Posted on April 25, 2011
On May 5th, British voters will participate in their second-ever national referendum, deciding whether to replace plurality voting for House of Commons elections with the alternative vote (AV). The referendum outcome remains up in the air, but we already know two losers: prime minister David Cameron, who has shown he cannot be trusted, and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), the famed news source that, along with most mainstream British journalists, merely reports on Cameron's false and deceptive claims about the AV referendum with little analysis of their truthfulness.
Both developments are disturbing for reasons beyond the very real significance of whether the alternative vote (generally called "instant runoff voting" or "ranked choice voting" in the United States and "preferential voting" in Australia) will help bring British elections into the modern era and accommodate its increase in citizens voting for non-major party candidates. The United States government will need to be very cautious in its faith in one of its traditional allies, given Cameron's obvious ability to be deceptive to serve short-term parochial interests defined by the reactionary wing of his party -- particularly as he also is backstabbing his coalition government partners who back AV. Second, the BBC's pallid coverage of these falsehoods is a sad lesson in how too many journalists see "objective" coverage as reporting on what each side claims without any independent evaluation of actual truth.
What AV is and how it got on the ballot
Here's the back story on how Cameron is making a mockery of Britain's daring experiment in democracy. Last year, his Conservative Party earned the most seats in the nation's parliamentary elections, but fell short of a majority - a rare occurrence with British winner-take-all elections, but one reflecting the fact that the Conservatives earned only 36% of votes. The balance of power was held by the Liberal Democrats, the nation's third largest party that won 23% of the vote. Although the Liberal Democrats have been more generally aligned with the Labour Party than the Conservatives, Labour's 29% finish and the nation's general fatigue with former prime minister Gordon Brown made it problematic as a potential partner in government. The Liberal Democrats instead entered into a formal coalition with the Tories. The coalition agreement included a commitment to allow British voters to decide whether to adopt Australia's alternative vote system in recognition of the fact that the UK has long since stopped having a neat and tidy two-party election system that is a precondition for fair outcomes with plurality voting.
AV in fact would be an eminently sensible change in how Britain votes because fewer and fewer British voters support the major parties. By giving voters a chance to rank candidates in order of choice, AV prevents winners who only can win when there is a split in the majority vote. Instead of voting for a single person in a large candidate race, the voter with AV gains added power coming with an opportunity to indicate a first choice, second choice and so on until indifferent to the remaining candidates. Ballots are counted like a series of runoffs, with every voter having one vote in each round, and candidates winning once they have majority support against their remaining opponents. Your ballot counts initially for your first choice. If there is no majority winner and your favorite is eliminated for being in last place, your ballot in the next round is added to the totals of your second, "alternative" choice. A series of instant runoffs takes place among a dwindling number of candidates until the winner secures more than 50% of the votes in the final round. You can see more about AV in videos from FairVote, Minnesota Public Radio, UK and Australia, where AV has been used to elect its house of representatives for nearly a century.
As should be clear, AV is not a proportional voting system. It's not designed to increase fair representation across a nation, as many reformers like me would like to see for legislative elections -- rather, what AV does is guarantee a more representative outcome in any given constituency (as the British call a legislative district) and give voters the freedom to vote sincerely for their first choice without fear of "wasting" their vote on a "spoiler." As a party that typically finishes third in elections for the House of Commons, the Liberal Democrats historically have sought proportional voting, where 25% of the vote earns 25% of seats. Although proportional voting is already used in nearly all European nations as well as the United Kingdom's European parliamentary elections and its regional elections in Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland, both the Labour and Conservatives parties have clung to winner-take-all elections that often allow them to govern on their own even with barely a third of the popular vote. For a party like the Liberal Democrats to win seats with AV, it has to prove itself as a "majority party" in that particular constituency -- e.g., be able to earn more than 50% against the strongest other party. The major parties should only fear AV if expecting to have trouble keeping seats in constituencies where they currently win with less than 50% of the vote.
Cameron apparently led Liberal Democratic Party leader Nick Clegg to believe that he would not front the opposition campaign. But Cameron not only has led the no campaign, but has embraced or sanctioned a series of outright falsehoods. Apparently Cameron and an infuential faction with the Conservative Party have decided that they are inherently a minority party that can only have a chance to govern with plurality voting rules rather than with a majority system. Cameron's much-vaunted "Big Society" turns out to be one where having to earn majority support for one's views is not to be expected -- and indeed is to be feared.
Cameron's deceptive campaign against AV
David Cameron has regularly sought to deceive British voters in his campaign again AV, yet the BBC and most of the mainstream press simply has reported his claims and opposition responses passively and with only the mildest of independent analysis. On April 18, Cameron gave a speech in which he summarized his case for a no vote by stating that AV is "obscure, unfair and expensive." Each of these claims is false or deceptive.
