The Alternative Vote is often criticised as complicated. It is branded a labyrinthine system that will bamboozle voters. An unworkable monstrosity that will lead to confusion and disarray. AV is simply too complicated for you dear voter, best to leave tricky things like deciding who you want as your MP to someone else, like the local constituency party.
To analyse this claim you need to look at both elements of an election, the voting and the counting.
Voting under the Alternative Vote is pretty straight-forward. You rank the candidates in order of preference, from 1 to however many candidates there are. You signal your preference by marking a 1 against your most favoured candidate, 2 against your second choice, 3 against your third choice and so on. If you don’t much care for any of the candidates low down your list you can stop ranking them. Voting under AV really is as simple as 1-2-3.
Now, I admit, this is slightly more complicated than voting under First Past the Post. It’s not unworkably complicated. It’s a system that is used in a number of jurisdictions. Students and union members will be familiar with it. A number of US elections for city mayors use Alternative Vote. As do 25 million Australians. Yes, that’s right folks, this is a system that is so simple that foreigners can use it. (Note: the author carries duel British and Australian citizenship).
As a voter all you have to do is write some numbers on a piece of paper and put that piece of paper in a ballot box.
Counting the vote under the Alternative Vote is more complicated than First Past the Post. It will take longer if it is done manually. Recounts may be laborious. Is this a fatal flaw?
Firstly, you, the voter, won’t be counting the votes. Your job is done. You’ll be tucked up at home watching Jon Snow or David Dimbleby on the TV. Skilled, highly motivated neutral people will be counting your votes, closely scrutinised by skilled, highly motivated representatives from all the parties. Counting the votes might take longer but they will be counted efficiency and correctly. We may have to wait a day or two to find out who our MP is and who our Prime Minister will be. I reckon we’ll cope. I don’t see many MP’s running straight from the count down to Westminster to start legislating. Under First Past the Post we managed to survive for a few days after the last election. In most countries it takes a few days, sometimes a week or so, to work out what the outcome of the election is and who is forming the Government. Under the Alternative Vote we may have to wait till Monday to find out who the Government is. Strangely, in other countries when there is a delay, financial ruin does not descend and barbarian hordes don’t turn up and exploit the lack of strong government over the weekend. Anarchy does not stalk the streets of Berlin or Canberra or Edinburgh. The world does not stop turning because for a few days some constituencies don’t have an MP.
A slightly more time-consuming counting process doesn’t strike me as a fatal flaw.
Once in a while an constituency election will be so close that several re-counts are needed and the result is delayed by more than a few days. Once in a Blue Moon the outcome of the whole election will depend on this seat. At the last Scottish election the count in the Western Isles was delayed by bad weather with the SNP and Labour both on 48 seats. These things happen, Parliamentary Democracy is more robust than a few delayed results. It seems to me that main beneficiary of a quicker but less fair result are the news media who enjoy the whole Election Night Special rolling 24 hour news coverage hullaballoo.
The electoral systems on X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing are more complicated than AV. Both combine the results from two electoral colleges, the Judges (Boo) and the Public. The BBC and ITV manage to hold these elections every week. Easy and simple are not qualities you would rank highly in a lover and I don’t think we should rank them highly in a voting system. If you really, really want an easy and simple electoral system use the system they used in ancient Athens. Draw lots. Put everyone’s name into a hat and pull out a lucky winner. It’s easy, it’s simple, it gives a clear winner, it’s hallowed by tradition.
So the Alternative Vote is not as quite as easy and simple as First Past the Post. This is our MP, our Government we are choosing here. Are you sure that using the simplest possible system is okay? Are we really so stupid or so uncaring that we can’t cope with anything more complicated than marking a big X next to a name you recognise? Isn’t a fairer voting system worth a little extra effort in the counting of votes and a little patience for the result?