Jan 10 2011

An electoral thought experiment

This morning I asked the good people of twitter:

Anybody else playing #fantasyAV? What would you vote under AV in the by-election in Oldham East & Saddleworth on Thursday?#yes2av

You can follow the responses to this question here. AV in this context is the “Alternative Vote” system, voters rank the candidates on the ballot paper using as many or as few numbers (1,2,3…) as they wish. My response to this question is:

  1. Liberal Democrat
  2. Tory
  3. Green

If you’re interested in my rationale then, as a committed, LibDem 1. is unsurprising! As a supporter of the Coalition then 2. also makes sense. 3. Is because I sort of like the Greens, although Caroline Lucas occasionally slips into “ConDem” mode she has at least made some attempt at providing policy alternatives.

The aim of such experiments is to reveal an underlying truth or at least think clearly about such truths. In this instance applying this to a concrete example helps make the proposal to move to the AV system real, it obliges you to think about what you’d actually do. For me the nice thing about AV is that my vote reflects my preferences for the outcome of the election, I’d like the LibDem candidate to win, I’d be happy if the Tory won and although I may not always agree with them I’m happy to show some support for the Green candidate. I can do all of this under AV without attempting to second guess what other people are going to vote in order to get my most preferred outcome given their votes, which is what I’m stuck with when the first-past-the-post system is used. In this particular by-election I imagine this issue is most acute for Tory voters, some fraction of them would prefer the LibDem candidate if their own candidate does not win. Under AV the answer is simple vote 1. Tory and 2. LibDem, under FPTP the answer to your voting dilemma is not clear.

Put another way AV is about getting more data from the voter. Under first-past-the-post I put one X in one box – very little data is transmitted from me, the voter. Under AV I get to put numbers, not just a single pre-literate mark, into more boxes, therefore more data is transmitted. There is a technical field of “Information Theory” which would tell you precisely how much more information is being transmitted. To use an example from my job, if we are trialling new products we will often ask consumer panels to rank variants rather than simply select their favourite because ranking gives us more information.

I won’t attempt to analyse the results of the responses I received in electoral terms. The “No to AV” campaigners steadfastly refused to accept they had anything other than a single preference. Others placed less mainstream choices such as the Pirate Party and the Greens before other parties. As someone pointed out: “Its already showing the liberating effect AV would have”. As a result of their rankings I learnt more about what they wanted the outcome of the election to be.

Personally I’d like to see a fully proportional system where the number of seats a party gains in parliament reflects the number of votes cast for that party. However, that system is not on offer. AV at least allows us to be honest in our voting, you give the highest rank to your favourite candidate.

What would you vote under AV in the by-election in Oldham East & Saddleworth on Thursday?

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