Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The weight of a vote and the strength of a preference

“And for dessert, sir?” the waiter asked. I ummed and ah-ed and then said: “The chocolate cake, please.” “An excellent choice.”

Two minutes later he returned to tell me they’d run out. I looked at the menu a little longer, and picked the sticky toffee pudding. “Certainly, sir, another fine dish.” And he was right: in fact, their selection was generally pretty good all round.

Shortly, he came back, a little sheepish, to tell me the toffee had come unstuck. I pondered again. “Then I’ll take the crème brulée.”

Alas, it turned out that the blowtorch had blown a fuse. After he’d finished grovelling, I looked at what they did have left – hot fudge sundae or nettle tart – and found my decision very easy. So hot fudge sundae I had, and while it was no better than passable, I was deeply glad to have avoided the nettle.

Now, where was I? Oh yes: Danny Finkelstein [£] makes a number of sound points about the AV referendum campaign, including a sensible response to one common canard about AV (which he opposes):

I don't agree with the "no" campaigners that I am voting more than once. Everyone gets the same right to express their other preferences.

Quite right. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying:

But there is a serious - in my view, fatal - objection… The system gives my fourth preference the same weight as someone else's first preference. And it shouldn't.

Two things:

First of all, it’s a mistake to think that what matters most to a voter is the pick of their favourite. What about someone who thinks Labour is marginally better than the Greens, the Greens marginally better than the Lib Dems, the Lib Dems marginally better than the Tories and the Tories vastly better than the BNP? Here, the real passion, the strongest choice, only appears at the fourth preference. Just as I found in my badly stocked restaurant.

Under AV, picking a first preference is answering the question ‘Who do you like the most?’ Picking a second preference is answering the question ‘With your first choice unavailable, who do you like the most?’ And so on. I don’t see why the later questions should be less important and people’s answers accordingly less significant.

Secondly, under first-past-the-post, we already have people picking their second, third and lower preferences – it’s called tactical voting. Plenty of people have done it at one point or another. Under this system, you look at all the candidates, mentally rank them in order of preference, then pick the highest-ranked one who you think has a real chance of winning and write an ‘X’ next to their name.

And your second- or third- or fourth-preference vote will carry as much weight as my first-preference vote. So the putative unfairness Danny attributes to AV also exists under FPTP, albeit in a less obvious form. But I don’t think it’s unfair.

Unless we require voters to award each candidate marks out of 100 (and do it honestly, which of course is unenforceable), there is no way for a ballot paper to distinguish enthusiastic, overwhelming endorsement from grudging, borderline, best-of-a-bad-bunch acceptance.


tim f said...

But by thinking of voting as being expressing a preference from a shopping list of candidates, you are already biasing the question.

If you think about it as making a decision, rather than expressing a preference, then FPTP is just as good (or, in fact, better).

john b said...

But voting *is* clearly about expressing a preference, not making a decision. You can tell this from the way that your expressed preference has a near-zero chance of affecting the outcome.

tim f said...

Actually I think about it as being a defined community coming together to make a decision. All that the near-zero chance of an individual affecting the outcome shows us is that it's daft to think of voting primarily in terms of an individual endeavour. Voting is absurd when looked at from an liberal individualist perspective, yet that's the perspective that's driving much of the debate about change of electoral system.

Tom Freeman said...

Well voting is an individual act, and on liberal grounds it has to be, but electing is by definition a collective matter. This distinction is (part of) what means we shouldn't construe elections as a form of consumer choice.

(And, depending on the quality of the democracy, the deliberating before the election is more or less communal.)

But this holds true under any electoral system.

The difference between AV and FPTP is quite a way down my list of things in our constitutional set-up that deserve more attention.

Neil Harding said...

What I like about AV, is that it gleans far more information from the voter.

No longer do we have to guess how many labour supporters vote lib dem in rural areas. Or Green supporters voting Labour, or indeed people voting for any party to stop the BNP.

The biggest absurdity of FPTP for me, is that a good UKIP candidate standing against a Tory can result in a Labour MP and a good Green or leftish Lib Dem standing against a Labour candidate can result in a Tory or worse BNP MP, all elected on 30% of the vote (or less). AV does cure this problem at least.

Hughes Views said...

AV produces results as unrepresentative of people's first preferences as FPTP does and it complicates the voting and counting process in the same way that PR does. So it's the worst of both worlds.

My first preference in May would be "neither of the above" but that won't be an option. So, given that the question is do you want AV, I'll have to opt for my second preference - No.

I'd also answer No if asked if I wanted FPTP, but I won't be. Oh dear...