Does AV break the principle of one person one vote?

Richard Kimber

UK homepage

AV: the alternative vote
FPTP: first past the post

Perhaps the commonest and seemingly most persuasive argument against AV is that it breaks the principle of one person one vote.

One argument seems to be that expressing 6 preferences among 6 candidates, rather than just putting a mark against one, represents voting 6 times.

A more sophisticated version of the argument goes that if you voted for one of the two main parties your vote 'just sits there' having been counted once. Your other choices are not taken into account, and it is unreasonable that those who backed the losing candidates carry more weight than those who voted for the winner.

The problem with all this is what counts as 'casting a vote' is seen from a FPTP perspective. FPTP is only interested in your first preference and counting that is defined by AV opponents as 'casting the vote'.

An individual's vote is cast at the point when a candidate finally achieves the criterion for election.

With FPTP this is when the first, the only, stated preferences are counted. At that point one of the candidates has (usually) achieved the criterion for being elected - i.e. they have achieved at least one more vote than any other candidate. Having one extra vote more than anyone else hardly represents the kind of moral mandate for election that one might expect in a developed democracy.

Because FPTP produces results that are often clearly unreasonable, people feel the need to take voters' other preferences into account and to strengthen the criterion for election. It is why electoral reform is a political issue. AV is designed to address this problem.

In a democracy, the objective of a voting system should be to elect someone who, taking everyone's views of all the candidates into account, best represents the pattern of views of the voters. A major problem with FPTP is that people can get elected on the basis of minority support among the voters. In the 2010 General Election roughly two thirds of the winners obtained less than half the votes cast (analysis of election result is here).

For example, in Great Grimsby in 2010:

Mitchell AVLabour10,77732.70%
Ayling VCConservative10,06330.54%
de Freitas ALibDem7,38822.42%
Hudson HRUKIP2,0436.20%
Fyfe SBNP1,5174.60%
Brown EAIndependent8352.53%
Howe AMPeople's National Democratic Party3311.00%

Austin Mitchell got 32.70% of the vote (and 17.6% of the electorate, though that is a separate issue) and it isn't at all obvious that his being chosen as the winner represents the overall view of the voters in that constituency at that time. On what justifiable basis should he have been declared the winner? In Mitchell's case he got 714 votes more than the nearest candidate, representing 2.17% of the valid votes cast; the others got 22,177 votes, ie. 67.3% of the vote.

In closely contested situations like these, which are quite common, most people feel that it would be much more acceptable if the criterion for election were to be 50%+1, rather than merely getting one more vote than anyone else.

The point of AV is to ascertain which candidate has the overall support of 50%+1 of the voters, and 50%+1 is thus its criterion for election.

If no one achieves this criterion after the first preferences are counted, the bottom candidate is eliminated and the votes for this candidate are allocated to the other candidates according to the second preferences.

It is a mistake to regard this as voting a second time, and a mistake to say that this preference is worth more than anyone else's preference. At this stage no votes can been deemed to have been cast, except in the sense that voters have completed their ballot papers. Examining the preferences is a preliminary process to the final casting of the votes. The first preferences of voters for the bottom candidate are disregarded, not cast. They play no part in the final decision. The point of the second preference is, in effect, to say to this smallest distinct set of voters: "Your most preferred candidate has no chance of being elected, so who would you you rather vote for when the votes are finally judged against the criterion for election?" At this point in the proceedings their answer is "Our second preference". It may be that as candidates are eliminated other, lower, preferences become active, and at any stage a given voter has the opportunity to say, given the situation that has arisen, how they would prefer their vote ultimately to be cast. Of course it is a voter's right to opt out of this process at some stage by not stating a full set of preferences.

No one votes more than once.

No vote is worth more than any other.

The preferences are just a statement, in advance, of how each voter would like his or her vote to be cast, given that their preferred candidate might be eliminated. Preferences above the preference that is active when the criterion for election is achieved are discarded, and play no part in the voting. If you have voted for the candidate with the most first preference votes, there is no unfairness in the fact that your lower preferences are not considered. If that candidate ultimately wins, you will have got your wish. What more do you want? If that candidate doesn't ultimately win, either you will have had your other preferences taken into account at some stage, or you will end up on the losing side and some other candidate will win - just as with FPTP.

Thus AV does not violate the principle of one person one vote.

© Richard Kimber, 2011

Last Modified: 22 Oct 12