SUSU Elections 2013 – A Guide To The Alternative Vote

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Elections-Logo-with-taglineIf you voted in this year’s SUSU Elections – or, in fact, if you didn’t vote – you may be confused by how the voting system works. Ranking candidates? R..O.N.? Here’s a handy guide to the AV system, how it works and its pro & cons.

The Alternative Vote (AV) – otherwise known as instant-runoff voting – is a preferential voting system where voters rank candidates in the order of preference. This is why when voting you were asked to number each candidate in an order; 1 by your first choice, 2 by your second choice, 3 by your third choice and so on.

This electoral system thus (normally) works by going through several rounds. If a candidate gets a majority – more than 50% of the voters – out of the first preference voters, than that candidate wins. If not, the candidate with the least number of first preference votes is eliminated and those votes are redistributed according to their second preferences. If no candidate still has half of the votes, the next candidate with the least number of first preference (+redistributed second preference) votes is eliminated. These votes are once again transferred, reverting back to the next choice of candidate still left in the election. This process continues on and on until one candidate emerges with over 50% of the total votes cast.

A handy diagram
A handy diagram

This way of voting has strong democratic credentials for two reasons. Firstly, it requires a candidate to gain a majority rather than plurality: more than 50% of the votes rather than just more votes than the other candidates. This means the winning candidate is considered ‘acceptable’ to most of the voters – even if your two last-ranked candidates are the final choices, it is likely that you will still end up with your ranked-preference. In campaigning therefore, it requires candidates to try and appeal to all voters – rather than just known supporters – in order to gain 2nd, 3rd and 4th rank votes.

This also means that there are no wasted votes – all votes are used if cast – as it will go through your ranked preferences one-by-one.

Neither of these things happen in most UK general elections, which uses a (single-member) plurality method, rather than majority, with the First Past The Post System. Normally, the winning party in the UK only gains 30-40% of the vote, meaning they do not get a majority which means more people actually oppose the winner than back it. Also, your vote is wasted if in your constituency a) your candidate does not win or b)your candidate wins by more than one vote, meaning the extra margin has no effect in the national result.

AV also removes the point of tactical voting. Many people have thought that by putting their first preference and then R.O.N., the chance of success of their first candidate is increased. This does not work with AV voting, however, as your vote only get transferred if your first preference is eliminated – by then, your tactical vote will be pointless as your first preference can no longer win. Moreover, R.O.N. will nearly always be eliminated first as very few people will rank it as their primary choice.

Example of AV in practice
Example of AV in practice

The downside to AV is that it may deliver the least objectionable candidate rather than the best – the lowest common denominator  – in that they are not widely-supported as first-choice, but considered the one that provokes the least-worst reaction.

In three-way races, it also has the added problem that the “compromise” candidate is eliminated first; in the UK, for example, the Lib Dems would be eliminated from an election between the big three parties, even though they would be more broadly acceptable to the electorate than the other two options (ie. Labour & Conservatives voters rather have the Lib Dems in power than each other)

So there you go; that’s the AV-system and hopefully this guide will come in useful tonight.

The results of all the elections will be broadcast online live on SUSUtv from 9pm, along with a live-blog and news coverage from the Wessex Scene. To take a look at our election coverage so far, take a look here.

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