Proponents of AV claim that it will make MPs work harder in the interest of their constituents by reason of the greater number of votes a candidate will require for election. Grégoire Webber takes an in-depth look at how AV works and finds that it does not remove the problem of a party (or coalition) having a majority in parliament, with a minority of the national vote, and that first-past-the-post, for all its failings, provides a more direct link between voters and who they elect.
Many poor arguments have been advanced in favour of the Alternative Vote. Among the arguments is the promise that politicians will be more attentive to the wishes of their constituents (though we are not told why we should not prefer Burke’s Speech to rule-by-pollsters) and that MPs will, under the Alternative Vote, work harder for you. At times, the rhetoric favouring AV is so euphoric that there seems to be no ill in politics that a change in voting system cannot remedy.
In evaluating voting systems, one confronts polycentric choices, which renders the ranking of voting systems a matter of judgment rather than demonstration. Among the valuations are the following: should votes be cast for party or candidate, should constituencies be single- or multi-member, and should electors cast one vote or several preferences. On these valuations, AV and the existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) system overlap and not: both prefer votes for candidates in single-member constituencies but differ in what is asked of the elector in the ballot box.
The simplicity of FPTP is both its virtue and vice: electors are asked to make the difficult choice—for many, a choice never without hesitation—to select one candidate, on the strength of the candidate’s person, the officially affiliated party, the unofficially affiliated manifesto, the party leader, or some uncertain combination. The constituency’s representative is the one favoured by more electors than any other, which has never been taken to mean that the representative speaks only for those who cast a ballot in her favour.
The primary vices of this voting system are well rehearsed: representatives are habitually elected with a minority of votes and, thus, a majority of votes are wasted. Wasted? On this understanding, votes cast for defeated candidates are akin to spoiled or unused ballots; only votes cast for the winning candidate count. One wonders what role MPs have, on this understanding, once elected: to vote for bills that will become Acts of Parliament and for motions that will be adopted; the alternative is a wasted vote.
AV professes too much if it claims to do away with wasted votes: more electors will cast a ballot in favour of the elected candidate, but many will not. But what of those ‘un-wasted’ votes under AV? What is it to cast a ballot with the option of ranking preferences from 1 to 2 and beyond? To the voter who ranks but one candidate, AV reverts to FPTP. To the voter who ranks candidates 1-2-3, AV proceeds with a rationale no more sophisticated that this: the candidate ranked 1 is equal in all material respects to the candidates ranked 2 and 3, save for their ranking. Should the voter’s first preference candidate be eliminated, the voter’s second preference is then counted. Counted how? In whole, not in fraction. AV instructs the voter that his second preference counts for no less than their first, his third no less than their first, his fourth no less than their first, and so on.
The elected candidate will see in her pile of ballots those ranking her 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on. It may be that she has fewer ballots marked ‘1st’ than another: no matter—AV counts not qualified preferences but whole ballots and so she speaks for the constituency.
AV challenges the commitment to ‘one person, one vote’. Unlike run-off elections (as in the French presidential election) where all electors are invited to vote again for select candidates who failed to secure a minimum threshold of votes, AV asks only a subset of electors who ‘wasted’ their votes in the first round to vote again. To all other electors, they are given but one vote, even if, in the end, their votes will have been ‘wasted’ for failure to back the elected candidate. If one resists the label ‘some persons, two or more votes’ then perhaps ‘one person, one vote’ coupled with ‘for some persons, one vote counted more than once’ is a fairer depiction. Either way, the challenge stands.
Consider another valuation relevant to judging voting systems: the composition of the House of Commons and its role, in Bagehot’s phrase, in ‘electing our president’. Here again, the simplicity of FPTP is both its virtue and vice: majority governments with minority support. A government with majority support in the House of Commons (a truism under the Westminster constitution) has but minority support in the population. How is the latter calculated? Not by pollsters, but by conflating each vote cast in a constituency for a candidate with a vote cast without constituency for a party.
Would AV remedy this problem? No. Votes would continue to be cast for candidates in constituencies, not parties nationwide. Might AV secure majority governments with majority support? Perhaps. But beyond the equivocation in ‘support’ with ‘preferences’ ranked 2 and 3, consider the prospect of more coalition governments. A coalition government would, again by definition, secure majority support in the Commons, but could it claim majority support in the population? Not without further conflating the nature of the voter’s choice by stipulating that a vote for a candidate is akin to a vote for the candidate’s party to be in a coalition government. The stipulation confronts the challenge that the coalition agreement will take precedence over all party manifesto commitments made to the voter to secure their support in the first instance. On this reasoning, what is it that the voter will have cast a ballot for?
Consider now the choice that will confront electors come the end of the term of the coalition government : each coalition partner will claim every success and disown every failure against the other. How might voters then rank their preferences? And can voters decisively ‘throw the rascals out’ other than by ranking but one preference for the opposition—that is, by tricking AV into the first-past-the-post voting system?
Among the relationships central to understanding the British constitution are the relationships of voter to ballot, ballot to MP, MP to Commons, Commons to government, party to them all, backbench to frontbench, government to opposition, and manifesto to government programme. For all of its failings, the existing voting system allows us to know, in all their disharmony and incoherence, each one of these relationships. For all of the promises made in its favour, AV leaves us with many questions in attempting to understand how these relationships will come to be understood once the first among them is changed.
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