Thursday, May 13, 2010

Alternative Voting systems

So the Nasty Party is back in power (I told you before, this blog is strictly neutral on political matters) with the help of the weaselly LibDems. I don't really blame the latter, they had little choice given that Lab/Lib was not viable without numerous fringe parties. I don't think there is much chance of it lasting once the economy heads south, but we will wait and see.

The biggest item of interest to me is the possibility of electoral reform, especially as the economy doesn't affect me so much. It has always seemed absurd that the country should have a dominant Govt supported by only about 35-40% of the voters (which means less than 25% of the electorate by the time the turnout has been accounted for). LDs are supposedly set on "proportional representation" but I haven't actually seen them specify this in detail (nor have I looked). Cons have offered a referendum on Alternative Vote. I think this would be a very big improvement on the current system and think that the arguments against are very weak.

First, those in favour of the current system - usually referred to as "first past the post" which seems bizarre when in fact there is no post, and being first to any specific number of votes is not relevant. Wikipedia calls it "Plurality" which is also a bit cryptic. The supporters seem to believe that what this country needs is "Strong Government", which they claim is best achieved by awarding over 50% of MPs to the party with the most votes, even if a large majority of the electorate opposes them. To those who say, look what FPTP has done for the UK over the past few decades, I reply, yes, by all means look at what it has done, and do you really think that it's worth defending? Lurching from a dominant right-wing govt to an dominant ultra-right-wing government every few years just means they spend most of their time trying to undooutdo the damage that their predecessor did. But mostly, I object to its intrinsic unfairness, invitation to tactical voting and the implication that your vote doesn't matter unless you are in a marginal constituency.

Other possible criticisms of PR are that it may remove the local link from voter to MP, and also that it hands too much influence in the hands of fringe parties like the UKIP, BNP and Greens. On the former point, that is true of some approaches, but not AV. As for the latter, obviously Stoat would like this, but not many others. However, all reasonable proposals like STV generally include a threshold that cuts off the loonies, so this seems like generalised scare tactics rather than a sensible argument. And it doesn't apply to AV in the first place.

I'm disappointed that the Electoral Reform Society has chosen to put such a misleading spin on AV, describing AV as "very much like FPTP" and making a set of amazingly weak and duplicated criticisms in its list of "drawbacks". Yes, AV is not fully proportional, but since no-one advocates fully proportional systems in the first place, this seems somewhat of a straw man. And although there is a theoretical opportunity for tactical voting (as there is in all systems) this is hardly plausible in reality. As obvious and substantial benefits over FPTP, there are no "wasted votes" for minor parties, there is a strong incentive to vote honestly rather than tactically, and the outcome would in practice be substantially closer to proportional (as this BBC page shows for the last election). Their preferred option of STV is not perfect either, but they don't have any list of arguments against it at all!

It should not be overlooked that one large advantage of AV is that it would be simple to implement as a change to the current system. It does not require redrawing boundaries, zoning into regional groups, and (perhaps more importantly) nationally-controlled party lists of top-up MPs that some systems involve. The latter would be an easy target for the press and other critics to oppose.


William M. Connolley said...

"weaselly LibDems" - I'll assume you mean that as a compliment. Otherwise I'll be deeply offended.

William M. Connolley said...

One other thing needs to be addressed (about PR, not AV), which is the std "but it would let the BNP in" (no-one seems to worry so much about letting the Greens in). You mention this, and talk about the cut-off. But I think that letting them in, if they have enough votes, is just tough, and you have to live with it.

James Annan said...

Re: weasels. Aren't stoats stotally different? I know that weasels are weaselly distinguished.

Yes, I had guessed that you might be in favour of giving more seats to the lunatic fringe :-) TBH I don't really care that much one way or the other, but it doesn't seem to be on the table anyway.

Mark said...

In New Zealand we adopted proportional representation in the 1990s. We ended up with Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP), which has various perverse aspects all for the goal (spurious IMHO) of being fully proportional.

We made the mistake here, I think, of having a referendum first to select an alternative scheme and then a second referendum to pit this against FPP. At the first referendum people hadn't really grasped the pros and cons of the various schemes. By the time of the second there'd been a lot of debate and discussion and it was too late to change it.

This is supposed to come up for review. There's been a lot of grumbling about MMP, but I don't think we'll be returning to the old system any time soon.

InfoHedon said...

IRV/AV is really not the way to go. If you're really set on abandoning a PR system and settling for single districts, you should go with range voting.AV is inferior

Range is simple and is immune from vote splitting since you can rate candidates the same. Rate candidates on a scale 0-10. Highest average wins--just that simple. In simulated modeling with tactical and nontactical voting, range performed better than any other voting system. Computer Output

There are many criteria by which to analyze voting systems, but only this method looks at the frequency and the degree to which voting systems choose closely to an ideal winner.

If range is too complicated, try approval voting(if so, IRV is definitely not good and you should be worried about your voters' competence).

If you're interested, I recommend checking out the range voting site in the links above. I also do posts on voting systems.

James Annan said...

Thanks for the comments. It was only when looking at it recently that I realised how many different approaches there were and how rare FPTP is around the world, which seems to negate the "too complicated" arguments...

Japan has FPTP plus some sort of proportional top-up list I think, but I wouldn't use them as an example of democracy at its finest!

I hope it's clear that I am not advocating AV as the best possible voting system, but it seems very obviously to be far superior to the current system, and is also probably achievable via a quick referendum in a way that more esoteric methods almost certainly aren't. There are plenty of interests vested in FPTP and you can be sure they will bring up every red herring they can think of to defend it.

matt andrews said...

Here in Australia we have a handy pair of examples: the lower house ("House of Representatives") is AV-like (though in Aus you must allocate a number to all candidates) with single-member electorates, and the upper house ("Senate") is sort-of-proportional-but-not-really... i.e. 12 senators are elected from each state (regardless of population!) plus two from each territory, via a rather complex but roughly proportional system.

AV really can't remotely be described as proportional. "AV+" seems a significant (if small) step further in the proportional direction, to a point vaguely similar to the NZ MMP.

In the Australian Capital Territory and in the state of Tasmania we have multiple-member electorates with proportional voting... a considerable improvement on the national single-member system IMHO.