I have written a large number of posts about preferential voting (aka ranked ballots or the Alternative Vote) over the course of this blog’s existence. During the UK campaign leading up to the referendum on AV back in 2011, I tried my best to clarify some of the misconceptions surrounding AV.
One of the most common objections to AV (other than the fact that it’s not a proportional system) is that it results in the election of bland, middle-of-the-road, “grey” candidates. The argument is that first preference votes will be split between two more polarizing candidates, for example, a right-wing candidate and left-wing candidate, and so voters’ second and third preferences would go to more moderate (i.e. bland) candidates since a supporter of the left-wing candidate would never vote for the right-wing candidate and vice versa. I’ve recently seen the same argument made by Canadian commentators discussing electoral reform on Twitter.
However, that isn’t true at all. Australia’s experience with preferential voting, both at the federal and state level, clearly demonstrates that AV favours the candidate that is first after the first count. Only occasionally does the candidate in 2nd place after the first count move ahead on subsequent counts, and almost never does a 3rd (or lower placed) candidate end up winning.
I was reminded of this following yesterday’s vote to elect the 27 Select Committee chairs held in the UK House of Commons. The chairs are elected by all MPs using a ranked ballot. Now, in the case of 12 of the committees, the candidate was uncontested, so no vote was necessary. The other 15 races were contested, and in 14 of those races, the winner was the same as it would have been under FPTP, meaning that the candidate who was ahead, but did not have a majority of the vote, after the first count, went on to win. In only one contest, that for the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, did the front-runner after the first count end up not winning.
And this was not due to the fact that the margin separating the first- and second-place candidates after the first vote was relatively small — only 11 votes. In another race, that for the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, after the first count, the first-place candidate was only 6 votes ahead of the second-place candidate, yet he went on to win (after three rounds of vote redistribution).
Thus, the Select Committee chair elections support Australia’s experience with preferential voting – it does not result in bland, middle-of-the-road candidates winning, it mostly replicates the results you’d get using FPTP. Only in a small number of instances does the candidate in first-place after the first count not end up winning.