Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 28 February 2011

Ed Hall seems very confused about AV and FPTP #Yes2AV

Conservative activist Ed Hall wrote a piece on Conservative Home over the weekend where he sets out why he thinks First Past the Post is a simple, comprehensible and fair electoral system.

Fair enough. He is entitled to his opinion and it is clearly genuinely held. However I do wonder why so many people within the No camp seem to make so many factual mistakes when making their case.

I am not going to perform a full fisking here. There are however three arguments he uses that are just plain wrong:

1) "If you have a 'normal' constituency election with three or four mainstream parties, two or three genuine local campaigners, a couple of extreme parties from either side, and a Loony candidate, then the ballot paper lists them all and the voters will have to list them in preference. I have to say I am not sure precisely in which order I should rank the Vote Muesli candidate and the True Love Party candidate, but issues such as that will start to trouble us if the referendum goes in favour of AV."

No you won't Ed. The AV system that will brought in if there is a yes vote is one where it is optional to list all your preferences. You could if you wish just put a "1" next to your most favoured candidate and leave it at that. You are not forced to vote for more than one person. You can even put an X next to them if you like. There is provision in the bill for this to count as a "1" (and as anyone who has attended counts knows even without specific legislation, returning officers would use their discretion to count this anyway). So this point is utterly, factually wrong. Perhaps Ed is confusing us with Australia where they are made to rank all candidates. We will absolutely not be.

2) "In modern politics, a winner should be a winner. Try it round your dinner table or next time you watch the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing. Everyone votes for their favourite book, film or act: surely the candidate with the most votes wins? How would the BBC or ITV possibly explain or justify a programme format with public voting in which the candidate that got the most votes did not win?"

This is such a bizarre comment. X Factor and Strictly both use run-off voting systems where week by week candidates are eliminated. It is mathematically far closer to AV (which in some countries is called "instant run-off voting") than FPTP. If these programmes used FPTP the winner would be decided in week one and could win with perhaps only 15% of the vote. I wonder how many viewers would consider that fair.

To be fair to Ed he sort of acknowledges his error a couple of paragraphs later saying:

"Of course you do get to vote again in the TV formats as the candidates are knocked out, and the next week's programme starts..."

But then he goes and spoils it all by saying:

3) ...but do we really want General Elections every week until we get a winner? That would be the only way to give equal weight to everybody’s second choice votes.

No Ed, it's not the only way. The sensible way to achieve this is to give the public the AV system! It allows us to emulate knock-out voting rounds without people having to go down to the polling booth several times. Because each ballot paper can be carried through each round with the second, third etc. choices being used as and when necessary. So multi-round voting is not the only way to give equal weight to second (and third etc.) choice votes. AV does it already!

I have heard the argument from numerous people in the No2AV camp that AV is "nothing like" knock-out round by round voting. The only difference I can see is in the point at which people cast the votes. Admittedly it is possible that some people's further choices might have changed had they known who was still going to be in (but it is highly debatable how many would change their choices - I suspect a very small minority) and so it is not identical but it is far, far closer to AV than FPTP is. And as Ed himself acknowledges making people go down again and again to the polling station for the same election is not feasible so AV is a good way of achieving a very similar end through slightly altered means.

There are arguments for and against AV that deserve to be properly debated. For example I was asked an interesting question from Labour activist Emma Burnell (who blogs at Scarlet Standard) at the weekend where she questioned about whether candidates under AV might all start to converge on the centre ground or "mushy middle" as she termed it over time. A good question worth debating.

But I keep coming up against false arguments like those listed from Ed Hall above from No2AVers again and again. It makes me wonder if some of them even understand what they are arguing against.

PS: Sunder Katwala has written an excellent post here on Next Left skewering Ed Hall's claims about X-Factor type shows and AV/FPTP in far more detail than I have time for!


martijn said...

"it is possible that some people's further choices might have changed had they known who was still going to be in "

Do you actually have an example of this? For I can't come up with any. (Sorry if this sounds like criticism; I am genuinely curious.)

Of course when the votes in k-o round-by-round voting are cast with some time in between it is well possible that someone's opinion has changed. But I can't think of an example of someone who understands AV and whose opinion does not change between rounds but where the fact that they know the results of the non-final rounds makes them change their mind.

nonny mouse said...

The 1990 Conservative Party Leadership

Thatcher only needed a few more votes. She pulled out because some of her supporters decided to switch sides and her vote would have gone down.

Ryan said...

@martijn, some examples, in the X-Factor you love Clare, and like Mike you don't mind if either win but prefer Clare. Clare gets knocked out and the following week Mike does a Lady Gaga, suddenly you realise he is mad and decide you no longer want him to win, alternatively the tabloids find a story that shows him to be a drug pusher to 5 year olds.
The time in between allows for the changes in mind / campaigning.

However more serious three candidates in a run off election, votes are 40/32/28, on elimination candidate C turns around and say their voters should now vote for B for the good of the Constituency. Whilst most may have made up their minds who their number two should ne, many will listen to C. Whether this is a good thing or not is part of the debate.

martijn said...

Thanks, Ryan. But both examples are cases where extra information is known between the various rounds: mike doing a Lady Gaga and C telling their voters to vote B. I was wondering if there is a case where the simple fact that you now know who are left makes you change your mind.

