Excerpt from a TIMES article: Bucks Fizz can help you make your mind up about AV
(By Dr. Alan Renwick, Reading University)
Unless you’re an election junkie like me, you’re probably either bamboozled or bored (or both) by the debate over AV. Most people get the basics that under AV you can rank the candidates. But then how are these preferences counted? Does AV give some voters extra votes? Is the weight that AV gives to lower preferences fair?
Thankfully, most of us know more about voting systems than we realise: we’re used to them from The Eurovision Song Contest, The X Factor, even figure skating and a host of other non-political contests.
To see the basic case for AV, look at the difference between Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor. BGT uses first-past-the-post, the current Westminster system. There are ten contestants in the final; whoever gets most votes wins. The trouble is that if votes are widely spread across the contestants, victory could be secured on little more than a tenth of the vote. Diversity beat Susan Boyle in 2009 even though the dance group won less than a quarter of the vote. Someone with a small but committed following could win, even if the rest of the country despises them.
The X Factor avoids this: after each round, the singer coming last is kicked out. Eventually only two remain and the winner has majority support. AV achieves basically the same without requiring us all to traipse back to the polls each week. With your first preference you say whom you want to win. Your second preference says whom you want to win if your top pick gets the boot and so on. You can’t change your mind under AV, as you can in The X Factor, but otherwise the logic is the same.
The anti-AV people claim that AV gives some voters extra votes. The X Factor shows why that’s wrong. Matt Cardle’s supporters got to vote for him each week. They had just as many votes as the people who switched from loser to loser to loser. In AV too, if your first preference stays in the race, your vote for him or her is counted once in each round, just as it is if your vote is transferred from your first to your second to your third preference.
What about the claim that AV gives too much weight to lower preferences? To get a handle on this, cast your mind forward to the glitterfest of Eurovision, coming a week after the referendum. In Eurovision, each country ranks its top ten acts. The first gets 12 points, the second 10 and so on. The winner is the act with most points. That means that preferences are weighted: lower preferences give fewer points than higher ones. But these always count, which means that you could scupper your favourite act’s chances by giving ten points to your second favourite.
In AV, by contrast, lower preferences have the same weight as higher preferences — but only if they are counted. Your second preference is counted only if your first choice has been excluded. It’s like first counting only the 12s. Only if no candidate has a majority of the 12s do you eliminate the act with fewest 12s and count instead the second preferences of their supporters.
Look at Britain’s great triumph of 1981, when Europe made its mind up for Bucks Fizz. Defenders of great British traditions should be aware that we would have lost under first-past- the-post: Bucks Fizz gained only two 12s, tying for fourth place behind Switzerland, France and Germany. They won because they secured lots of eights and tens and because Eurovision counts these lower preferences. But they would have lost under AV too: with so few first preferences, we would have been eliminated before our deep well of middling support could have been tapped. So AV does give special weight to first preferences: you need a decent number of them to stay in the game in the early rounds of counting.