Wednesday, 6 April 2011

What's the alternative?

Four weeks from tomorrow I will have the opportunity to vote - twice. There are to be local elections, ie elections to our local council, and there is also to be a referendum. Although I have yet to receive detailed information about this, my understanding is that, in broad terms, we are being asked if the system of electing our Members of Parliament should be changed from the present, long-established idea that the candidate with the most votes wins (known as "first past the post") to a system whereby votes for losing candidates are redistributed ("alternative voting") and the winning candidate is the one who is first to obtain 50% of the votes cast. There have been complaints that many winning candidates have received less than 50% of the votes and are not the choice of the majority of the electorate. I'm not convinced that alternative voting, as I understand the proposed system, will actually eliminate. Let's just look quickly at the mechanics of both systems, starting with the current "first past the post" method.

This is, of course, the commonest method of voting across the entire world. Voters are presented with a list of candidates and have to mark the one for whom they wish to vote, usually by drawing a cross in a square beside the candidate's name. The candidate for whom the most votes are cast wins the election. Simple and straightforward and the result can be announced in the time it takes to count the votes.

Under alternative voting, voters are again presented with a list of candidates. However, instead of selecting just one, they are asked to rank the candidates in order of preference, from 1 to however many. Should there be one candidate who has collected more than 50% of first preferences, that candidate is declared the winner. But if no candidate has collected 50% of the votes, there is a second round. This time, the candidate with the fewest votes is left out and the second choices of those who voted for that candidate are distributed amongst the others. This is repeated until there is a candidate with more than 50%. Apparently, this is the system in use in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia. In Fiji there are demands to change back to "first past the post" and in Australia people are required by law to cast their votes.

Of course, I accept that the fact that this system is not in wide use does not necessarily mean it should not be introduced. But is it any better than the system we have now? I think not. The complaint that winning candidates under the present system may be not wanted by the majority of voters could still be valid and, what seems worse to me, the winner will not be (as at present) the most popular candidate but will be the least unpopular.

It may be that my understanding of the possible new system is inaccurate - but I doubt it. That being so, I shall definitely be voting "no".

1 comment:

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip said...

There are a few over here who believe we are already electing the least unpopular candidates.