Voters going to the polls Thursday in United Kingdom were greeted with a very meta ballot. One of the options they had to vote for was the option to change the way they vote. The alternative vote, also known as instant runoff voting, asks voters to rank candidates rather than choose one. It sounds like a revolutionary way to approach a ballot, but according to David Austen-Smith, an expert on election theory, British politics would remain largely the same if it were implemented.
“The reality is that it’s going to change very little,” said Austen-Smith, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences. The alternative vote is appealing to smaller parties which poll well but win few seats. The Liberal Democrats, who championed the referendum, hope this will lead to more proportional representation of their party in Parliament. While the alternative vote can lead to smaller parties gaining seats, the gains would likely not be significant. And more importantly, it is not a proportional voting system, which is the outcome some proponents of the alternative vote seem to desire.
“If they really want proportionality, then they should go for proportionality,” Austen-Smith said. While proportional voting would more accurately reflect the preferences of the electorate, it would also increase the changes that governments would formed by coalitions rather than single parties. Such a situation “leads to less strategizing, perhaps, at the electoral stage, and a lot more strategizing in the legislature because now you have to form coalitions,” he said. With such political maneuvering after elections to create coalitions, “you can’t assign accountability for policies,” he added.
Furthermore, the Lib Dems envisioned gains under the alternative vote may be based on a flawed premise. Current voting distributions under the first-past-the-post system cannot predict outcomes under the alternative vote. Relying on results from one system to predict those of another is like comparing apples to oranges because “if you change the rule, people will change their behavior,” Austen-Smith said.
In the U.K.’s current system, the first person who wins a plurality—the most, not a simple majority—of the votes wins the election. Critics claim that this encourages people to “waste” their votes by selecting a mainstream candidate rather than the candidate they truly support to minimize the chances of their least favorite candidate winning. In the alternative vote, people rank candidates by preference. If more than 51 percent of voters select one candidate, then that person wins. But if there is no clear majority, then at that point the candidate who received the fewest first ranks is dropped. Ballots with that candidate ranked first aren’t thrown out—rather, their second choice is counted toward the total. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.
Polling suggests that the measure will fail to pass anyway. Given that the alternative vote would not deliver the Lib Dems the seats they desire—or might command, given their polling numbers—that may not be such a bad thing. The current system may not be ideal, neither is the alternative vote or any other system. “There is no best system,” Austen-Smith said. “Every system is flawed.”
Photo by Rain Rabbit.