Sunday, 1 May 2011

To AV or not to AV

This coming week we have a chance to change our voting system from first-passed-the-post to the so-called "alternative vote", or AV. This scheme allows voters to rank the competing candidates, then at the vote tally a runoff system operates in which the weakest candidates are successively eliminated and the votes they received transferred to second (or subsequent) preference candidates.

C and I have been having a big argument at home about whether or not to vote for AV, so before the vote, I thought I'd stack up the arguments for and against, at least as I see them. Largely so that I've nailed my colours to the mast and can't complain down the track if my preferred outcome has all sort of unintended consequences.

  • Not proportional representation - like first-passed-the-post, it does nothing to ensure that parliament looks like the electorate's preferences
  • May only change a minority of seats, and probably won't touch so-called safe seats
  • Can lead to lowest common denominator situation, conceivably even a situation in which the winner is a candidate that no-one put as their first choice
  • Gives the hated LibDems an undeserved boost (Tory-loving traitors that they are)
  • May prolong the lifespan of the ConDem coalition (viva la revolution!)
  • Opposed by (most of) the Tories
  • A change that at least promises to stir things up for a few elections
  • Allows voting for both one's first choice *and* any necessary pragmatic choice
  • Should shake up electoral races in so-called safe seats
  • An intermediate step on the way to more substantial voting reform - allows us to test out something more representative
  • By letting people vote how they want to, and how they need to, will give us a better picture of support for minor parties
  • Still permits people to vote for only a single candidate if they want
  • Voting against AV will diminish the future prospects of changes to our voting system
  • Opposed by (most of) the Tories
From my perspective, I can't emphasise the last point there enough. No matter how much credence I give to the arguments against AV, and the non-proportional representation point is an important one, the bottom line for me is the fact that it's opposed most vociferously by the Tories. Further, that they've also been the most jeeringly disingenuous in their unhinged arguing against it just bolsters my view that it's worth at least trying (see next point). It's not exactly a positive argument in favour of AV, but when you're not 100% certain about something but know to discount the judgement of a particular group, best run against them.

One infuriating thread in the discussion about the switch, or not, to AV (and to law more generally), is the argument (often just implicit) that it'd be some sort of irrevocable, monolithic change which, if found to have some undesired side effects (which it will), would be practically impossible to revert. Human law is not like physical law, the latter we have to live with, the former can be endlessly revisited, revised and rescinded. If AV turns out to have deleterious effects, we can always change it - not that you'd guess this from much of the discussion.

I'd go further and question why we don't do something like a large-scale trial of AV in some of the country (but not the rest), and then a follow-up to see if participants liked it. Alternatively, how about confining it to one election, then tacking a follow-up referendum to the subsequent election? These are fanciful and impractical ideas, but my point is that we can do what we want when it comes to our legal framework. And if we can't, that suggests we need to work on that a bit too - law, at least human law, is supposed to be our servant, not our master.

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