Understanding alternative voting, with coffee and beer

Here's Dan Snow explaining the "alternative voting" scheme that Britons will have the chance to vote on next week. Critics of AV have described it as too complicated. I don't know that "simple" necessarily means "better" when it comes to governments -- the "simplest" government being: "I am in charge and you do what I say or I chop your head off." But even so, Snow makes a good case for the intuitive simpleness of alternative voting, using a good example of friends deciding whether to go for coffee or beer. I'll be voting for AV on the 5th. I want to be able to vote for the best candidate, not the least-worst one, and not worry about "wasting" my vote.

Dan Snow's Alternative (via Memex 1.1)


  1. Well the present UK government weren’t voted in either, but AV is a bad idea. I shall vote no.

    1. Ohhh. I see. “AV is a bad idea”. I am now enlightened and will join you in voting for what appears to be a clearly broken and unfair voting system.

      Good thing you were around to clear that up.

    1. You say that “Firstly, they [Proportional systems] place even more power in the hands of political parties and reduce the individual accountability of MPs.”

      Not necessarily! MMP certainly does, and I don’t much like it for that reason. But STV (single transferable vote) puts the candidate first far more than anything else does. You can (and usually will) have several candidates from the same party competing with each other in this system, which is wonderful!

      For the uninitiated, it’s basically like AV in how you vote, except that electoral districts are combined so that one race elects 2-3 (or more) representatives.

      People complain that it’s too complicated, and yes, the counting system takes more than one sentence to explain. But the voting process is scarcely worse than FPTP, especially when you consider all the ‘strategy’ that that demands voters think about.

      1. Wow. You read to the end :-).

        Yeah, I like STV too. By “proportional systems” I meant schemes which have some kind of proportionality explicitly built into them, which typically means that someone else gets to choose who (some of) the actual people are that represent your views.

        Sadly, right now, the No campaign is doing a very good job of scaring people into thinking that AV is expensive, complicated and fundamentally unfair. I dread to think what they’d do with STV.

        1. Cooler still, if you use STV in a multi-winner election, the voters get proportional representation not just by party, but along any axis they choose. So if, for example, 20% of the voters are primarily concerned about copyright, even if those 20% are spread across two or three political parties, they can still get 20% of the seats (ideally) in a PR-plus-STV voting system.

  2. In the 1932 German elections, Hitler got 33% of the vote and the Nazi party was the largest party.

    In the current british system, this would have made him Chancellor.

    With AV, the other parties would have been able to make a coalition government which better represented the wishes of most of the population.

  3. The only problem I’ve heard people talk about when discussing the AV method is the fact that it doesn’t fulfill the condorcet criterion.

  4. Comparing to Nazis isn’t really useful or helpful, there are plenty of governments that have been good or bad that could have got in, or could have been voted out etc under all sorts of systems.

    I will definitely be voting yes though. Sapa: Care to explain WHY AV is a bad idea? I believe it better represents the wants of the people, ensuring that an MP requires the broad support of the majority of its constituency in order to get elected. The Tories are campaigning against it basically because the current system ensures them lots of nice ‘safe’ seats. It’s all a bit corrupt really. If they don’t think AV is a fair system, why do they use it to elect their own leader?

  5. I’m from Canada and we have the same problem of vote splitting.

    I still don’t understand why you can’t just have a runoff election with the two top candidates if no one reaches 50% of the vote. It’s the simplest solution.

    1. That would be much more work, since you’d have to hold a second election, and it would still not allow newcomers any real chance of breaking in, because their potential supporters would still have to worry about voting tactically to make sure that the top two does not end up being two candidates that they hate.

      AV is perfectly simple for the voter. You rank your first choice ‘1’, your second choice ‘2’ and so on. You don’t have to agonise over whether your favourite has a chance to win and whether you need to vote for the least-terrible of the big parties to keep out the most-terrible. You can just vote for your preferred candidates in order and if they don’t win, your vote moves on to your next choice. Where’s the problem?

    2. With 3 candidates, AV is just like having a run-off election, but it’s all built into 1 ballot, so it’s a lot cheaper. With more candidates, it’s like having a series of run-offs, with one candidate being eliminated each time (rather than all but the top two candidates being eliminated).

      1. This “Alternative Voting” scheme may be very much like having run-off votes built into a single ballot, but that is far from optimal, and it ignores how people respond to different numbers of choices. The proposed scheme breaks down both in theory and in practice.

