Wednesday, 10 February 2010

What's The Alternative?

MPs have voted in favour of a referendum which will give the public the chance to choose which voting system will be used in elections of the future. A big problem is that we will only get this referendum if the Labour Party wins the next election, as the Conservatives will likely strike it off the agenda.

The Labour Party wants to introduce Alternative Voting (AV) a system of preference voting. If no one achieves a majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated and their 2nd preference votes are redistributed at full value to the remaining candidates. This is repeated until one candidate obtains a majority of votes. Resulting in a single winner, this wouldn’t change the make-up of Parliament at all and would achieve very little in terms of electoral reform, though it could provide some interesting results.

This could technically mean that some candidates could win seats simply by being the 2nd preference (provided they have enough 1st preference votes to ensure they are not eliminated instantly). This could be a crucial step from changing the perception that any other vote than a party vote is a ‘wasted vote.’

What AV means for independents is a sort of mixture of good and bad. Technically it should make independent candidates more electable as people will be more confident of either placing an independent as their 1st or 2nd preference without the fear of wasting their vote. Although some independents may not receive enough 1st preference votes and will be eliminated, therefore the benefit of having them as your 2nd choice is negated.

The Liberal Democrats were in staunch favour of Single Transferrable Vote (STV), an addition to the referendum which failed to receive the support of Parliament. STV is the predecessor to AV and a system which aims to provide a more proportionally representative result. Like AV it is a preferential voting system: although in this system candidates do not have to reach a majority, only achieve percentage of votes which is calculated by a formula called ‘Droop Quota.’

STV reduces the dominance of Parties in the electoral process and results in a more accurate account of what the electorate want. STV provides proportionality by transferring votes to minimise waste, and therefore minimises the number of unrepresented or disenfranchised voters. Although, this system is quite radical for the UK, it could be a giant leap in the right direction in creating a Parliament more representative of the electorate.

STV was rejected on the grounds that if the MP to constituency link was broken, our political system will be forever damaged, it was too radical. It was rejected because it was too expensive and too complex.

Independents would benefit a lot from STV as it would effectively destroy the 1 MP - 1 Constituency and open Parliament up to be far more reflective of what the public demands.

The Conservatives want to stick with First Past the Post (FPTP), an electoral system which we currently use in the UK. Currently a candidate can become elected if he receives the majority votes, even if that totals at 20% of the vote. This creates a system in which some constituencies have overwhelmingly not voted for their current MP, but because of the voting distribution they are stuck with them. FPTP arguably creates more wasted votes than any other system. It’s unlikely the Conservatives will want to change anything, as it seems very possible FPTP will win them a reasonable majority in Parliament.

A big problem for FPTP is that it excludes some from voting, as in affect their vote will be a wasted vote. FPTP often ensures than non-political party or minor party votes are ‘wasted’ as traditional parties hold a grip on constituencies across the country. It also makes for a very unrepresentative MP, in many cases MPs are elected on less that 50% of their constituent’s votes and this is a major issue as some simply feel disenfranchised. This results in ‘tactical voting’, exclusion of the electorate and prevention of independents or minor parties being made credible choices.

Some criticisms of AV and STV are that they cost far too much and that the systems can be too complex for humans to calculate effectively on polling day, leading to the over-reliant use of computers.
In Pierce County, Washington, USA, election officials outlined costs of $3,291,340 to implement AV in 2008. This included costs for new software and equipment, voter education, testing and additional ballot printing and postage costs. Staff also had to be paid for the extra time they spent checking the ballots and scanning them into the computers.

So we have a potential referendum in October 2011 to change the electoral system to AV or remain with FPTP. AV should prove more effective for independent candidates but ultimately this choice is with the voter. MPs have given you the choice of a bias system or a slightly less biased system… enjoy.