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electionlineWeekly--May 12, 2011

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

Voters in the U.K. just say no to AV voting system
Nearly two-thirds of voters oppose alternative vote system

By M. Mindy Moretti

While much of the world’s recent focus on England has surrounded two crazy kids who decided to get married and invite the world, elections observers have been focused on the very public fight to change how the United Kingdom elects members of Parliament.



Since 1951, the British have elected their members of Parliament much the same way most of the residents of the United States elect their members of Congress — whoever gets the most votes, regardless of percentage, wins, (in the United Kingdom this is referred to as first past the post, FPTP).

In 1997, an Independent Commission on the Voting System — referred to as the Jenkins Commission after its chairman Roy Jenkins — was created to look into electoral reform in the United Kingdom. After nearly a year of review, the Commission offered a plan for alternative vote top-up or AV+ which would elect some members of Parliament using Alternative Vote and some through the existing proportional representation.

No action was taken by Parliament to change the electoral system until following the 2010 election when there was a hung Parliament — no party has majority. A coalition government comprised of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives proposed a voter referendum on AV (not AV+ which the Jenkins Commission had recommended) which was approved by the whole Parliament in February of this year.

Alternative voting as proposed on the British referendum is essentially instant runoff voting (IRV) with voters choosing more than one candidate through a ranking system. In this country, IRV is used in a handful of communities. The only other countries using AV are Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Upon announcement of the referendum the Yes and No campaigns quickly set up camp.

The Yes to Fairer Votes campaign (whose website not longer works) and the Electoral Reform Society supported the “yes” campaign saying that AV supports fair elections that make members of Parliament accountable to the voters. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats and a host of celebrities supported making the switch to a new system.

Those opposing the referendum — including Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party — said that AV voting was “complicated, expensive and unfair system that gives some people more votes than others.”

While leaders within the Labour party supported the AV vote, as a whole the party was fairly divided on the issue.

On May 5, nearly 42 percent of the electorate — a higher number than was predicted — turned out to cast their ballots in the referendum vote. Nearly two-thirds of the voters rejected the proposal. This was only the second referendum vote in U.K. history.

Louise Leslie, a shopkeeper in Northern England (and this writer’s pen pal since 1983) made sure to take time out of her day to vote against the proposal.

“Whilst I am none-too-pleased with many of those currently elected to Parliament, I didn’t feel changing the entire way we vote was necessary,” Leslie said in an email. “In my opinion the proposed system was too complicated and too cumbersome.”

The referendum was overseen by the Electoral Commission and according to the commission cost the British taxpayers about $28 million (U.S.).

In the U.S. instant runoff voting (IRV) has met with varying levels of success in small pockets of the country. Proponents of IRV in the country don’t see AV’s failure in the United Kingdom as a detriment to the movement in the States.

“I see the U.K. vote having little impact on U.S. reformers,” said Rob Ritchie, executive director of FairVote. “A win -- and especially implementation in 2015 -- would have been a big deal ultimately, but a loss gets lost in the murk of international elections that Americans pay little attention to. It also was fought on different ground than happens in the U.S.”