        1. I notice that your link, very close to the top, points out that AV/IRV is still better than FPTP. Remember that this referendum is not between ‘take AV now’ and ‘look for something better’. It’s between ‘take AV now’ and ‘stick with FPTP for decades to come’. If the referendum goes against AV, this will be touted as a clear vote in favour of FPTP and the issue of alternative voting systems will be dead.

        2. That’s a great comparison of different voting schemes. By your simulations, at 5+ candidates the happiness advantage of AV of FPTP is more than the advantage of Max Happiness over AV.

          Since there’s not going to be another referendum on this for at least 20 years, it really seems worth supporting AV now. 20 years of a better system will mean both 20 years of better government and maybe 20 years of getting used to the idea that it is, in fact, possible to improve a voting system. Then maybe next time we’ll be attempting to select the “best” system rather than just a “better” one.

          On a different note, the FUD that you accuse the AV-supporters of is nothing compared to the crude fallacies being propounded by the No campaign in this referendum, like “AV means that the votes for the least popular candidates count more than those for the popular candidates”. Surely that’s worth fighting first?

          One final point – AV is the original name for IRV (and what it’s always been called in the UK), not a “nifty marketing name”

        3. I’m well aware of the massive breakdowns of AV, but I’ll be voting Yes anyway. The question is not: “Is AV optimal?” – it really isn’t. The question is: “Is AV superior to FPtP?”

          FPtP is a major reason for the utter arrogant complacency of our major parties, and hence a major reason why our government is so increasingly undemocratic. There’s an increasing disdain for the pretence that public opinion matters. This has been a slow shift for a while, but now it’s becoming critical – so anything that breaks up the status quo is of critical importance. Now, while it’s still even possible. Otherwise we’re heading steadily for the utterly corrupt, utterly entrenched US-style 2-party lockdown.

          (No offence meant to the many friendly Boingers reading from the US… but you had noticed that your country is now basically ungovernable by democratic means, right?)

  6. I like the AV system. Technically, it’s not flawless though. In fact, every conceivable voting system is flawed. Check out Arrow’s impossibility theorem (Wikipedia). I haven’t looked into the details of AV, but its problem is probably that tactical voting is still possible somehow, unlike what the Electoral Reform Society is saying.

  7. Too bad this would never work here in the ‘States. We can barely figure out the menu at McDonalds. How are we going to deal with something that has more than two choices?

  8. First Past the Post:
    “Salt and Vinegar crisps please”
    “They didn’t have any Salt and Vinegar, so I got you a bag of dog shit”

    “Salt and Vinegar crisps, or plain, or if there’s no crisps I’ll have peanuts”

    Piece of piss.

  9. We had a referendum to switch too MMP a few years ago in Ontario and it failed miserably. It wasn’t explained well, and the media just kept telling people if you don’t understand it, then vote no for the change. I think a more complex system like MMP works well because your vote isn’t wasted if you happen to live in a riding with people who don’t share your political viewpoint. However, most people don’t take enough time to vote, let alone take the time to figure out how MMP works.

    1. “wasted if you happen to live in a riding with people who don’t share your political viewpoint” — or, more damningly, if the people do share your viewpoint and therefore there are several similar candidates running with broadly that viewpoint. With a FPTP system, the (majority) vote is going to get splintered between all of those parties and let the lone opposition candidate in.

    2. AV is quite different to MMP in both process and effect. MMP gives power to the political hacks – they get to decide who goes on the party lists. AV takes power away from them, because the argument: “The only way to keep the Horrible Party out is to vote for a candidate from a big party like ours” no longer works.

  10. I find the thought of a fairer voting system appalling – and what’s with all the UK wide referendums? Thinking for me is what I pay politicians for. I shall be voting no, because I have important livestyle choices to make, and no hippy Liberal terroist is going force me to cross 3 boxes in a general election.

  11. This is yet another case (like “FairVote”) where the hucksters selling IRV try to foist off a system that is perhaps even more badly broken than FPTP by giving it a nifty marketing name.

    Any “alternative voting” scheme worth its salt should either satisfy the Condorcet criterion or minimize regret. This one does neither.

