like on your side of the pond. This is a fascinating post and very relevant to Canadians right now as we have a national election in less than a week’s time and we have a very similar system to England (without the House of Lords of course although our appointed Senate is probably going to be axed soon). We have historically had 3 main parties, Conservative, Liberal and New Democrat but we are now getting lots of splinter parties like the Green party (and I think in our riding we have a Pirate Party member!) I will be watching England after this election especially if you pass this AV system. Fascinating. So hard to change an old system though, especially when it is mostly the older folk who vote.

    We have been getting some flash mobs at university and college campuses recently to try to encourage the younger ones to vote. Here’s hoping! By the way, I like the idea of the AV system.

  2. Interesting! In all the flap over voting over here–not to mention the royal wedding which is all over TV and radio and print–I had totally missed the fact that Canada is having an election.

    I’m really pleased that you liked the content today and that you commented, even more so than usual. I was afraid people wouldn’t be interested in the details of the proposed voting system changes. I could have said a lot more, but I thought I should quit before I *definitely alientated readers…

  3. Hester Higton

    Sadly, Mary Ellen, I think that you’re right about the outcome of the referendum, and I think it’s very largely because people haven’t been encouraged to understand how AV works but have just had a pile of value judgements thrown at them (but that’s politics in general, isn’t it?). And I’ve lost count of the number of intelligent people I’ve heard saying things like ‘It will remove the link between the MP and their constituency’ (no – that’s the list system, or PR) or ‘If we have AV, we’ll be more likely to get MPs from extremist parties like the BNP’ (so why are the BNP campaigning against AV?), etc.

    If I had any of the Yes leaflets that I was delivering left, I would scan one for you, but I don’t. I was a bit disappointed that they tended to concentrate on the negatives (though less so than the No campaign, and they did have the poignant example of an 80-year-old serviceman who has never voted on the winning side in his life) rather than putting forward the reasons in favour of a change. Ho hum – I will wear my purple next week and cast my ‘Yes’, but I think that the argument is lost for this generation.

    • Thanks for your comment. And I very much agree about piles of value judgments being thrown around; I wanted to strangle the representatives of both NO and YES factions who “debated” the issue on Radio 4 Women’s Hour. They might as well have been children on a playground: “My way is fair and yours isn’t”, “No, my way is fair and yours isn’t” — over and over. All heat and no light.

      There was another page of the NO leaflet that I didn’t scan in because I figured it was more than my (mainly American) readers would want and the piece was long already: it showed Nick Clegg and pretty much said “Everybody hates Nick Clegg for breaking his promises and he’s for AV, it’s his fault that we’re having a referendum, so if you’re confused it’s Clegg’s fault and if you don’t want more broken promises you’d better vote NO”. Sigh.

      Many people say that they will vote based on how politicians they support are voting, which I guess is fair enough, but I’ve encountered people on the internet saying they’re planning to vote the way *celebrities* they like are voting. There was some discussion among these about whether the fact that Rik Mayall appeared in an advert on the “NO” side in character as Alan B’Stard means that Mayall himself advocates voting “NO”. Sigh again. And again…

  4. Malcolm

    Well, here in Ireland we have AV in constituencies that each send 3, 4, or 5 members up to our parliament. I’m amazed that no one in England said, “Well if the Irish can take quintuple AV in their stride, do we really believe that the stupid English voter can’t even manage single AV?” And I say ‘England’ because Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales already use forms of AV in their elections.

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