27/04/2011

To AV or Not To AV? by John Newman

That is not just the question but a series of choices apparently. If the referendum next week says Yes to AV or aka Alternative Vote, we will have to choose the candidates in order of preference. Then if the winner gets less than 50% of the vote, the candidate with the least votes is knocked out (not literally we assume) and their second preferences re-distributed. And so on till either a candidate has more than half the vote or is the only one left. The obvious flaw in this system is that if you rank every candidate in order you will potentially get several votes. However if you only vote for one person then you just get the one. Not that the current First Past the Post (which absolutely nobody calls FPTP) is perfect. Presently you can be voted in by a minority of the people in your constituency. More people will not have voted for you than did yet still you can win.
The referendum seems to be looking at the wrong question though. The answer to the problem we currently have of MPs being elected by small numbers is not the voting system but the turnout. If more people voted, it is highly likely that the winner would also win more than 50% of the vote. How, then, could we encourage a higher turnout?

One thing would be to make voting more flexible. The technology exists to have constituency lists able to be accessed electronically rather than by the current paper system of ticking off people as they vote. If the returning officers had laptops for example we could go and vote in any polling station regardless of its location. The voting would need to be electronic too, as it would be impractical for dozens of different sets of ballot papers to be available.

Why not take this a stage further and introduce electronic voting which inevitably would be called e-voting. Then you could log onto your council’s website and vote from the comfort of your home, iPhone or whatever you like. This freedom would surely encourage those people who `always mean` to vote but either don’t get round to it or are too busy to get to the polling station?

Another way of improving turnout would be for the political parties to alter the way they campaign, particularly the content of the leaflets they shove through our door. How many times have you skim read a leaflet and not realised which party it was actually for? It might, for example be a Labour party leaflet but mentions the Tories twenty times on the page, slagging them off for what they are or aren’t doing. Or you get a Conservative leaflet that, for example, spends all its space prattling on about how the Labour candidate isn’t even local whereas she was “born and lives here”. Half the electorate probably live somewhere they weren’t born so why is that such an issue?

Negative campaigning has probably put off more from voting than any of the other reasons vox pops suggest, even the hackneyed old “ooo, they’re all the same, politicians.” To which a politician might respond; “Well, if you don’t vote you shouldn’t complain”

Deep down people do care about politics even if they don’t realise it; we will mobilise on particular issues and we constantly whine about what “the government” or “the council” has or hasn’t done. So, while carefully avoiding urging you which way to vote, the message of this piece is that you should always vote. Whatever system we end up having.  

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