Most common AV-related questions

(Updated: 4 May 2011)

(Do you have a specific question regarding how to vote under AV or how the vote is counted? Click here.)

The aim of this post is to offer short, to the point answers to the most common issues readers from the UK seem to be looking into, based on the keyword search activity that is bringing people to this blog. If there is something missing here that you would like to see addressed, please comment or use the contact form to let me know.

Personal disclaimer: I try to provide the most unbiased, non-partisan information that I can. I am Canadian, living in Canada, and so have no personal stake in the outcome of the AV referendum. I do admit that, as somewhat of a politics geek, I would like to see AV adopted because it would be interesting and it might spur a similar debate here in Canada. I am partial to electoral reform in general, but not necessarily AV in particular.

Do Australians want to get rid of AV?

Short answer: No.

More detailed answer: There is one thing readers need to understand about AV in Australia as it is used at the national level to elect members to the House of Representatives. Australia uses Full Preferential voting, which is like the Alternative Vote proposed in the UK, but differs in one very important way – voters have to rank every single candidate on their ballot (although they can leave one candidate unranked – that candidate will be considered their last choice). If a voter leaves 2 or more candidates unranked, their ballot is considered spoiled and not counted. This is what some polls are finding some Australians are objecting to. They don’t want to move to FPTP, they simply want what is being offered in the UK – Optional Preferential, where the voter can rank as many or as few candidates as they want. If they want to vote for only one candidate, they can, if they want to rank only 2-3 candidates, they can, etc. For a fuller discussion of this, please read Australian Elections expert Antony Green’s post on the subject.

When did Australia adopt AV?

Only answer: Before the 1919 federal election.

Do I have to rank every candidate?

Short answer: No.

More detailed answer: The AV option being proposed for the UK does not require voters to rank every candidate on the ballot. If you want to vote for only one person, you can do that – in other words, vote exactly as you would under the current system. You can rank as many or as few candidates as you want. If there are 8 names on the ballot, and you’re only comfortable ranking three of them, you can do that. If you want to rank all 8, you can do that too.

Why should I rank more than 2 candidates?

Short answer: To provide a clearer picture of how much support parties actually have.

More detailed answer: You don’t have to rank more than 2 candidates. You don’t have to rank any candidates. However, there are some advantages to indicating preferences for more than one or two or even three parties. Under FPTP, it is very difficult to truly assess how much voter support smaller parties actually have, because many people who like smaller parties such as the Greens, or even larger ones such as UKIP, don’t vote for those parties because they know they have no chance of winning the seat. Similarly, the support for larger parties might not be very accurately reflected under FPTP because a lot of voters try to vote strategically – for example, Conservative supporters in constituencies where the Conservative party has little chance of winning might instead vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate hoping that may prevent Labour from winning. So their vote isn’t really indicative of support for the Lib Dems as a party, but of anti-Labour sentiment. AV allows voters to vote freely for the parties they actually like and support, but also rank other parties based on who they would be OK with as an MP, assuming their first (or even second) choice might not win. It will allow parties to get a much clearer assessment of their actual support among voters, and how supporters of other parties feel about their parties. For example, the Conservatives might discover that they are very popular among Green party supporters (probably not very likely, but I’m simply trying to use this as an example). This might prompt the party to work harder to attract more support from Green voters by adopting better environmental policies.

With the option to rank as many parties as you want, it might even encourage you to take a closer look at some of the manifestos of the smaller parties. You might even discover that you prefer what they offer more than what the party you traditionally have voted for is putting forward. The more information you have about the various parties contesting each election, the more informed your vote will be. This can only be a positive.

Will AV cost £250 million? What are the costs of AV?

Short answer: No, AV will not cost £250-million.

More detailed answer: I have addressed the No2AV’s £250-million costs claims in this post. Most of their figures seem to be, at best, guesses, and the main cost item they are claiming, £130-mn for electronic voting machines, is at best specious and at worst, a complete fabrication. There will be some costs associated with AV, certainly, most notably voter education campaigns before the next election if the referendum is successful. It might also cost a bit more for elections (since it may take a bit longer to count the vote in some constituencies). Some numbers have been arrived at by looking at how much elections cost in Australia per capita and tripling that since the UK has 3 times the population. Personally, I don’t think that is a realistic assessment. In a good number of ridings (about a third in the 2010 election), if a candidate wins 50%+1 on the first count, the count won’t cost any more than it currently does. It won’t take that much longer to do counts in constituencies where vote transfers will come into play – many will probably only require one additional count as the lead candidate will be very close to the 50% mark after the first count.

Update: The No side admits it used made-up figures.

Does AV cause hung parliaments?

Short answer: No more so than does FPTP.

