Alternative Vote: What’s The Problem?

Much is being made in UK media these days about the upcoming referendum on whether to introduce the alternative vote system instead of the current first past the post system for voting MPs. For the purposes of this post, I don’t care whether or not one is better than the other.

What I do care, is that opponents to AV suggest it’s far too complicated. The other day, there was an ex-Boxer declaring her confusion on TV that with AV, you can — to use a football analogy — win a match but not win a match.

What a load of bollocks.

AV isn’t too complicated to understand, it’s just usually explained badly.

But before I explain it properly, let me briefly touch on that football analogy: if we stay with football, AV works more like a football league than a single match: that is, you have to prove consistently that you’re better than the competition, racking up points as you go along, until you reach, and then win or lose the final. And as a sports-person bringing up sporting analogies, said ex-Boxer really shouldn’t have trouble understanding that.

So how does it work?

Basically, assume that candidates don’t get votes, but points, where one vote counts for one point. But voting goes through several rounds (matches), and once the first round is passed, the first round votes don’t matter any longer — all that matters are the points the candidates got so far. Just like in a football league, where it doesn’t matter how many goals you scored in the previous match. What matters is how many points you got for that match.

  1. You vote, ranking your preference, e.g. give candidate A you first vote, candidate C your second, and candidate B your third.
  2. The first round votes are counted; each candidate gets one point per vote.
  3. If a candidate has half of all the points accumulated so far or more, they win. End of election.
  4. If no candidate has half of the accumulated points, the candidate with the least points is eliminated.
  5. The next round starts. As a candidate got eliminated, the votes of the people who voted for him would be lost. We can’t have that, so for the next round, those people’s ballots are considered again — but only those people’s ballots, because we also don’t want the votes of other people to be counted more than once. It doesn’t make sense to count the votes for the eliminated candidate, so the next round of votes is counted instead, again giving the remaining candidates one point per vote.
  6. Go to step 3.

What’s confusing about the way AV is usually explained is that the terminology uses “first votes” and “second votes”, and while that’s all correct, it’s not always clear how much each vote counts. By explaining the system in terms of points that candidates rack up until they reach a magic number, things become much clearer.

The second thing that gets confusing is that it may appear as if people have more than one vote. They don’t. Each person’s ballot counts for only one vote for only one candidate, but they ballot paper may be looked at multiple times, and counted for a different candidate each time. When you rank your candidates, you list your preference as to which candidates the ballot should be counted towards.

I’ll grant critics that this isn’t the most intuitive system, yet on some level, we’ve all grown up with this voting system. Ever got picked for a football team at school? The team captains alternate which team member they choose. They name their first preference first, second preference second, and so forth. The results are different, but we understand picking candidates in order of preference. And we understand, from previous voting systems, that the candidate we most want to win doesn’t always win.

A bit more complex, yes. Too difficult to understand? Hardly.

  • Anonymous

    It’s interesting that Charlie Brooker made many of the same comments;
    saying that both sides of the AV fence were treating the public like
    severly retarded idiots. While politicians do this to some degree, it seems the AV camps have taken it to new levels of insult.

    You really have to wonder what the fear is here? I don’t think it’s that the system can be cheated, but more perhaps the results will be too accurate, and too transparent to scrutiny. Which would make a lot of people nervous and perhaps cause a real upset in the political system.

    I for one hope it goes through, as voting needs to be modernised as badly as any other public service. I guess we’ll see how successful the FUD campaigns are in the coming weeks.


    • unwesen

      Unfortunately, it’s already decided. AV won’t be adopted. It appears, the FUD campaign has succeeded.

      Part of what’s annoying here is that politicians were lying outright in this case, quoting that the adoption of AV would cost some hundreds of millions of pounds, and there’s simply no evidence for that.