Saturday, March 12, 2011

AV, preferences and likely outcomes

I'm inclined to agree with Norm when he argues that the twenty-nine historians who have written to the Times opposing AV on the grounds that it violates the principle of one person, one vote, are rather overstating their case.

However, I think Norm overstates his own case by using an argument I've heard for AV before. This is that it is like the ballot system as used in French Presidential elections and formerly used by the Conservative Party in leadership elections, which does elections in rounds that knock out contenders who come last, only AV does this automatically:
"Every voter got to express their full preference-ordering and it's as if two ballots took place, in which each voter got to have their say. In the first round, they all voted with three candidates standing; and in the second round they all voted with two candidates standing. Each voter had the same two 'turns'."
It doesn't help that Norm uses as an analogy some vote about which country singer is the least excruciating best out of Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lyle Lovett. I wouldn't know but I would have thought the outcome of this contest would be less certain than, say, a by-election in Glasgow.

I could be wrong about this but in any event it doesn't affect my point, which is that people will order their preferences according to their perception of likely outcomes. If people's perceptions proved to be wrong, they have the opportunity to change their preferences in the ballot system, as they did, for example, in the French Presidential election that saw Jospin pushed into third place behind Chirac and Le Pen. In this situation, left-leaning voters held their noses and voted Chirac in the second round to stop Le Pen. It would be unwise to assume AV would always be able to deal with a situation like this automatically.

It isn't difficult to see how this could become a problem in UK elections. If we get AV, where I live I would assume that my vote for Labour will never result in my vote being considered in terms of my second preference so I am unlikely to give much consideration to my second or third preferences. But a Tory voter would be reasonable to assume this would be fairly likely so would give their choices more consideration. In these circumstances, it isn't too far-fetched to talk about some people's votes carrying more weight than others. And if we were both wrong, it gives rise to different problems. If, for example, the BNP turned out to be stronger than we imagined possible, we probably wouldn't have ordered our preferences in the way we did. With the ballot system, we could change our minds to accommodate the new situation; with AV we can't.

AV represents the death of one person, one vote? Well, no - but I fail to see why people think this would be a vast improvement on what we have now. I have to say I'm getting a little tired of people saying AV isn't PR 'strictly speaking'. There are two kinds of voting systems: majoritarian and proportional; AV isn't proportional at all - not even a little bit. I've yet to read a convincing argument to support the notion that it's a staging post to PR and even more sceptical about the notion that AV is an obviously superior majoritarian mechanism to the system of plurality we have now.

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