    (The Condorcet criterion is that if any candidate would win every head-to-head race against other candidates individually, elect that candidate. There is not always such a candidate. In this context, regret is an aggregate of some per-voter difference between the “score” of the winner and the voter’s ideal. If the ballot asks voters to rank candidates, Condorcet is appropriate; if a voter rates candidates with a numerical score, minimizing regret is appropriate.)

  12. This is a problem because we think that national borders and sovereignty are somehow written in stone.
    How about allowing secession of different minded districts. It was a good idea with Ireland and maybe in a post imperial world especially the EU and North America we may need to start looking to stable sovereign micronations like in Snowcrash and Diamond Age instead of our boundaries based on war and conquest.
    If I don’t want to go the pub do I have to choose to follow the group and miss out on the theater just because I live in the same neighborhood?

  13. We’ve have preferential (and compulsory voting) in Australia.

    The British system is fundamentally broken – if there are ten people standing, everyone else gets 9.9% each but one one gets 10.9% then they’re elected. Dumb and dumber.

    There could be five or six of them who are left or right wingers (or middle of the road) who would be willing to share votes or the majority of voters would prefer the option of giving one of the remaining nine the chance when they realise that their favourite won’t get in.

    To vote ‘No’ against the option of giving you your second choice (or third) is so patently dumb that you should have your vote removed and be forced to live in a dictatorship.

    1. The NO campaign has used the fact that voting is compulsory in Australia as “proof” that AV is bad.

      Australia changed to AV, and it’s so awful the only way that they could get anyone to vote at all was to make it compulsory for everyone to vote.

      1. The problem with those arguments is that there is never a source cited. According to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) compulsory voting at Federal level elections was introduced in 1911 but the current preferential voting system (which is actually different from the AV option being offered in the UK) came along many years later. So compulsory voting could not have been introduced to address low PV election attendance, contrary to the claims made by the FPTP camp in the UK.

      2. “The NO campaign has used the fact that voting is compulsory in Australia as “proof” that AV is bad.”

        And it’s not true:

        “[D]id preferential voting lead to compulsory voting? This is a theory that has emerged in the UK in the last six months but is completely unknown in Australia and absent from eight decades of academic literature, and not mentioned at the time compulsory voting was introduced.”

        that’s from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s election analyst, Antony Green, who has a series of posts on his blog about “AV” and is taking questions.


        This is where you should go if you are curious about the comparisons being drawn with Australian elections. Nobody knows more about Australian elections than Antony. He’s a national treasure.


        1. Spot on daz. Antony Green, top bloke. If the voters over here actually wanted to seriously find out what AV is all about & the potential challenges or changes it would make in the UK then he is the man to speak to. I have been really surprised that he hasn’t been on Daily Politics or any other media for that matter.


          If anyone has questions about AV, ask Antony Green. If you want the truth about AV as opposed to the lies being told about it, ask Antony Green.

          Here’s a few issues I have with the o2Av camp for a starter.

          Australia – They don’t want to change it, it’s not difficult, they don’t use counting machines & it is not exceptionally more expensive than PTP. So the No2AV campaigners are telling lies… Why would you vote for something they want?

          Papua New Guinea – They inherited AV from Australia but as a very young Nation haven’t really had the opportunity to analyse their own electorate & other voting systems so giving them grief about having AV is below the belt.

          Fiji – I really think that the No2AV camp are scraping the bottom of the barrel with this one. Since achieving independence in 1970 Fiji has experienced four military coups. As of 2006 (when the last coup d’état occurred) it has been a military dictatorship. So whatever system of voting they have, had or might get in the future is really irrelevant because voting counts for nothing there right now & the country hasn’t really had much chance to fully experience democratic freedoms like voting.

          All in all, many No2Av arguments can be found to be so full of holes that they won’t hold any water. There is outright lies, blatant misrepresentation of facts & statistics & personal attacks against the Yes To A Fairer Vote supporters.

          Why would anyone vote in favour of anything advocated by this group of people?

  14. STV is what we want. It’s what the electoral reform society advises. It’s the closest we’re likely to get to representative democracy working properly.

    AV is (very marginally) more likely to elect a government in my lifetime that will get us a crack at a vote to move to STV.

    That is sufficient _in itself_ to vote yes to AV.

    YES to AV.

  15. Ugh, if we had AV or instant run-off in Maine then gov LePage wouldn’t be in office right now. Almost any kind of alternative is fairer than the current scheme.

  16. (No offence meant to the many friendly Boingers reading from the US… but you had noticed that your country is now basically ungovernable by democratic means, right?)

