AV referendum in UK

About a week ago, UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced the date for the referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote for Commons elections. According to the legislation, which must be approved by Parliament, the referendum would be on 5 May 2011.

This is the same date as Scottish, Welsh, Northern Ireland, and some local elections. This concurrence of elections has already become a matter of controversy.

Assuming the referendum goes ahead, the Conservatives will campaign against it. The coalition agreement only committed the two parties to holding a referendum, not to supporting its passage. The opposition Labour Party, despite having had such a referendum in its own campaign manifesto, is actually quite divided on the question. And now with the new Lib-Con politics, it may even be that Labour would be the party most hurt by AV. So the referendum’s passage is by no means certain.

UK Polling Report has had a series of posts regarding polling on the AV question.


This was originally a planting about Pippa Norris’s blog, reading:

It just came to my attention that Pippa Norris has a blog. (The archives go back to December, 2008. Where have I been?) Much there of interest to F&V readers, especially on the recent British election.

However, it somehow transformed itself in the comment thread into one about AV in the UK. Sometimes the tree has to bend with the wind…

(And this explains why some of the comments are older than the post’s current date. And why one of them is actually about Pippa Norris.)

26 thoughts on “AV referendum in UK

  1. UK AV referendum called, scheduled for 5 May 2011.

    Complaints already from the Tories that this will be held on the same day as the UK’s sub-national elections, because this might lead to unfair variations in referendum turnout.

    The Conservatives are running the “AV gives some voters an unfair second vote” argument, which is illogical but understandable in a country that has zero experience with AV (and only a small amount with STV-PR). The really odd thing, though, is that the “two votes” line of argument first hit the internet in Alaska’s 2002 IRV referendum. You know, Alaska? Where they have a primary election followed by a general election? Where presumably at least some of those 50,000 Republicans who voted against Sarah Palin in the 2006 GOP primary went on to vote for her in the general?

  2. Will the Alternative Vote System in the United Kingdom be an optional preferential voting system? Will voters be allowed to vote just 1, and then as many preferences as they want?

    Are Voters required to rank all preferences till they exhausted like in Australia?

    Are voters required to rank a minimum of Preferences like 1,2,3 as in Papua New Guinea?

  3. I would hope that electors get to vote as few or as many preferences as they wish, which is the case in some but not all MPV systems in Australia. The LSE election blog recently disgraced itself by calling for truncated MPV on the London model, offering the less than persuasive argument that it would limit choice to the 2 big parties.

  4. My gut feeling at this stage is that this referendum will be lost somewhere around 53-47%. The British are not only a profoundly conservative nation (which is why they trust their parliament with an un-entrenched constitution), but they have very little experience voting in referenda. Australia has been called “constitutionally speaking, the frozen continent” but still 8 out of 44 proposals have been passed (another 5 got 50%+ nationwide but didn’t carry a majority of States). The English have, if I count correctly, only ever voted in one England-wide referendum (excluding local licensing polls) and that was to confirm the fait accompli of EU membership 2 years after the fact. Like Stockholm City Council’s congestion tax, a recent change survived attempted repeal even though it would probably have been defeated if put to a referendum before it was first tried.

    Interestingly, the Scots seem somewhat less conservative and have twice voted for devolution by simple majority, the 1979 attempt failing only because of the 40% threshold, the 1997 attempt passing. The Welsh are one-all on both and the Irish can’t, it seems, say no to a referendum proposal… (other, of course, than those allowing fewer than 3 MPs per constituency or more than one wife per husband).

    Anyway, judging by the arguments I have seen so far, I predict that the case for AV (such as it is) will be shot down using the familiar (to Australians) pea-and-thimble trick of simultaneously arguing that it goes too far and also doesn’t go far enough (well, of course it doesn’t, but it’s a stepping-stone to PR… good luck ever getting a PR referendum if the Conservative PM’s deputy is a Maude or a Patten instead of Nick Clegg). Eg, arguing both that AV “gives some voters a second vote” [*] and also that it fails to elect the Condorcet winner. Since there is no law requiring “No” votes to agree on a common counter-proposal, these ballot-papers all go into the same pile and it will be taller than the “AV is great!” or “AV is the least-worst option on the table” pile.

