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Many poor arguments are 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 they will 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 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 the first-past-the-post system is both its virtue and vice: electors are asked to make the difficult choice of selecting 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 his favour.
The primary vices of this voting system are well rehearsed: representatives are regularly 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 unused ballots; only votes caste for the winning candidate count. 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 first-past-the-post. 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 his first, his third no less than his first, his fourth no less than his first, and so on.
The elected candidate will see in her pile of ballots those ranking her 1st, 2nd, 3rd and beyond. 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 gives only a subset of electors who ‘wasted’ their votes in the first round a second go. 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 is the same.
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 the first-past-the-post system is both its virtue and vice: majority governments with minority support. Wherein trades the equivocation? A government with majority support in the House of Commons 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 measuring ‘support’ with 2nd and 3rd ‘preferences’, consider the prospect of more coalition governments. A coalition government would, 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 his support in the first instance.
On this reasoning, query what it is that the voter will have cast a ballot for. Now consider, in turn, the choice that will confront electors come 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 first-past-the-post system allows us to grasp at each one of these relationships, in all their disharmony and incoherence. 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.
Grégoire Webber is Lecturer in Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science.