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AV: If you don't understand it, why vote for it?

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-02-07 at 14.00.36 Last Saturday, I chaired a Conservative debate about AV.  The best part of a hundred people were present.  They were mostly older, retired, professional Conservative activists, intelligent and informed.  We had over an hour to get to grip with the issues, and I think did so reasonably well.  In the course of the discussion, a point came up which is important; which could be decisive when the referendum comes, and which - either because I haven't been thinking much about the issues, or because I'm slow on the uptake, or both - I hadn't grasped before.

It's this: lots of people don't understand how AV works.

By this, I don't just mean that they don't understand how it works.  I mean that they don't understand how it works even after some of the key principles been set out.  And with good reason.  Let me explain why.

One participant explained how AV works as follows.  Imagine that an election takes place in which - for the sake of simplicity - a hundred voters take part.  40 vote for Candidate A, 30 for Candidate B, 20 for Candidate C, and 10 for Candidate D.  Each voter has up to four votes, which he or she can cast for their favoured candidates in order of preference.

As you'll have worked out by now, no candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote in our imaginary poll.  So the votes of Candidate D are redistributed in accordance with the second preferences of those who voted for him (or her).  But since even after this redistribution none of the remaining candidates can have more than 50 per cent of the vote, the votes of Candidate C are redistributed.  In short, the implication is that a candidate needs over 50 per cent of the vote to win.

Except...he doesn't.

To understand why, let's return to our example.  I wrote that since no candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote in our imaginary poll, the votes of Candidate D are redistributed.  But here's the rub.  No voter's obliged to vote for more than one candidate.  (Indeed, no voter's obliged to vote at all.)

So the assumption that all - or indeed any - of Candidate D's supporters have done so in our poll is a leap of faith.  The election begins to look rather different if - for the sake of the argument - all ten of them use their first preference for Candidate D only, and cast no second preference, let alone a second or a third.  Candidate D is therefore eliminated, and the scrutineers turn to the second preferences of Candidate C.  But once again, for the sake of the argument, let's imagine Candidate C's supporters have voted for that candidate only.

In which case, we have a result.  Candidate A is the winner by 40 votes to Candidate B's 30.  But - and here's the point - no candidate has won over 50 per cent of the votes cast.  Yet AV's supporters keep suggesting that one of the merits of AV is that it requires successful candidates to win over half the vote.  But it doesn't.

At this moment, let me concede that in such an election at least some of Candidate C and D's voters would be likely to transfer, avoid the controversies about whether or not MPs should be elected by first past the post or AV, and return to more or less where I started.

As I say, last Saturday's event was attended by an informed and intelligent group of people.  At one point, I asked them if they understood how AV worked.  Between a quarter and a half of those present indicated that they didn't.  There were repeated requests "from the floor" for explanations of how AV works, and the question of whether a candidate requires more than 50 of the vote to win - of which I've made such heavy weather - was explored.

All of which leads me to a conclusion.  If these voters had difficulty grasping how AV works (with good reason, as I say) how will others who are, bluntly, less informed and intelligent - not to say far less interested - do so?  The No Campaign will doubtless put forward a variety of reasons for voting against AV: Tim's already written about dislike and distrust of Nick Clegg being a key factor.

But I wonder if the coming referendum will boil down to something more simple.  Most elections are fought on the basis of Time For A Change versus Stick With The Devil You Know.  But in addition to the Stick With The Devil You Know Theme, the No Campaign has a complementary theme.  As voters prepare to turn out in May for local, Welsh and Scottish elections - and wonder, as they do so, how to vote in the AV referendum - the No Campaign will have a question for them.  Do you really understand how AV works?  And if you don't understand it, why vote for it?


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