    [*] As I’ve noted elsewhere, this “two votes! bad!” argument seems to indicate either mathematical illiteracy or else (when it comes from the political heirs of Lord Salisbury and Lord Cranborne) transparently opportunistic. One of the few provisions in the Australian Constitution that limits the Federal Parliament’s power to write electoral laws is a requirement that each elector “vote only once”. In 92 years of using AV and STV, no one has ever persuaded the High Court of Australia to seriously consider an argument that preferential voting contravenes this requirement.

  5. A rather sad Antipodean illustration of the Dan Rather/ Helen Thomas-like decline of a once-great journalist: Mungo MacCallum – a brilliantly witty satirist/ reporter back in the Whitlam era – now camping out in Byron Shire and reduced to contributing regular anti-Tony Abbott squibs to the local freebie paper. (His column poo-pooing rumours of a Labor revolt against Rudd as rubbish peddled by the Murdoch press hit the newsstands the very same day that Julia Gillard ousted Kevin – ouch).

    “… preferential voting… is not unique to Australia; some form of the preference system is also used in constituencies as diverse as Latvia, Nepal, Malta and Nauru. But the vast majority of democracies still rely on the more direct method of election known as first past the post…”

    – Mungo MacCallum, “May the least loathed win”, Melbourne Age (20 July 2010).

    Anyone have a first-year journalism cadet around to spot the factual howler in that paragraph?

  6. There has to be a solution for journalistic serial offenders like Mungo and his friends. As it happens I live in a convenient desert. A couple of the Mad Max flicks were made here.

    I’m sure a suitable chunk could be made available for Professor Shugart to preside over a reality show involving sand, dust, heat, flies, very little water and a modicum of journalistic re-education.

  7. […] The preferential voting system produces, or at least encourages, preference deals. It is that simple. The deal is played out in party how-to-vote cards which advise voters how to fill out their ballot papers. They are as old as the preferential system itself, especially at local electorate and state level. Relatively new though are the highly disciplined national deals, in line with the general tenor of modern Australian politics.

    The term “deals” suggests something underhand, but these are generally fairly benign arrangements between like-minded parties on both sides of politics. This means that the majority of the supporters of the parties involved are already inclined to vote that way anyway. If a party leadership attempted to direct preferences against the general disposition of their followers then a grassroots revolt might occur. Leaders have to be careful what they do.

    The how-to-vote card merely attempts to firm up the situation, perhaps adding another 10 per cent of second preferences to what would have occurred anyway without any guidance at all from above. So the impact of these deals should not be exaggerated. They probably matter most when there is a genuine market for preferences, as between competing minor parties such as the Greens and the Democrats. […]

    What is in it for the parties concerned? Overwhelmingly the reason is electoral benefit. The relationship has to be a win-win situation. In the House of Representatives the benefits are almost all with the major parties as usually only the preferences of the minor parties are distributed. Rarely does the minor party have any chance to win in the House of Representatives.

    In these cases the support of the minor party must be bought in some way. This is often simplified as “support in return for concessions.” The concession made by the major party may be a promise to introduce a policy dear to the heart of the minor party.

    There is a special type of preference deal called cross-house trading. The major party mainly gains electoral benefits in the House of Representatives; the minor party gains benefits in the Senate where they have a real chance of winning a seat. Here the preference deal can mean life or death for the minor party. When the Democrats and the Greens were neck-and-neck, as in Western Australia on several occasions, the deal effectively decided the result of the final Senate seat.
    Naturally those who feel jilted cast scorn on the deals and imply the worst. That has been one reaction to the Labor-Greens deal in this election.
    But deals rarely signify private policy deals. They are about win-win electoral benefits. Nevertheless they do leave the parties open to legitimate criticism that they are in a closer than usual relationship that muddies their independent images and restricts their freedom to move. They also can be seen as another step towards a centralisation of politics that neglects local circumstances, such as the qualifications of individual candidates and the wishes of local party members.