Cameron's claims about costs: The opposition campaign's most brazen lie is that AV will be hard to count and will require expensive new voting machines. Cameron's charge that AV is "expensive" is the latest in a series of false statements about allegedly high costs of adopting AV. The opposition's first high-profile ads led with the spurious charge that adopting AV would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly for new electronic voting machines, that could better go to meeting human needs.
This claim is utterly false and belied by the experience of AV being hand-tallied in many settings, including in national elections in Ireland and Australia. One can see the lie clearly by comparing how the UK counts ballots in the current plurality voting system with how it would do so with AV. In British elections for the House of Commons, voters cast ballots for candidates in one constituency. They vote on a stand-alone piece of paper in which the candidates are listed, and voters tick one box next to one candidate. Those papers are collected at a central location in each constituency, and typically tallied on election night by the simple process of grouping and counting the ballots based on which candidate is selected on each ballot. The nation's relatively few absentee ballots are part of the count, and the results in many constituencies are announced that night.
For AV, the balloting and counting would be nearly the same. The ballot would again list the candidates, but this time the instructions would ask the voter to put numbers next to each candidate: "1" for a first choice", 2" for a second choice and so on. When the ballots are collected centrally, they would be grouped and counted based on voters' first choices. Any race with a candidate earning a first-round majority would be completed, with the result determined just as fast as with plurality voting. In the races without an initial majority winner, there would be a limited amount of additional counting. Candidates with the fewest votes would be eliminated, and backers of that candidate would have their ballot moved to the next choice on the ballot. On average about a third of ballots would count beyond their first choice. The ballot-count would take only marginally longer, and has proven to be easy to do by hand.
AV proponents have regularly challenged opposition claims about electronic voting machines and others like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Antony Green have explained how Australia counts ballots by hand, but Cameron and his cabinet allies are able to continue to deceive voters about alleged costs because the BBC and other outlets don't label the claim for what it is: an outright falsehood. As one recent example, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne on April 12th suggested that Scotland's use of voting machines when going to another, more complicated form of ranked voting and London's use of machines for citywide AV-type elections for mayor showed that voting machines would be necessary -- despite the obvious differences between these examples and the proposed use of AV in one race per House of Commons constituency.
Osborne then even smeared the nation's leading reform organization that has worked to adopt fairer ranked choice voting systems since the time of John Stuart Mill, contending they were backing the campaign so that a linked company could make money off of selling the totally unnecessary voting machines. Former Liberal Democratic leader Paddy Ashdown appropriately challenged Osborne's deception, but once again, mainstream outlets typically reported the story in a "he said, she said" fashion that leaves voters without clear understanding of the facts.
The opposition's phony "research" paper backing its claims even cites me in suggesting that voting machines will be necessary. In January, I had talked about the use of AV in the United States in a speech at the Houses of Parliament and mentioned that counting ballots on machines is taking for granted in the United States - of course quite unrelated to AV. In my next sentence, I said "but that won't be an issue for the United Kingdom, as you will be able to count AV ballots by hand," yet the opposition paper cites me as stating that machines will be necessary to count AV.
Cameron's claims about one-person, one-vote and boosts for the British National Party: Cameron recently said, "I believe in the principle of one person, one vote, and AV would mean that votes of some people get counted more than others." This echoes an April 11th speech in which he said that AV is "so undemocratic that you can vote for a mainstream party just once, whereas someone can vote for a fringe party like the BNP and it's counted three times.... It's so unfair that the candidates who come second or third can end up winning."
Cameron packed three deceptions into this short statement. First, AV fully upholds one-person, one-vote, given that a voter never has more than one vote count in any round of counting, just as is true of a series of runoff elections. True, a voter's first choice may lose in the first round, and that voter's ballots may then count for a second choice in the next runoff round, but that does not mean this voter gets any more votes than backers of the candidates whose favorite remains in the race.
As an analogy, suppose Cameron goes out with his exchequer George Osborne for ice cream and a chance to plot new ways to win the AV referendum by any means necessary. Cameron's first choice might be strawberry, but upon learning it is not available, he settles on his second choice of vanilla. Meanwhile, Osborne asks for vanilla as a first choice. The two men each walk out of the store with a single vanilla cone -- the fact that Cameron's first choice was strawberry doesn't mean he ended up with two cones to Osborne's one.
Cameron knows all this, of course. He's an intelligent man, and transferable ballot systems are used regularly in British life, including in countless university elections, party elections, local elections in Scotland, regional assembly elections in Northern Ireland and the London mayoral race. But the BBC and other media outlets simply let the prime minister repeatedly deceive his people.
