One recent objection to the Alternative Vote, raised by Graham Smith of BBC Radio Cornwall is that the kind of electoral antics we’ve seen in Oldham and Saddleworth would delay the distribution of preferences and so delay the result further and that there would be a temptation for two similar parties to collude to use electoral fraud laws to influence the result.
On the first point, any legal challenge would take place after all the votes had been cast and counted. Whilst it is true that the order in which candidates are eliminated might affect the result any legal challenges take place after the election. If the malfeasance is found to have affected the result the election is re-run.
I don’t think it would be the case that if candidate X who polled 4th had lied about candidate Y who polled 5th candidate X would be removed from the ballot and preferences would be re-allocated. I think the whole election would be re-run from scratch. So no different that First Past the Post.
What is slightly different is that with preference distributions playing a part in the election there are more areas of the election where shenanigans might have an impact on the result. You might then expect more frequent challenges to the result. The law under which Phil Woolas has been convicted was last used nearly 100 years ago. In that time there have been about 25 general elections, meaning some15,000 constituency elections have been contested. Under First Past the Post 0.0067% of election results have been disputed under this law. Even if the Alternative Vote increased the number of court cases by a factor of ten that would still only be one case every two general elections. It’s not ideal but it’s far from being a systemic failure of democracy. Who knows; a few law suits might even encourage candidates to stick to the truth.
The second objection is more subtle. One of the advantages of the Alternative Vote is that reduces the risk of vote splitting. In theory two similar parties, one with a good chance of winning the seat and one with little chance of winning the seat could collude. The smaller party’s candidate could tell lies about the larger party’s candidate. This would give the larger party an option on the election result. If the larger party won the election they would not sue. If they did not win, they could sue and have the election result voided. You have to ask why a smaller party would do this. The obvious reason is that they are a front for the larger party.
For example the People’s Party of Judea is concerned that it won’t be able to win the seat of Judah and Benjamin. The seat is closely fought between the People’s Party of Judea, and the Democratic Party of Judea with the Roman Party a close third. So the PPJ form a front organisation; the Judean People’s Front. There are many allegation of splitting and a façade of hostility is created. The Judean People’s Front candidate accuses the People Party of Judea’s candidate of consorting with the devil, voting for Anne Widdecome and not doing the washing up. The People’s Party of Judea don’t mind the Judean People’s Front taking a few hundred first preferences off them as they know that most of those votes will flow back to them in second preferences early in the count. The Alternative Vote allows this to happen because the risk of vote splitting is much reduced in preference voting systems. You wouldn’t try this under First Past the Post as those few hundred votes might make all the difference to the result.
If the People’s Party of Judea win the election they crack open the Champaign and celebrate. If the PPJ lose the election by a small margin they bring a suit under the electoral fraud legislation. It is important to remember that a lie told about by one candidate doesn’t just move votes from the victim to the liar. In Judah and Benjamin it might be the case that voters influenced by the election literature decided to vote Roman Party rather than Democratic Party of Judea. So, whomever wins, the PPJ have the election re-run until they get the result they want.
This sounds ideal. You can hear the PPJ gleefully rubbing their hands together. A free option on a marginal seat? We can the election as many times as we want until we win? Surely there must be a down side? There is. Election fraud is a criminal offense. It carries a fine of up to £5,000 and a bar from standing for election for a period of years. Convicted parties may also pick up the legal costs. These could come to several hundred thousands of pounds. The PPJ would need to find someone who didn’t mind ruining their own political career, losing their job and their home and paying a hefty fine and costs as well as being vilified in their community. In addition the PPJ candidate is probably culpable if they colluded in or connived at the offense. The winning candidate would be put on the witness stand and asked, on oath, “Did you know anything about this?” Perjury carries a custodial sentence. So the first downside is that at least one person walks away with a criminal conviction and a fine and everyone involved risks going to jail.
The second downside is that if word gets out that there has been collusion the electorate will turn against the PPJ. Voters will stand a certain amount of electoral argie bargie but they won’t stand for attempts to rig elections. They don’t much care for politicians who are seen as sore losers. If the PPJ are seen to have forced a re-run on a technicality voters will not reward them for their pains. If the PPJ are thought to be manipulating the electorate by taking options on the result the electorate will surely crucify them and no amount of Judean People’s Party Suicide Squad rescue missions will save them.
So whilst the Alternative Vote system might result in some more challenges to results I think these are going to remain once in a generation events. The downsides for using this legislation to try and rig the election even if successful are so big that the Alternative Vote is not going to open the door to wide spread electoral manipulation.