More detailed answer: It isn’t the voting system that leads to hung parliaments, it is the reality that fewer and fewer people are voting for the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives. FPTP was meant to work in a two-party system. In a multi-party system such as has evolved in the UK (and countries such as Canada), FPTP starts to break down. Canada uses FPTP but had three hung parliaments in a row (2004, 2006 and 2008) because we have four strong parties that win seats in the House of Commons and a fifth party, the Greens, which garners close to a million votes (and finally won their first seat in the May 2 2011 election). These results would probably be quite similar under AV (but perhaps with a different party ending up with the most seats). Australia has had fewer hung parliaments using AV than either the UK or Canada has under FPTP, but this is because Australia really does have a much stronger two-party system than the UK and Canada. They don’t have a strong third party such as the Liberal Democrats. Both FPTP and AV would likely produce the same number of hung parliaments in the UK because more and more voters continue to prefer parties other than Labour and the Conservatives.

How does AV lead to coalition governments?

Short answer: It doesn’t.

More detailed answer: An election conducted under AV might result in a hung parliament – just like under FPTP. Coalition government can result from a hung parliament, but doesn’t have to. Canada had 3 hung parliaments in a row (2004, 2006, 2008) and in each one resulted in minority government, where the party that wins the most seats, but not a majority, governs on its own and hopes other parties will support it on confidence votes like the budget. After the May 2010 election in the UK, David Cameron decided to try to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That was his decision. One would assume that had the election occurred under AV and resulted in a similar result, he would have made the same offer. AV only elects the parliament – it is parliament that decides on the government.

Who would have won the last election under AV?

Short answer: No one – it would still have resulted in a hung parliament.

More detailed answer: While it isn’t possible to know for certain how past elections might have turned out using AV (or any other electoral system), most studies have determined that the past few elections would have resulted in the same outcome, but perhaps with stronger majorities in some cases. I believe only one election, 1992, might have had a different outcome under AV – a hung parliament rather than a small Conservative majority. There are some claims that had the May 2010 election been conducted under AV, Labour may have won more seats (but still fewer than the Conservatives), but enough to perhaps have made a Labour-Lib Dem coalition possible. This is why some on the No side say that under AV, Gordon Brown would still be Prime Minister. This might be true, but if we remember the party negotiations that took place last May, the Lib Dems were most adamant that Gordon Brown not stay on as PM, and he agreed to that. But that aside, the May 2010 election under AV would still have resulted in a hung parliament.

Does Canada use AV?

Short answer: No.

More detailed answer: I blogged about this in detail here. Three Canadian provinces briefly used AV, with the last one returning to FPTP in 1959. Currently, FPTP is used for federal elections and for provincial elections, and probably for most municipal elections (I don’t follow municipal politics outside of my own city, and so may not be aware of any non-FPTP municipal jurisdictions in other provinces). I would add, however, that the decisions to stop using AV in the three provinces in question were purely self-serving ones. AV was dropped because the incumbent party wanted to ensure its own electoral success, and it felt FPTP would better serve that purpose. There was no public consultation re: switching back to FPTP – the governments of the day made the decision unilaterally to stop using AV.

Does AV help minor parties?

Short answer: It depends

More detailed answer: This one is more difficult. Some argue that it becomes more difficult for smaller parties to win seats under AV since their appeal is more limited and it would be very difficult for them to garner enough vote transfers to reach the 50%+1. It is easier for smaller, marginal parties to win seats under FPTP, particularly if voter turnout is lower and if there are many candidates contesting the seat, resulting in vote splitting between the major parties which can allow a minor party to sneak in and win. However, most studies indicate that the Greens would still have won the one seat they won last May under AV. Another point in favour of AV: it will at least help give a more accurate picture of the support for minor parties. In theory, people will be less concerned about voting for a minor party for fear of wasting their vote. For example, we don’t know exactly how many people who voted Lib Dem in May 2010 were actually Green Party supporters hoping to block a win by a Tory candidate, for example, or to avoid “wasting” their vote.

Most people are concerned about the possibility of extremist parties such as the BNP winning seats under AV. I addressed this issue in this post. Of course it is possible for the BNP to win seats under AV, but it would be more difficult, much more difficult, because of their limited appeal (and the fact that most voters find their ideals repellent). Also, under AV, the other parties could work together more easily to shut out the BNP by encouraging their supporters to rank another party’s candidate as their 2nd choice in a riding where the BNP was looking strong.

How would AV deal with hung parliaments?

Short answer: AV doesn’t deal with hung parliaments, parliament does.

More detailed answer: I am not entirely certain what people are trying to find out with this, but it does appear frequently in my keyword search activity. AV, like FPTP is a voting system that will return a parliament. If that newly-elected parliament has one party winning a majority of the seats in the House of Commons, than that party forms the government. If the parliament returned has no party winning an outright majority of seats, than it is up to the MPs elected to determine what party or group of parties will be able to command the confidence of the House. The voting system simply elects people – what happens after that is up to the people elected. AV isn’t that different from FPTP, and the outcomes returned will be very similar. The only real difference under AV is that every MP elected will have the support of a majority of voters in their constituency – no more MPs elected by only a minority of voters.

Under AV, can a candidate in third place after the first count win the seat?

Short answer: It’s not impossible, but it’s extremely rare.

More detailed answer: According to Antony Green, “of the 1,500 electorates contested under AV in NSW and Queensland since 1981, I found one case of a third placed winner. It was the NSW Electorate of Murrumbidgee in 1984”.


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