Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Voting Reform: a better alternative

The alternative vote (AV)  is a fig-leaf that fails to cover the bankruptcy of the current system.  It may marginally increase the number of marginals, but in very many cases MPs will continue to feel secure and unaccountable.

Under the alternative vote, the votes are initially counted, then if no candidate has won 50%, the candidate with fewest votes has their votes transferred to their supporters’ second (alternative) choices.  This process continues until someone has 50%.

Where an MP already has 50% of the vote (as in many tribal areas), they do not have to seek wider support and the minority continue to be disenfranchised with worthless votes.

Even where the MP has less than 50%, they can still feel secure if they are confident that the “loser’s” votes will split reasonably evenly – as will often be the case where the loser is a “middle” party.

To make every seat marginal (and thereby bring about greater accountability), you need multi-member constituencies again with transferable votes. Instead of having to win 50%, a candidate has to achieve “the quota” – which is actually more votes  than what would have to be achieved in a single member constituency, but which can be gathered over a wider area.

[Technical bit] Currently in a single member constituency approximately 42,000 may vote and the winner on average  achieves about 20,000 votes.  In say a four member constituency, assuming 168,000 (4 x 42,000) votes, to be elected a candidate would have to get one vote over 33,600 (168,000 votes divided by 5).  Thus once 4 successful candidates have got 33,601 votes each, there will be only 33,596 votes left and even if they all went to the fifth place candidate, that candidate would not have a better claim to be elected than the four successful candidates.  Note that in this case more than 80% of the vote has actually been used to elect someone – compared to the 50% under AV, or even less under the current system.

The advantage to the voter operates in two ways:

  • For supporters of the “natural party of power”, votes are not wasted because when a candidate achieves the quota, only the proportion of each voter’s vote necessary to achieve that quota is used; any excess proportion is transferred to their second choice – which means that their votes can actually try to elect more candidates from their party.
  • [Technical bit]  Say (using the previous example) your first choice candidate gets 44,804 votes against a quota requirement of 33,601. Only 3/4 of the vote (33,601/44,804) needs to be used to elect the first choice candidate, so all the votes are transferred (at 1/4 value – the unused amount) to each voter’s next choice.
  • For supporters of other parties, those supporting candidates who come bottom after a count, all their vote (which is unused) is transferred to their second choice candidate – which means their votes might still be used to elect someone.

It is therefore worthwhile for a voter to vote, as their vote stands an excellent chance of actually counting, but candidates have to work harder (no problem there) to gain second and further preferences; only the truly popular can be be complacent!  In a multi-member constituency, the final mix of MPs is highly variable – even in highly tribal areas, the second place party might win a seat and it is worth their while to campaign.  (The tribal party can campaign to win a clear sweep.)

Because of transferability, the issue of split votes goes away and parties can endorse candidates with a range of opinions giving the electorate a real choice (Pro-Europe and Anti-Europe Conservatives, Central List and Local Labour candidates, etc.) – essential to attract preferences from supporters of other parties.

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3 thoughts on “Voting Reform: a better alternative

  1. Pingback: Impact of the Expenses Scandal « Outside the marginals

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  3. Pingback: The “obligation to vote” « Outside the marginals

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