What’s This I Hear About a Referendum?

Edinburgh Yes to Fairer Votes has been campaigning since May 2010.  In that time we’ve spoken to hundreds of people and the question most asked is “What’s this about a referendum?”

Talking with people it sounds like many voters aren’t aware there is a referendum and most people aren’t sure exactly what it is about.

This is a quick guide to what’s going on.

What and When?

A UK wide referendum on changing the voting system used to elect Members of Parliament to Westminster is planned for 5th May.

This is the same day a elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies and some local elections in England and Wales.

The Referendum will ask voters a simple Yes or No question.

The wording proposed by the Electoral Commission is

“At present, the UK uses the ’first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ’alternative vote’ system be used instead?”

The legislation required to hold the referendum is currently before Parliament.  If it is passed before 14th February then the referendum can be held on the 5th May as planned.  If the legislation is not passed by 14th February then the referendum will be delayed.

Who Can Vote?

Anyone who is eligible to vote in a UK Westminster General Election will be eligible to vote in this referendum. Eligible votes must be on the electoral register  in order to vote in the referendum

If you think you are eligible to vote but not sure if you are on the electoral register please register to vote here.


What Are the Two System?


First Past the Post is the system that has been used in the UK for electing Members of Parliament since time immemorial.

Voters mark an X next to one candidate. The candidate with the highest number of votes after one round of voting is elected.

First Past the Post has one round of voting and one round of counting.

The winning candidate need not have 50% of the total vote. The largest number of votes wins.

The aim is to find the candidate with the largest body of support.

First Past the Post is not  preferential  nor proportional.

The Alternative Vote is the system that has been used in Australian elections since 1918.

Voters rank candidates in order of preference. Their first choice is marked 1. Their second choice is marked 2, third 3 and so on until they run out of candidates or until they have no preference between candidates.

It is not compulsory in the UK to give a preference for all candidates. You can still vote with an X if you want to.

There is one round of voting, but there can be more than one round of counting.

Once the votes are cast they are counted. If one candidate has 50% or more of the 1st preferences they are elected.  If no candidate has a majority then the candidate with the smallest number of 1st preferences is eliminated and their votes are redistributed according to their 2nd preferences. Everyone else’s votes remain cast for their 1st preference and the ballots are re-counted in a second round of counting. This process continue until one candidate has 50% or more of the ballots cast.

A worked example can be found here


You can have a go at using the system here


The aim is to find the candidate who is most acceptable to the electorate as a whole.

The Alternative Vote is preferential  but it is not  proportional


Has Any Thing Like This Happened Before?


Referenda are not common in the UK. The only referendum voted on by the whole of the UK was the 1975 referendum on membership of the European Community.  Referenda on Devolution for Scotland were held in 1979 and 1999.

The UK has never used any other voting system but First Past the Post for Westminster elections but we do use other voting systems for other elections.  Elections for the European Parliament, Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies use form of Proportional Representation based on party lists. Local council elections use a form of Proportional Representation called Single Transferrable Vote. Mayoral election in London and some other English cities use a form of the Alternative Vote called the Supplementary Vote.

Voting reform for Westminster elections has been proposed in Parliament many times in the past, starting in the 1890’s.

In the UK different voting systems are not uncommon and we have been  talking about electoral reform for more than a century.

Who is Campaigning on Each Side?

The Yes Campaign

Fairer Votes Edinburgh is part of the wider Yes to Fairer Votes campaign.


Yes to Fairer Votes is made up of organisations and individuals who have been campaigning for electoral reform.

The No Campaign


No to AV is the campaign group set up to campaign against a Yes vote in the 5th May referendum.

Both organisations are cross-party, non-partisan, single issue campaign groups.


10 Responses to What’s This I Hear About a Referendum?

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