Reasons for voting Yes or No to AV

The UK referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote (AV) is fast approaching, with the vote taking place on 5 May, 2011.

What I have been finding quite interesting are the comments from readers on various articles and op ed pieces about why they plan to vote Yes or No to AV. I’ve managed to identify the following main reasons for voting for each side.

Main reasons given for a Yes to AV vote:

  1. because they think AV is a good idea/somewhat of an improvement over FPTP
  2. not that keen on AV, would prefer STV or some other form of PR, but it’s the only option on offer
  3. see this as a chance to maybe move to further, better electoral reform in the future
  4. the tactics used by the No2AV side have put them off so much, they’re going to vote yes because of that
  5. AV is opposed by David Cameron/the Conservatives, the BNP, Lord Prescott, Margaret Beckett and some other senior Labour members, therefore that’s reason enough to support it

Main reasons given for a No to AV vote:

  1. FPTP is better/the best system
  2. AV will lead to perpetual coalitions/too much power to Lib Dems
  3. don’t like FPTP, but don’t like AV either
  4. want to punish Nick Clegg

If we look more closely at the reasons people seem inclined to vote Yes, points 2 and 3 are often very closely linked. Indeed, I wasn’t certain if I should list them as separate reasons. I don’t know that I’ve actually read a single comment from someone completely endorsing AV as the best option, or their preferred option out of all of the various voting systems. Most acknowledge that it’s only, at best, a marginal improvement over FPTP, and almost all would prefer a different system, with STV seeming to be the most popular. But what almost everyone voting Yes agrees on is that since they aren’t being offered any other options, AV does at least represent a small change, and there is strong hope that if AV is adopted, this will open the door to the possibility of further reform to a more proportional system down the road.

The last two reasons I’ve listed for a Yes vote are the most amusing. As I’ve blogged in the past, the No2AV camp is using some highly suspect claims against AV in their campaign for the No vote. Chief among these is that AV will lead to perpetual coalitions (which isn’t true), and that switching to AV will cost well over a hundred million pounds, money which could be better spent on the armed forces or healthcare. The cost figures are, to say the least, rather dubious, since they include the cost of the referendum itself, and hundreds of pounds for electronic vote counting machines – which there are no plans to buy, and for which there is no need. AV ballots can be counted by hand, and are in the jurisdictions that use AV. These highly questionable claims and the posters used to promote them have turned off a lot of, if not pro-FPTP, at least undecided voters. Any article against AV that appears on the ConservativeHome website, for example, is flooded with comments from people decrying these tactics and saying that while they were initially either going to vote no or were undecided, the No2AV tactics have pushed them into the Yes camp.

Similarly, quite a few more “progressive” voters point to the fact that those opposing AV are the Conservatives and BNP, and that alone is justification for voting Yes.

For those in the No to AV camp, many, particularly Conservative Party supporters, simply want to hang on to FPTP because they believe AV will equal constant hung parliaments (see above) and they want the Conservative Party to win an outright majority. As I’ve stated, there is nothing to support the claims that AV will lead to more hung parliaments – if anything, it could actually lead to larger majorities than a party might have achieved under FPTP. Hung parliaments are as likely to occur under AV as they are under FPTP, as occurred last year, and as has occurred in Canada three times since 2004.

The last two reasons commonly given by those voting No to AV are more interesting. There are many who don’t like FPTP, but don’t like AV either – like many of the Yes voters, they would prefer a more proportional system. But unlike their Yes vote counterparts, because no other system is being offered, they plan to vote No to AV. Their No vote is not an endorsement of FPTP, but a rejection of both.

There are also an awful lot of readers who comment that they plan to vote No because they see the failure of the referendum as a chance to punish Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats for entering into a coalition with the Conservatives and/or for reneging on key pledges contained in their election manifesto. Normally, many, perhaps even most, of these voters would vote Yes because they do support electoral reform, but their disgust with the Lib Dems, and in particular Nick Clegg, is stronger. There is a strong belief among many of these voters that if the Yes vote fails, the Coalition will fall apart because the Lib Dems, having failed to achieve the one thing they apparently hoped to achieve by entering into a coalition, will pull out. This view, in my opinion, is naive. The Lib Dems are at all-time lows in public opinion polls and for that reason alone, I can’t see them wanting to pull the plug on a stable coalition government, which would then leave the Conservatives in a minority situation and perhaps force an early election. Also, the Lib Dems are not huge fans of AV – the party officially endorses a move to STV. I remain to be convinced that many Lib Dems will be particularly heartbroken if AV fails.

There is a danger for those who plan to vote No for petty reasons such as wanting to punish Nick Clegg, or even for more principled reasons – such as holding out for a truly proportional system. A successful “No” vote will be viewed as an endorsement of FPTP. There won’t be any distinctions made between people who voted against AV because they love FPTP and those who don’t like FPTP, but voted no because they wanted something other than AV, or those who voted No because they’re mad at Nick Clegg. It will most likely close the door on any other attempts to move toward electoral reform for years to come because opponents will point to this referendum and argue that the people have already spoken and they want FPTP.

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