The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Britain's AV voting Referendum

Apparently, Britain is considering using an alternate voting (AV) system. Here's something from the Daily Mail not too favorable, and at The Independent, that says polls indicate people are in favor of AV voting. The system they're considering is usually called "Instant Run-Off" voting. Here's a video that explains it. This is the voting system that the Academy reverted to for Best Picture Oscars two years ago when they decided to expand the number of nominees from five to ten. I think the AV system is a great idea for Britain, and I think it'd be great for the US too.

The current system of voting in the US and Britain is a First Past the Post System, which basically means that everyone casts one vote for their preferred candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins. How the AV system differs is that instead of voting for one person, you rank the various candidates in order of preference. So, if there are five candidates, you rank them 1st through 5th. If a multiple candidates tie for your least favorite, then you don't have to rank those. In order to tally the votes, the vote counters first simply count votes according to everyone's first preference. If one candidate has the majority, it ends and a winner is declared. If not, then whichever candidate has the least first preference votes is eliminated, and all the ballots for the eliminated candidate are distributed according to those ballots' second preference. If there is then a majority winner, then it's over, but if no majority winner, then the next last place candidate is eliminated and votes redistributed according to second preference (or if second preference eliminated third preference) and so on. So, it's sort of like a series of run off elections with one fewer candidates each new election until someone gets the majority.

Some people have criticized the AV system at the Academy awards on the grounds that it led to less worthy films winning (Hurt Locker and The King's Speech, to date), but the truth is that the measure of any voting system is how well it gauges voter preference. These are the movies the Academy preferred, and if the Academy has bad taste, then the voting system can hardly be faulted.

The truth is that the AV system is better at gauging voter preference. First of all, by asking for orders of preference rather than just the first preference, it gathers more information about what voters really think. Second of all, it eliminates (or at least reduces the prevalence of) strategic voting. Strategic voting is a common problem in first past the post system. It's when voters vote for someone they don't prefer, but rather someone who's the least worst option among likely candidates. For example, in US presidential elections, many voters that would prefer to vote for a third party candidate, vote instead for the Democratic or Republican candidate closest to their political preference as a next best option, in order to avoid an even worse option. For example, if you're left leaning and there's a left leaning third party candidate you prefer, you might still vote Democrat in order to prevent the Republican candidate from winning. Voters want to avoid situations like the 1992 and 2000 presidential elections where third party candidates siphoned votes away from a candidate that may have likely won in their absence. In other words, with first past the post voting, it often happens that voters will vote to avoid a worse case scenario instead of actually expressing their preference.

Third of all, the AV system can handle larger pools of candidates. With a first past the post system, anything greater than two candidates, means that someone can win without a majority, and the greater the number of candidates, the smaller the plurality needed to win. Thus, you either get a system where winning candidates only represent a minority of voters, or you get a system where there are only really two parties. Thus, AV voting makes third parties more viable and would allow the broad spectrum of American political opinion to be better represented, rather than the simplistic A Party vs B Party divide. In fact, it's likely that the reason for the pervasive two party system in the US is the continuous use of first past the post voting.

The AV system also, for better or worse, disadvantages divisive figures. In any election with three or more candidates, the winning candidate will win by gathering not just first preferences but also second and perhaps even third preferences. Thus, the winning candidate is going to be more people's preferred or at least next best option. A candidate that on the other hand is either loved or hated, is unlikely to get many second or third preferences and thus will be beat out by candidates that have more broad support.

Many dubious arguments are offered against AV voting, but they usually fall into a basic nirvana fallacy. For example, it is pointed at that a candidate might win without a majority (especially if people don't rank all their preferences) or that in certain exotic circumstances the preferred candidate might be edged out by a slightly less preferred candidate (for example if have three candidates A,B,C and 45% of voters rank them C>B>A, 35% A>B>C, and 20& B>A>C; A would win despite that C is the clear favorite and 65% prefer B over A). Both arguments fail to acknowledge that both of these problems are real and far more probable and significant in a first past the post voting system. There have been many spoiler candidates in American elections throughout the years, and the common practice among voters of strategic voting makes the Republican/Democratic candidates seem more popular than they really are. Alas, no system is perfect, but the AV system reduces the distortions of such imperfections.

The real disadvantage of the AV system is that it's confusing. Academy members found it confusing, and even if the average Briton is smarter than the average Academy member (I'm not going to say anything), some will still struggle getting used to it. But this system has been successfully implemented in numerous jurisdictions. A number of cities use it (such as Oakland, San Francisco, Minneapolis, St Paul) and a couple countries (such as Ireland and Australia). There's no doubt it's a system that takes some getting used to, and definitely asks for more thought from voters. But it's not that complex. If people can figure out how to rank something on a 1 to 10 scale or decide on their top ten favorite movies of all time, they can do this.

Admittedly, I can't say whether it's the best system of voting ever created. There are in fact many preferential voting systems out there which have their advantages and disadvantages. But it is a more accurate and more democratic system than first past the post.

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