    But when they feel uneasy about what headquarters has agreed to, local party members at polling booths tend to undermine the national deal in any way they can. After all voters can quite easily throw the how-to-vote card in the bin. Many do.

    – John Warhurst, “Nothing underhanded about Labor-Greens deal”, 20(14) Eureka Street (27 July 2010).

  8. This report tends to confirm my pessimistic assessment of the likelihood of AV passing the referendum:

    George Eaton, “Why the odds have shifted against electoral reform: Four reasons why the no campaign is now likely to win the referendum.” New Statesman blog (10 August 2010).

    What did suprise me, though, is that the (recent) former Federal and Queensland State Director of the Liberal Party of Australia is assisting the “No AV” case.

    And yes, folks, that would be the same Liberal Party of Australia that supports AV (with compulsory preferences) in those elections which its own endorsed candidates contest.

    As Groucho Marx said, “Those are my principles. And if you don’t like them I have others”…

    • Re-reading this six years later I realize I was unfair to Mr Crosby. Although his name was bandied about early on as a master tactician the No case, Antony Green – who was in the UK at the time – reckons Crosby was not involved: http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2016/01/more-uk-election-post-mortems.html?cid=6a00e0097e4e68883301bb08b1773c970d#comment-6a00e0097e4e68883301bb08b1773c970d

      I suppose convincing the Australian electorate that Mark Latham is a soft touch for refugees is all in a day’s work. Mind you, six years later it would indeed look to the casual observer that AV does produce hung parliaments in Australia – when it’s not completely shutting out independents and minor parties, that is.

      Henry, those two links you posted have left me with huge red marks on my forehead… ouch. “This means the ballots of the loser(s) will determine the winner. Some voters, the voters of the loser(s), would get to vote more than once.” Yeah, State Representative Heather Sirocki, that’s right. Totally Un-American. Not one person who threw away their vote on Cruz, Rubio or Sanders in the primaries gets to vote again between Trump or Hillary in November. Because then they’d be getting two votes, right?

      And these people are balancing your budget, Maine voters. Feel safer already.

      • Incidentally, do these sort of “It’s wrong to let supporters of a losing candidate vote a second time! A simple plurality should prevail! Otherwise Madison would be spinning in his grave!” chest-thumpers ever *read* the Twelfth fracking Amendment to the US fracking Constitution?

  9. The US state of Maine will hold a referendum on the introduction of ‘ranked-choice’ voting this November, due to a public petition. Maine is notable for having a large political presence outside the major parties; Independent candidates regularly poll strongly in gubernatorial elections, and the state currently has an independent Senator (who previously served two terms as independent Governor). The proposal would introduce AV for all statewide offices (Governor, state House, state Senate) as well as for Federal offices, except Presidential electors.

    The primary issue with the referendum appears to be that the Maine Constitution states that certain statewide offices should be elected by ‘a plurality of votes’. While this is an issue, Constitutions can be amended; in Maine’s case, by a 2/3 vote of the legislature and then a referendum.

    While the campaign has only just started, there are already some extraordinarily absurd opinion pieces on the matter ( here and here ). I assume there is only more of this to look forward to as the campaign progresses; nonetheless, it would be a big step forward for US electoral reformers to have an example to point at that wasn’t the Tax Assessment Board of Lancaster, NH.

    • The Maine thing is partisan, because the current governor of Maine, who is a Republican, got elected twice by pluralities and few people think he would have been elected either time if a majority requirement had been in place.

      Because they have been winning under the current system, expect Republicans to defend it and they will probably be able to block any change.

      This is why its so hard to change these things. Single district majority is used so infrequently that I’ve started to suspect that its easier to change from single member plurality to a full proportional system.

      • That should be “single member majority” and “single member plurality”, though I hope what I wrote was clear enough.

