UK Voting

Graph showing the difference between the popul...

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On May 5th the people of the UK will have to go to vote. At almost any other point in time this would not be notable at all; however this year, as a result of the coalition government formed at the last General Election, we have the opportunity to change the way we vote and how our vote is counted via a referendum.  Pretty heady stuff.

To explain, currently the UK uses what is known as “First Past the Post” voting. This can be explained as “the party with the most votes”. On the face of it this is incredibly fair – if you get 80% of the vote (or whatever you get) then surely you should win. Right? The problem is that the winner is not the person (or team or party) with the majority of the votes, simply the highest number of votes. So if the choice is between a low number of candidates or parties, say 3, the winner will get the highest number as well as the majority of the vote. If the option is between a high number of candidates, the winner may not have a clear majority, simply the highest number of votes – even if the “highest number” is a low number. In the case of 10 possibles, anyone with more than 10% of the vote will win. The downside of this is that the people who voted for the remaining 9 candidates have not just “lost” the election, they are also effectively having their views disregarded and are un- (or under-) represented.

In the proposed “Alternative Voting ” system, also known as “Instant Run-Off Voting“, this changes. Instead of just voting for one candidate you vote for multiple candidates and rank them in order of preference. When the votes are counted, the candidates are ranked in order of preference and a majority is looked for. If there is no clear majority, the candidate with the lowest number of first preference votes is removed. That candidates votes are then reassigned to the remaining candidates based on the preferences set by the voters (the voters’ second choice candidates). The votes are then recounted. This process continues until a clear winner is found (see graphic below). Aside from the extra complexity (and MPs believe that voters are unable to use this system – in which case, why allow us to vote at all?), it is feared that this system will give rise to more coalition governments: the current UK government is a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and seems not to be functioning terribly badly.

IRV Top Two Flowchart

Flowchart to show the process for the Alternative Vote

There are obvious pros and cons to both systems. My personal gripe with the current system is that not everyone eligible to vote does so. To illustrate, if 45% of the total voting population actually votes, less than half the country is able to influence the whole. Of that 45%, since the UK is not a homogeneous entity, the winning party may only be worth 10% of that 45% which means that a clear minority of the country is able to make decisions for everyone else. Using AV means that more votes will be counted and so more people will be able to have a say. AV may well give is more coalitions, but if that is not what the country needs then maybe more people will vote and thus more votes will count and maybe there will be fewer chances for a coalition. The chance for everyone to have their say will only happen if voting is made mandatory, and that is a bit of a pipe dream, unfortunately.

Regardless of your views, please go out and vote and make yourself heard.

More Information From

  • Voter Power Index – see how your vote is affected by AV and how much you can affect the whole
  • About My Vote – the Electoral Commission explain the differences

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Posted on 2 May, 2011, in News, Writings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. We have the exact same problems in India, added with the woes of massive vote-buying strategies and the illiteracy, poverty of our people and the caste system where regional caste-based parties have large voter-bases and wield too much influence in regional and national politics.

    The first past the post system ought to be abolished by law. Unfortunately it benefits the politicians currently and they won’t make any move to remove it.

    • FPtP is one of those weird situations where it benefits politicians more than the people. Getting in on a majority vote should be a no-brainer, but because of low voting turnouts we end up with the “majority” merely being a significant minority. AV goes some way to redressing the balance and, who knows, maybe we’ll go to Proportional Representation one day!

  2. You could always move to Australia, which uses this system, and where voting is compulsory. 😛

  3. it’s ironic that we would vote in the traditional way to decide if we want to stop voting in the traditional way 🙂

  4. Suppose somebody does not vote in the council elections, but votes in the referendum (either for or against AV). Would the ruling on him or her be the same as for the one who votes?

    • Not entirely sure I know what you mean. There is no requirement to vote in the UK, so you don’t have to vote if you don’t want to – and could have chosen to vote for either the council member or the AV or do both.

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