Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Why you should spoil your AV referendum ballot

The electoral system is really important. That's why you need to spoil your ballot.
That sounds nonsensical, but hear me out!

Voting Systems On Offer

You may have noticed that the No2AV and Yes2AV (yes to fairer votes) campaigns are both really, really dreadful. There's quite a lot of negative campaigning going around. This is because neither voting system on offer has any real merit, so positive campaigning by either side is obviously quite difficult.

The current system, First Past The Post, is no longer fit for purpose. FPTP works well if there are only two parties, such as in the US. But in the UK, we have lots of small parties - only 65% (two thirds) of votes went to the two largest parties, the rest were split between minority parties. FPTP was suitable in the in the UK before the 1900s and around the 1940s when we had two dominant parties. It is not suitable at the moment - a third of people are having much less impact at national level than they deserve. Surely you can see that even if you support one of the biggest parties?

However the system on the table is the Alternative Vote, and AV is not a good system either. It is not a form of proportional representation. In fact, it will probably lead to less proportional results of elections.
For more information on the problems with AV, I recommend you consult these sites: AV2011 and no2av-yes2pr which, unlike the No2AV and Yes2AV campaigns, back up their claims with a strong argument and some evidence. Any argument you think you have about why AV is better than FPTP is addressed here and I don't wish to repeat it all here.

But to summarize a bit of information here for you: AV is a little worse than FPTP. It is not an improvement. AV is a good system to use when all of the electorate are voting in the same election and there is one winner. For example, most of the main UK parties use AV to elect their party leader. Consequently, you will probably get a fairer result locally and your MP will better represent your constituency. However, what you should actually care about is whether the amount of control each party has in the house of commons is representative of the proportion of votes they got, since that's what really matters at the end of the day - that determines which policies get implemented and which laws get passed. That's what most people actually care about: not who represents them locally, but which party gets to govern. The problem is that we have lots of little elections which threshold the votes - rather than winning 60% of an MP, you win 100% of an MP - and then the winning party nationally is the one who wins the most little elections. That's not a fair system, and the problem is the constituency MPs. And by making all the local results fairer, you make the national result less fair! AV makes it more likely that the party with most support wins each seat, and removes the vote splitting which helps the underdog get a seat. In FPTP, the most supported party usually wins the seat, but because of voting variations across the country and vote splitting, other parties win some seats too. With AV, it is easier for parties with most of the support to win each seat, which can lead to a white-wash
For example, in 2010 the Green party got 1% of the national vote. They won 1 seat, which they won with only 31% of the local vote, possible due to vote splitting.

With AV, tactical voting is no longer necessary, but it is still possible. What's worse is the tactics move from the hands of the voters to the hands of the politicians.
Under AV, when it comes to election time, parties will accompany their party information with a list of preferences which they suggest you cast. Most voters loyal to a particular party will follow these lists, which have been negotiated by the parties behind closed doors, exchanging preferences for policies. This in itself is a bad thing as it gives political negotiating power to unelected individuals.
By using these lists, parties can attempt to win some constituencies by manipulating votes in their favour in a new type of party led tactical voting. Say that party A get the most first choices, followed by B, then C. C gets eliminated and its supporters second preferences are utilised, and let's say that the second choices of C voters favour B sufficiently more than A so that B wins the election. If party A has a large enough first choice margin, can get some loyal supporters to vote for C instead of A with their first choice to prevent C from being eliminated and make B be eliminated instead. If the second choices of B go to A instead of C, this can make A win the election. Thus, party A has rigged the election. Of course, this is hard to pull off and can only happen in specific situations, but the possibility of it is not a good thing. If I've not explained this well enough for you (I was a little brief), look at this longer explanation. The reason this can happen is because AV gives unstable results. A change to a few votes at the start changes who gets eliminated first, and this can have a big chain reaction changing which other candidates get eliminated and who the eventual winner is.

Hardly anybody actually wants AV. The pro-AV camp see AV as a stepping system to Proportional Representation. However, it isn't really! There is no real reason to suspect that adopting AV will lead to PR. For starters, no country that has adopted AV has then moved to PR. Moreover, most that adopt AV want to move back to FPTP.

If you don't believe me about AV being rubbish, cast your Wayback Machine to December 2007 on the Electoral Reform website. This page has been changed to be pro-AV for the referendum, but this is what the ERS really thinks about AV. Notice they stress AV is not PR and can be more disproportionate than FPTP.

There are several other systems we could be implementing instead of AV:

  • Single Transferable Vote. Which is used in Republic of Ireland and several other places. Large, multi-member constituencies. You get to vote for individual candidates with a preference list. The end result is approximately proportional.
  • The D'Hondt method. Used for MEP elections (that's the European ones) for England, Scotland and Wales. You vote for a party and then the seats are distributed out based on how many votes each party got. (It's a form of PR, but not the case that if you get twice as many votes you get twice as many seats.)
  • Mixed member proportional representation (aka additional member system). Currently used in Scottish and Welsh assemblies. Constituency representatives are elected using FPTP, but then this is topped up to the correct proportions using a party list.
  • AV+, which was invented and recommended by the Jenkins Commision which Labour asked to investigate possible reforms to the voting system in 1997 (but never implemented by Labour for some reason... a skeptic might say it was because they would win less seats). AV+ uses AV for individual constituencies, but then it uses a top-up list to make it proportional. This makes it very different in practice to AV. Here you have local representation because there are single member constituencies, and you have national representation because the end result is mostly proportional.