      • These two articles are funny. Ranked Choice Voting is not unconstitutional and in fact it was invented by an American, funny thing is that as an American we invented clever things and then never used them. I don’t think I would want mandatory preferential voting as in Australian Federal Elections, but optional preferential voting. If Republicans had used it in the primary then the primary result may have been different.

        Then again optional ranked choice voting would lead to a lot of exhausted ballots and the last two candidates standing, whoever has the most votes among those two wins and thus that would be seen as a plurality winner especially if exhausted ballots were treated as a third candidate. It would not be unconstitutional. The plurality leading candidate is more likely to win under such a system than a mandatory ranking of all preferences as in Australia’s Federal House.

        You don’t vote more than once in a preferental vote system. In a two round system, voters vote more than once, why is that okay and not preferential voting. Preferential Voting is cheaper and saves more money than a two round system, there is only one election and not two. They always say that the person with the most votes win, they should tell that to Scandinavian countries where it is very common for the 2nd largest party to form government. Why is it okay for a candidate that wins 36% because they are the plurality winner and everyone else didn’t because of the split vote?

  10. We electoral reformers in Canada are busy trying to get our media to understand that a ranked ballot is a ballot, not a voting system. It can be used in winner-take-all elections with even worse results (in Canada) than FPTP, or it can be used in a proportional system like Irish PR-STV or for the local elections in MMP as Jenkins recommended. RANKED BALLOTS ARE NOT A VOTING SYSTEM.

    • Perhaps I risk being overly pedantic (why would that ever stop me?), but it seems to me that ranked balloting is a voting system, but not an electoral system. I realize some folks outside the academy use those terms interchangeably, and I have always found that puzzling.

      Anyway, on the substance we agree. I might go a step further and point out that STV is an electoral formula, and AV is that formula with a district magnitude of one. An electoral system is both the formula and the magnitude, along with other factors, including the assembly size.

      • I must disagree. What is the “system” in “ranked ballot voting system?” I just listed three different systems that use ranked ballots.

      • ‘Ranked choice ballots’ is a brand name developed by US electoral reformers who are convinced they can pass electoral reform only by calling it something else. It is rather like the Canadian belief that by calling electoral reform ‘an element of proportionality’ it can somehow be enacted next week. The system it refers to, STV, is so well known to this blog that I hesitate to put fructovotantes through yet another STV disquisition.

      • Alan, many of us Canadian MMP advocates say “adding an element of proportionality to our voting system” is not just a soft sell, but a fair line on the basic appeal of MMP. Much like “the best of both worlds.”

      • Wilf, MMP is, in an interparty sense, not really ‘an element of proportionality’. Under MMP, seats would be allocated proportionally, full stop. It acts the same as a pure party list system, in terms of seat allocation. MMM would be more ‘an element’ of proportionality, because only a portion of seats are proportionally allocated.

      • Henry Schlechta, of course MMP is fully proportional. When speaking only to rabid PR fans, the phrase “an element of proportionality” can bother a few of them into fearing I am talking about MMM, if they don’t know what I mean. But when speaking to the vast majority of voters, it sounds just fine.

      • Using a deliberately inaccurate term as a sales pitch for proportional representation is a really bad idea. The angry voter already rules the world because globalisation was sold to them them in the same way. Lets not gull them and then complain when they vote PRexit.

    • Maybe we need to make distinction; a voting system can use numbers to order their candidates starting from 1 on down and those systems are STV and AV, and all of the rest of the electoral system is one X marks the spot, but then there are some voting systems that allow for multiple X marks the spots with Block and the Limited Vote.

      Sometimes it is a bit confusing when someone says in an open party system that there is a preference vote, but then one forgets not to confuse with numbered rank system, and that means that a vote for a candidate marking one X in an open party list system pools to that party.

      What about MMP, and how does that relate to this discussion. MMP, is unlike Block and Limited in this circumstance, but only one X is allowed for the electorate vote and one X is for the party list. That X for the party list is far more important than the X on the electorate vote.

      Are there any countries that use negative numbers to rank candidates or electorate systems where crossing off a candidate is a negative vote?

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