    No offense taken, you’re only stating the obvious. It’s this way by design, and this two party problem is not new by any stretch.

    There is no possibility for change with this current system, either. Although the democrats and republicans are eternally at each others’ throats, they have no trouble coming together to shut down any attempts at real reform. Not a single one (well, maybe a handful of exceptions) of them would ever dream of tampering with the system that put them in power.

  17. I think it’s fantastic that the UK is looking at moving to a more representative voting system. While I don’t vote in the UK, I hope it gets passed there.

    My personal favourite “better than FPTP” system is Approval Voting – it has the additional advantage that it’s very simple, so you really can’t make the FUD-ish argument that no one will understand it, or it will take a month to count the votes.

    Basically Approval Voting just takes the fact that every line of a FPTP ballot is really a separate yes / no question (would you be happy with this person as your representative?), and removes the artificial restriction that you must answer “yes” to exactly one question, and “no” to all the others, even though that would be a lie if you’d be happy with any one of several candidates.

    In terms of expressive power, it’s a little lower than Alternative Voting, but I think its advantage of increased simplicity outweighs that – not necessarily forever, but now, for the sake of getting something better in place in the face of media and anti-representative-democracy politicians, who will be playing the “math is scary and hard” angle for all it’s worth.

  18. Single Transferable Vote (STV) is already in use in several U.S. jurisdictions—it’s not as if Americans can’t understand it. I’ve used it in an NGO, directly participated in counting ballots, so I’ve seen it close up.

    Entrope brings up the Condorcet criterion, and it’s good to at least articulate some standard against which an election system should be measured (as opposed to the short-term gain of one or the other major party). But there are several standards against which to measure election systems, Condorcet being just one, and no election system does well with all of them. Either AV or STV would be better than first-past-the-post, which has so many obvious flaws, even if they don’t always produce the “Condorcet winner.”

  19. I have already some experience with this form of election.

    I’m a member of the german Pirate Party. In our subdivision we once had a voting with another kind of system (only yes/no, you could use yes or no or no vote on either candidate). The Person who got most of the “yes” votes (about 1/3) got (also in re-voting) more then 50% of the “no” votes, which meant this he could not be elected.
    So, in the “normal” system he would have won even if the mayority was against him. In this case the system worked (at least in my eyes).


    We also use the “Liquid Feedback” ( http://liquidfeedback.org/ ; I think this is the english explanation: http://www.public-software-group.org/liquid_feedback) which has a sorting of preference build in. That is what is described in the video. You can rank the possibilities.
    e.g. first rank is B, second rank is A and third rank is C.
    You can also decide between a) yes; b) yes, if not a; c) don’t know; d) no
    Sounds awfully complicated, but its simple drag and drop.

    The whole software needs a lot of work though at the moment, especially the frontend, and I’m eager to experience the version that was presented a month ago.

  20. Comparing to Nazis is appropriate. Godwin’s Law is the most abused law on the internet. If a system lets a minority rule, it’s not democratic.

    1. I agree that a voting system isn’t democratic if it doesn’t produce majority rule. There are less inflammatory examples than Hitler, e.g., Jesse Ventura was elected governor of the (sensible, I imagined) state of Minnesota with only minority support.

      A system that produces a winner who was no one’s first choice isn’t necessarily broken, however. If he’s everyone’s LAST choice, which could happen under first-past-the-post, then the voting system is definitely broken.

  21. Without commenting on the merits of AV, I will say that the video does a pretty poor job of explaining it. From my point of view, it doesn’t even accomplish the task of making it look simple.. it pretends that it’s simple with a handwave, ignoring a great deal of complexity that accompanies the second phase of discussion.

  22. Instant Runoff is implemented in SF for local races — it’s not had an enormous impact lately (although it did in Oakland recently), but it solves the very major problem here that a huge number of our races were forced to runoff, and huge expense, and always to the detriment of less well funded non-party machine candidates.

    Naturally, this has made the Democratic Party and the local paper hate it with a mad passion. After the last time it was used the Chronicle whined incessantly about how it was just taking forever to have to tabulate the votes for the final count (it took about a week — all of which basically doing strict accounting for ballots, the process of counting the votes should take a computer a millisecond), happily ignoring the fact that in the good old days by that time we would be just beginning the second campaign for the run-off elections.