So for example, you say 1 Nick 2 Ed 3 Caroline 4 David, but after Nick and Caroline are eliminated, you think: "oh no, between Ed and David it should be David" purely based on the fact that Ed and David are left. I doubt there is such a case.

It doesn't add up.... said...

If you are going to criticise in this way you need to be accurate. AV does not allow everyone's second preferences to count: if your first preference is for one of the top two, your lower preferences are never examined. And yes,it makes a differnce.

Take the 40/32/28 example above. C's second preferences may break heavily enough in favour of B for B to win. But if B's second preferences were counted they might be in favour of A (or at least 11 out of 32 might be), which would give the win to A. In turn, A's ignored second preferences could turn out to give a clear "majority" to either B or C.

on Martijn's question: AV permits tactical voting, in particular giving a protest vote. In a multi round situation, a disgruntled right wing voter in Holland might vote in round 1: PVV/CDA/PvdA/Groenlinks.

Having given the message, when push comes to shove suddenly PVV drops down the ranking for the crucial round if they are still in the game. It was always the voter's intention to do this - give CDA a scare. (Sorry if you're not familiar with Dutch politics, but I'm sure you'll get the idea)

Blackacre said...

I can't claim to be an expert but I think that Single Transferable Vote answers "It Doesn't Add Up"'s question. That redistributes from the top as well as the bottom as and when candidates get over the threshold level. That is my favoured system and in comparison AV is indeed a miserable little compromise but it is a step in the right direction.

boggits said...

@martijn think of it like this...

If your normal political preference is A, B, C, D *but* you think that D should never ever be elected (i.e. you voting paper looks like A, B, C)

Lets also assume that the candidates go from Left to Right on the political scale but the 'left' has a minority in the seat, you are a left leaning supporter. [swap left right if you really can't commit...]

During the run up to the campaign everyone is thinking that C will get the most votes and be elected on the second preferences of B or D (which ever gets eliminated as they are the least popular candidates)

Your preferences would either be ABC or something similar (you might go for a tactical votes to try and make sure D doesn't win)

On first preferences there is a surprise result - C comes first D second A third and B fourth most of the B votes will go to A or C but there is a real possibility that D could win if C doesn't get enough votes in the next round

Who would you vote for now without instant runoff?

A long run off will change you voting pattern as people switch their allegiance to 'keep out' certain candidates, the advantage of instant run off is that you are closer to choosing what you actually want to happen rather than flipping.

All said, STV would be a much better option as Balckacre said

martijn said...

Thanks for that, boggits.

Still not sure though. In your example and my understanding of AV, D wins the second round only if the number of voters with a first preference for D plus the number of voters with B first and D second is at least 50%. The (only) way for your vote to have the desired effect this is by not belonging to either category.

Assuming D doesn't win the second round but makes it to the "final", again, just you've "done your bit" as long as A or C, whoever is up against D, is ranked higher than D.

I am getting more and more convinced that it doesn't matter, that the only sensible thing to do is to rank votes according to your preference. The crux here being that if at least 50% of the voters want something to happen it will happen and your vote won't make a difference.

Protest votes are a different matter and I don't think there's an easy or right tactic here. After all, if you vote/give first preference to X to "give them a message" but don't want X to be elected, you are basically assuming that not too many others will do the same. I guess it's slightly less "risky" (in the above sense) to cast a protest vote under AV, but not very much.

Ed Hall said...

Ed Hall here: I'm grateful for Mark's comments, not least as they open up more space for debate on this subject. Whilst I happily hold my hands up to my mistakes (a not infrequent event), I don't think this is one of them. Re: 1. It is the case that the order in which the voters for the lower ranked parties order their other preferences will likely be the mechanism that decides the winner in many constituencies. The last few votes that get a candidate over the winning post are likely to be the re-shovelled votes of electors that chose the fringe candidates. This means therefore that the mainstream candidates will need to pander to their needs during the election. I gave the example (which you didn't mention) of the criticism Boris Johnson faced (from the Left) for not speaking harshly enough on racism in the last London Mayoral election. The allegation was that he didn't for fear of upsetting right wing voters and losing their second preference votes.
I do understand that you do not have to make second or further preference votes, but that doesn't alter the fact that those that do, and also vote for fringe candidates, will use their second preference votes to decide many election results.
Re:2. Read my three quotes together and they make entire sense. I didn't vote for the same candidate in every episode of the X Factor. Did you? If you want a 'run-off' you have to knock candidates out and start again. I wouldn't object to that on fairness grounds, although I think it a little impractical in a modern democracy. I don't think you can 'emulate' it.
Sadly I have been away for the last few days and off-line so only now catching up with the comments... apologies for the tardy response.

Mark Thompson said...

Ed - Thanks for responding.

1) You are conceding here in your comment that voters will not have to put a preference next to every candidate but that is not what you said in your piece. Specifically:

"...the ballot paper lists them all and the voters will have to list them in preference"

That is plain wrong and it is not the first time I have seen or heard No2AV supporters make that claim. You need to be more clear, otherwise you are just disseminating misinformation.

2) Instant run-off (AV) is far closer to run-off than FPTP. So to imply that the BBC/ITV would find it odd to justify such a system for X-Factor or Strictly (which use run-off) is a very odd thing for you to say. And the incredulous certainty with which you insist this suggests to me that you are trying to make people think AV is some esoteric exotic system when it is just a variant of what people are very used to in all sorts of fields in this country.