Cameron's British National Party claim is an even further dip into the political gutter. The BNP is a racist, rightwing party that has had limited success in British elections, including in several local plurality voting elections where it has benefited from split votes. Independent analysts argue that the BNP is so politically isolated that it would be highly unlikely to be able to win the majorities necessary to win seats with AV. One example of the BNP's relative potential for success in plurality voting compared to AV comes from the 2002 French presidential election. That year the BNP's French counterpart Jean-Marie Le Pen secured just 17% of the vote, but due to split votes, finished only 3% behind incumbent Jacques Chirac. While Le Pen could easily have won the first round plurality vote, he lost the AV-type runoff against Chirac by an overwhelming 82% to 18% margin.
That reality would explain why the BNP has actively campaigning against AV. Nevertheless, the Conservative Party's chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi recently gave an anti-AV speech at the site of race riots in the 1930s to claim that that a yes vote would help the BNP -- with the BBC yet again leaving it to the opposition to point out the lies in a "he said, she said" dispute.
Relating to the final part of his comment, Cameron also regularly deceives the public about how the two systems work by suggesting the current system is like 100-meter dash, and that with plurality voting the winner is the one who crosses the line first, while AV might allow the candidate trailing in third to win. This of course is an utterly false comparison, as the whole reason for AV is that a candidate with the most votes might actually lose to their top opponent if the race had just been a one-on-one contest. In other words, it's not that Olympian Usain Bolt crosses the 100-meter line first and loses -- rather, to stretch the analogy, with plurality voting you might be able to to win the 100 meter dash without running 100 meters, while with AV the winner must prove majority support against top opponents and truly cross the 100 meter line first.
Relating to this false argument, Cameron in an April 1st speech said that AV would mean candidates would win by trying to be the least disliked -- and as a result be boring and uncontroversial. But of course winners in AV elections would be the candidates who can secure majority support in the final round against their top opponents after a campaign in which voters could fearlessly support their real choices among a full spectrum of candidates. Anecdotal evidence from the United States suggests that, if anything, AV winners are likely to be more innovative and hardworking in their efforts to earn more votes.
Cameron's claims about where AV is used and the government it produces: Cameron and the opposition have repeatedly been deceptive about where AV is used and its impact on government. For example, Cameron said in his April 1st speech, "It's a system so obscure that it is only used by three countries in the whole world: Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea." Describing how AV works in practice a few weeks later, he said: "It will make our politics less accountable and I believe it would be a backward step for our country.... People vote politicians in, politicians are then responsible for what happens and, if things go wrong, people should be able to make politicians answer for it."
The deceptive part of Cameron's list of nations using AV is that transferable vote systems like AV have generally been a part only of the Anglo-American tradition. AV and its proportional voting variant the single transferable vote (also rarely used outside of Anglo-American countries, but the most frequent form of proportional voting within those nations) have a long history of debate and use in the UK, the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and of course Australia. Although not used for parliamentary elections in any of these countries except for Australia, AV has come close to being adopted for House of Commons elections in the past and currently is used in the UK for: elections for mayor of London (with a limitation of two rankings and winners restricted to the top two in first choices); elections to fill Scottish city council vacancies; elections to fill vacancies within the House of Lords (including one election earlier this spring); and many private elections, including for last year's Labour Party leadership election. AV is also used: to elect the president of Ireland in a national popular vote; to elect mayors in some New Zealand cities like the capital of Wellington; to elect mayors and other officeholders in a growing number of American elections, with more than two million AV votes cast by American voters in November 2010; to elect leaders of hundreds of major private organization due to its recommendations in Robert's Rules of Order for mail-ballot elections; and to elect leaders in various major private organizations in Canada, including the Liberal Party in its national leadership elections. Cameron's claim that AV is obscure is highly misleading at best.
Cameron's suggestion that AV undermines accountability also has no basis in its experience in Australia, the country that has used AV longest and is most like the United Kingdom. Australia's number of changes in government are very similar to the UK. Since Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives won in 1979, for example, Britain has had two changes in party control of government: Tony Blair's win in 1997 and Cameron's win (with the Liberal Democrats) in 2010. During that time, Australia's government went back and forth between the Labour Party and National Party in 1983, 1996 and 2007, often with very clear and decisive swings due to its winner-take-all character. Looking forward in the U.K., AV has just as much of a chance as first-past-the-post plurality voting in producing decisive outcomes.
Although I certainly don't see every British news story on AV, a thorough review of the falseness of Cameron's claims has seemingly been left primarily to foreign media outlets like the Australia Broadcasting Corporation's Antony Green, blogs like Left Foot Forward, editorials in the Guardian and commentary by John Rentoul and others in the Independent and of course the campaigners for AV and their political allies. But even these responses generally fall short of stating the uncomfortable truth: in the first chance the British government has given to its people to vote on a ballot question in a generation, David Cameron himself is not telling the truth. The British press needs to show more spine and challenge the prime minister. Cameron sadly may not change his tune on AV, but at least he must learn that betraying your people's trust has consequences.