    However non-optimal one or another Instant Runoff system may be, they are inevitably superior to non-Instant Runoffs, and I can imagine little worse than FPtP.

  23. AV sppears to work great – when you can clearly see the outcome of the 1st round, and then make a decision in the 2nd and subsequent rounds.

    But that’s not what AV is. Instead you cast you 2nd and subsequent votes blindly – you don’t know the outcome of the 1st or 2nd rounds. In fact, thanks to the counting system, you may never know what the actual outcome of the 1st round was.

    In the example shown, there were still only 2 choices: coffee or pub. What if the choices were: coffee, pub, thai food, or indian?

  24. Nice touch using the Pirate Bay logo for that ‘ship pub’ option. As a Dutchman looking in, AV looks like the most logical solution – I can’t really fathom why you’re doing it differently. Though you do drive on the wrong side of the road as well. ;)

  25. I’m an Aussie living in Bristol, UK & the FPTP system has always appalled me. In the last election in one of the Bristol constituencies they actually resorted to drawing straws to determine a winner! I have also heard of at least two other locations where FPTP threw up results requiring a game of chance to decide the person to represent citizens in Government. Seriously?!? How can anyone support a system that allows this to happen… Ever (any FPTP supporters saying it’s rare need to realise it should never happen)!

    AV may not be “The Best Of The Best” options but it’s definitely a damn sight better than drawing straws, flipping a coin, high card draw… How about Eeny meeny miney mo?

    The other thing that is annoying about the build up to this referendum is the blatant stretching & selective reporting on the AV system operating in Australia. The claims that the Aussie system is not liked by the majority fail to identify the source of the claims. While I don’t doubt that many Aussies are unhappy with their electoral system I feel confident in saying the dislike is more likely directed at the compulsory nature of our system than it being AV. Further, given the option between AV & FPTP I reckon most Aussies wouldn’t touch FPTP with a barge pole. So why is it that the FPTP supporters can get away with such outright lies (since they don’t identify their source I’m confident in calling them lies).

  26. As several, people have said, it’s an instant runoff: “if your candidate loses, who do you prefer from who’s left?”
    Then, if necessary, repeat until more than half have said that they prefer Candidate X to the others.

    This has the tories running scared, and hurling sht and confusion in all directions, because they know how much people hate them.

  27. Unfortunately, it seems the discussion is futile, if we look into opinion poll results (20% lead for NO, if you take don’t knows out, according to http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/).

    But to think about AV, all other things being equal (most importantly, the election campaign itself), the lib-dems would benefit by far. Look at this research for example: http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/blogs/press_releases/archive/2010/10/08/who-would-benefit-from-av-oct-8-2010.aspx

    That would be good in this case, since it will reduce the Gallagher index (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallagher_Index), i.e, increase the proportionality of the representation in the parliament, measured against the popular vote.

    Looking at it more generally, though, it is normal that in such AV system the candidates actively campaigning and in the middle of the political spectrum would gain the most.

    Note however, that if for example the centre party is the strongest according to the popular vote, which now is not the case in UK, the gallagher index would climb again. AV by it self does not reduce this index.

    If by some luck the AV was introduced, the nature of the campaign would most certainly change. Imagine, for instance, party A and Lib-Dems hinting at government coalition, driven by the consequences of the election system itself?

  28. As an Australian I don’t see what the fuss is about. As noted we have a preferential and compulsory voting (wikipedia has a good article). It has it’s flaws, but consider this.

    Do you want an extremist MP voted in because voters were split on the remainder? No? Then with preferential voting you can do this.

    1. count how many candidates there are (e.g. 5),
    2. determine who you like least (this is important),
    3. give them your least preference or bottom vote (e.g. #5)
    4. goto 2

    You’ll end up putting 5 through 1 with your favoured candidate at #1. This way even if your candidate doesn’t make it, at least you can help stop the ones you dislike the most.

    The trouble arrives when you dislike all of them equally :)

  29. Coming from New Zealand, I would vaguely like this (we’d call it STV) for our electorates.

    But it’s not really a biggy for me, because we have MMP. As well as a representative, we get to vote for a our government.

    There are problems with the arrangement as we have it (and people disagree on how those might be solved), but to mind my it’s much more democratic than the emergent outcome of a bunch of electorates. I tend to be horrified by the outcome of overseas elections w/r/t the votes everyone cast.

    But yeah: this proposal would be a great improvement on FPTP.

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