With the UK having a referendum about changing voting systems, I thought I’d say a word. Many countries have a representational system of democracy. Of course, one democratic alternative is direct democracy, where the electorate directly make laws, and appoint officials. In a representational system, the representatives perform the law making and executive functions and are selected by the electorate. The question is “how do we select the representatives?”.

A side note is that many philosophers and commentators recognise that the decisions that most affect our lives are not even taken by politicians! Most famous philosophers seem to be anti-democracy (Plato, Nietzsche), but I exclude polemicists, such as Thomas Paine, who often fall back on “natural rights” as a basis for democracy. Anyway…

Regarding Alternative Vote

Alternative voting system attempts to select the candidate with the most broad support of the electorate. If an electoral representative is intended to represent the views of the electorate, than AV matches the intention of an ideal system! The extent that AV succeeds in “broad support” candidate selection is a matter of dispute. Also, the UK is working with single candidates representing a single constituency, which is an un-proportional system. A proportional system would be better than AV in having the overall selection of representatives better reflect the overall views of the electorate. Given this constraint, AV seems like a step in the right direction but is imperfect compared to a PR system. The popular vote of the winning party has been scandalously low in recent elections – the winning party in 2005 with a large majority had a popular vote of 35.2%!

One interesting objection is the order candidates are eliminated in voting rounds can change the outcome of the final result. This can lead to some votes having an apparently larger influence. I am NOT referring to the fatuous claim that AV votes are counted more than once and it defies “one person, one vote” – that is simply an abuse of terminology and a play on words. (Each person has one vote under AV, but one or more preferences.) The candidate eliminator order quirk would probably be a rare event considering normal voting conditions and in the overall formation of parliaments. However in cases when there is no clear front runner candidate, it can make the outcome rather sensitive to one or two votes. However the resultant candidate would still have to gain a reasonable popular support, so in a way AV still fulfils its function.

An alternative voting system can be changed in future to a semi-proportional system AV+. Or it can be replaced with a fully PR system some point in the future. If AV is rejected, I think PR would be made even less politically feasible, so I recommend that PR supporters ignore any distaste of AV and tactically vote for it, as a stepping stone to a more ideal solution.

Regarding First Past the Post

The main advantage I can see of FPtP is that it is simple to implement. Frankly, electorate understanding of how political systems work is not really of critical importance (although it would be a bonus), as long as it resulted in good candidate selection (however you define “good”). But this simplicity is useful in disputed counts, were one or two votes can change the result. A FPtP is quicker to recount than AV. However helpful that is to individual candidates, this is not a significant benefit to a typical overall election outcome.

Another claim is that FPtP leads to strong governments. Apparently AV would have produced similar results in recent UK elections. However, who is to say voters would vote in the same way if the election system changes? But strong governments have not served us well, leading to presidential running of the UK leading to various fool’s wars and economic bubbles. I am not sure narrow majorities or politicians would serve us better, but they have been selected by a wider base of support. I guess if it all goes wrong, a larger proportional of the electorate is “responsible”…

A major problem with FPtP is of candidates splitting support when in fact they are similar in policies. If there are some hypothetical political positions A and B, with politician X supporting A and politicians Y and Z supporting B. It is often the case that although support for politicians that think B, the votes are divided between Mr Y and Mrs Z. This leads to politician X winning under FPtP, who then implements unpopular policy A. This phenomena has a large effect on the overall balance of candidate selection but FPtP poor in addressing it.

In Conclusion

Yes to AV!