17 March 2011

Alternative Vote (AV) Explained

On May 5th we have a referendum to choose between two methods of electing our MPs. Vote YES for the Alternative Vote (AV) or NO to stay with First-Past-The-Post (FPTP).

How to vote under AV

Rank the candidates in order of preference. Write '1' next to your first preference, '2' next to your second preference, and so on. You can rank as many or as few as you like. If you only want to vote for one candidate then you can mark an 'X' next to their name, just like you do under the present system.

Counting votes under AV

Count all the '1's and all the 'X's. If any candidate has over 50% of first preferences they are elected. If not, then the lowest placed candidate is eliminated. The ballots for this eliminated candidate are re-distributed according to preference. This process is repeated until one candidate has over 50% of those votes cast that express a preference for one of the remaining candidates in the race. If a ballot shows no preference for any of the remaining candidates in the race then it is referred to as 'exhausted' and plays no further part in deciding the result.

Why is AV better than the present system called First-Past-The-Post (FPTP)?

In a nutshell, under AV, more votes count towards the final result. AV means many more voters get to decide their constituency MP. In practise MPs will have to get an expressed preference from over 50% of voters (or close to 50%), whereas under FPTP they can be elected with as little as 30% (or less).

FPTP can effectively force people not to vote for their favourite candidate. They end up putting their 'X' next to a less favoured candidate in order to try to stop an even more disliked candidate from being elected. This gives a distorted view of what voters real first choices are. But worse than this, voters have to guess how others will vote to try and make their own vote count. This can be an impossible task. It also hinders the growth of new or smaller parties that might otherwise have widespread appeal. AV allows people to make the choices they really want without fear of 'wasting' their vote.

By allowing the voter to rank their preferences, AV allows the voter to impart far more information about what they want. No longer will we have to wonder which party Labour voters put as there second preference, or Tory voters put as theirs. We will know and this will help those respective parties know which policies to pursue to hold their vote and win other voters over to them.


  1. "Write '1' next to your first preference, '2' next to your second preference, and so on."

    Huh! In my constituency last election, I had the choice between Socialist (Labour), Socialist (SNP), Socialist (Libs), Ranting Socialist ( Tommy Sherridan ).

    I still want the opportunity to put my cross by 'None of the above.'

  2. APL, even if you think they are all a gang of useless bankers, it is unlikely that you are absolutely indifferent as between them. So you can at least use the system negatively, to vote against the candidate you least prefer. It sounds as if in your case this was Tommy Sheridan. Simply number the other candidates in any order (if you are genuinely indifferent as between them) and leave his box blank.

  3. For me, the way it is reported is key as to how I vote. And I have written to the ERS to ask them this.

    If my vote is discounted as being exhausted, which is likely because I would never for example put a ranking against a BNP candidate (they are unfit to govern, they are not 10th most preferable out of 10), then I want that shown. I do not want candidate X returned with a 54% majority when it's actually 32% of the unspoiled votes cast, the missing percentage being exhausted papers. These MPs will quite happily spin statistics and claim majority mandates that they most probably not have.

  4. TRT, in practise it is very rare for a winner elected by an AV system to get less than 50% of the total vote. Of course they always get more than 50% of those who expressed a preference. If you don't express a preference, that is your choice. It is the same as making the choice not to turn out to vote at all. In both cases you are not counted in the final results, hardly surprising really.