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Rupert Myers: A tale that explodes the myth that AV is a "fairer" voting system

Picture 5 Rupert Myers is a barrister and writer.

It is the next general election, and in the new constituency of Midsomer there is a tight race for the seat. This is a future in which the referendum on the Alternative Vote has been won by the Yes campaign, and the first time voters have had the chance not just to cast one vote each, but to express their preferences.

Early polling in Midsomer, conducted a year before the election, showed the seat to be a broad four-way split, between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, and support for the candidate put up by the English Defence League. All four of these groups have traditional supporters in Midsomer, and account for approximately 25% of the votes each.

With twelve months to go until the election, the recently retired Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby throws his hat into the ring as an independent candidate under the banner of a ‘Keep Midsomer Safe’ campaign.

Barnaby has no experience of politics, no traditional supporters, and no campaign team, but he has a plan: he will campaign for second preference votes, knowing as he does that the supporters of the four major political parties in Midsomer would rather murder each other than vote for one another.

Tom Barnaby pounds the streets with his simple but effective message: “Vote for your preferred party, if you won’t put me first, but please lend me your support in second preferences.” The voters, marvelling in the supposed fairness of the AV system, and the way in which it supports their ability to rank candidates in order of preference, are thrilled at this new voting mechanism.

On election night, the first round results come in:

  • Conservatives: 28%
  • Labour: 24%
  • Liberal Democrats: 19%
  • English Defence League: 15%
  • Tom Barnaby ‘Keep Midsomer Safe’: 14%

Tom Barnaby has massively eroded the support bases of both the Liberal Democrats, and the EDL, but is eliminated from the contest in the first round. A breakdown of the second preference votes shows that a record breaking 99% of all second preferences of Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, and EDL candidates went to Tom Barnaby. Tom Barnaby, the first/second choice of over 99% of the constituents of Midsomer, is eliminated in the first round.

First Past The Post gives one vote to each voter, and the party with the most votes wins. AV’s unique selling point is that it claims to be fairer; that it claims to reflect more accurately the democratic voice of the voters.

Since the above example is all too possible, AV’s central claim to fairness must be questioned. This may be an extreme hypothetical, but the notion that second preferences matter - the notion that AV relies upon for these claims of enhanced fairness - is undermined when you consider how the system might work in practice.

If candidates with high levels of preferred support can still easily lose, why does the 'Yes' campaign still insist that AV must be fairer?


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