And there are many, many more besides these.

Potential Scenarios

This is what I expect we will see after the referendum.

Case 1. NO vote wins.
AV is not adopted. We stick with FPTP with all its familiar flaws for the time being. The political reform movement is set MASSIVELY back because they lost this one and it looks like reform won't happen for a long while.

Case 2. YES vote wins.
AV is adopted. It is implemented and used for a several elections. Because AV offers the electorate the choice of preferences on the ballot, it looks like it is a fairer system. But it isn't and the results of the elections will show this as minority parties will not win any more seats than they presently do (actually they'll probably win fewer seats) and seats which are currently safe will still be safe, possibly safer.
But whoever wins the election with AV sees no incentive to change to PR. Why would the current government move away from a system which they win with? The government in power is always tweaking the system to benefit themselves in the next election and moving to PR will give power away to the smaller parties. And besides, since the populace has voted for AV, it is declared to have a mandate to be used as the election system... no matter how much the electoral reform society continues to lobby. Not only that but people will become disillusioned with AV and there will be a movement to swap back to FPTP, as has happened in Canada and Australia.

However you vote, you should expect whichever system wins to be used for the foreseeable future. There is no guarantee it will be changed from AV to PR, and then you'll be stuck with it. For a long time.

No incumbent government ever changes the voting system to one where it has less power. Because both FPTP and AV are disproportionate voting systems which give more support to the most popular parties than they deserve, any party which can win these voting systems would lose out if they moved to something more proportional, so they won't do it. If they did, they'd win less seats and be less likely to have a majority. The voting boundaries for constituencies are constantly being modified and no two elections ever have the same constituency borders. But whenever the boundaries change, the incumbent government will ensure they are changed so that they benefit. The parties are happen to tweak the system for their benefit, but not otherwise, and they don't see this as immoral.

Your Options

If the No vote wins, it'll be cast as a win for FPTP and we won't see change. If Yes wins, it'll be cast as a win for AV and there will still be an argument against moving to PR. So whichever way you vote, you set back any kind of advantageous reform.

You are damned if you do and damned if you don't!

And of course, if you don't vote, it looks like you don't care. But you should care, because this is really important. What electoral system is used will change the result of many elections to come! Looking like you don't care isn't going to help political reform either!

If you spoil your ballot it shows that you DO care (you went to the effort of going to the polling station, so the election must mean something to you!) AND you aren't happy with something. Spoiling your ballot is not the same as not voting. If hardly anyone goes to the polling station (as seems likely) it will seem like nobody cares about the voting system or changing it.

I present to you the other option:

Case 3. A large proportion of the populace spoil their ballot.
Imagine if rather than 60% of people not turning up to vote, 60% of people turned up and spoilt their ballot paper. The result would not be valid and the protest voters would have won.
Obviously, we will never get 60% of people spoiling their ballot, but we don't need to; if an unusually high proportion do it will illustrate the discontent with the two systems on offer. AV may or may not be implemented afterwards, but provided the amount of people who spoil their ballots is more than the difference between the Yes and No votes, neither FPTP nor AV will have a mandate to be used as the voting system.
Imagine this hypothetical outcome of the referendum:
No - 46%
Yes - 44%
Spoilt - 10%
The spoilt ballots haven't won, but it is clear that neither Yes nor No has won outright!
Moreover, due to the unusually high proportion of spoilt votes the validity of the referendum would be called into question. 10% of ballots being spoilt is a big deal because it is a lot more than what happens normally, and that is probably about enough to be newsworthy in any election.

You should spoil your ballot by writing "NONE OF THE ABOVE" on it. This will show you are spoiling your ballot because you want a change in the voting system that is not being offered, rather than some other reason, such as protesting about not liking the current government. People counting the votes will notice if there are a lot of spoilt ballots which say the same thing.

And Finally

Take a look at the Spoil AV referendum Facebook event. Please add yourself to it and invite loads of people.
If you're sharing on twitter use our hashtag, #SpoilAV.
This is a new movement and it could do with some support and your help in raising awareness.

There are plenty of people will be voting Yes or No for the wrong reasons. There are also lots of people who can't see that it matters because there is little difference between the two systems and the same politicians will win either way. You need to help spread the word and let everyone know there is a third option!

Oh and the worst thing you could possibly do is vote based on whether you like/dislike David Cameron/Nick Clegg or because you want to upset the coalition. Or because you think AV will hurt/help Party X/Y/Z in some particular scenario. That is not a good way to decide on the future of this country.

I leave you with this clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LPdTXRjIKQ.

Don't give the politicians the excuse to make the voting system either AV or FPTP! Spoil your ballot!