Field of Science

Get out and vote "Yes to AV" in the UK referendum

90% of the readers of this blog are from outside the UK. If you're one of them, look away now - this post is not for you!

In fact, it's not even about science and religion. I almost never deviate from the regular fare on this blog, but this is a topic that's really dear to my heart - the UK referendum on 5th May on changing the the voting system.

If you're a typical reader, then you're an educated liberal, and so you probably already support the AV system, at least in vague terms. But what you might not know is that it's going to be very close.

That means that every vote counts - which means you! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the UK electoral system fairer. AV is not perfect, but it's a damned sight better than first past the post, and we won't get another chance in the foreseeable future!

So do me a favour and get out and vote on May 5th! And get all your friends to go and vote too. If you don't, we're going to be stuck with the same god-awful system we've got now.

The No campaign has a huge slush fund, donated by a handful of the super-rich. The Yes campaign can't compete, and there's a real danger that money, rather than ideas, will win out. But the Yes campaign advantage lies in the large groundswell of popular support - and it's networking and word of mouth that will win the day.

They have a website, Yes to Fairer Votes, where you can sign up to help out. Do what you can!

For any non-UK people still with us, the UK is holding a referendum on whether to change the current system (where you put an X next to a single candidate) - to the so-called 'alternative voting system' (where you rank candidates in order of preference).

The current system is deeply flawed, because most candidates get elected without the support of the majority of the electorate (because there are usually many candidates for each seat). Even worse, people often vote tactically - for the candidate they think has a chance of winning, rather than the candidate they actually want.

The result is an artificial two-party government. It's impossible to challenge the incumbent in most seats. If the party bureaucracy puts a monkey in as your local candidate, then you have to vote for him (or her). If you vote for an unofficial candidate, then all that happens is that the vote is split and neither of the candidates you want gets in.

It's a truly awful system, and the UK needs a better one! AV has been described as a 'miserable compromise' but actually it's just about the best voting system if you want to keep the 'constituency' organization that is so deeply ingrained in the British heritage.

Here's a couple of my favourite videos to explain it. They're a bit nerdy but hey, this is a kinda nerdy blog! Talking of which, here's a longish post by Tim Gower, a mathematician at Cambridge, explaining the benefits of AV.

The first video is a straight up explanation of why AV tends to give fairer results:

And this second one is a bit more partisan - explaining why the UK in particular will benefit.

Here endeth the partly-political broadcast. Normal service resumes in the next post. Just get out and vote "Yes to AV", OK?

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. American here... I understand the system and its benefits, and would like to see something like that here. (Don't hold your breath.) But I am curious to hear the case against it, assuming that there's anything more to it than "we've always done it this way".

  2. American here also... the only thing we're hearing from the UK these days is that idiotic wedding.

  3. Wow, I have been telling folks about that here in the USA for decades. I am so proud it is an option in England. Great post. I loved the videos -- even the partisan one didn't cross the line. All 5 reasons are spot on!

    I have often been either a "tactical" voter or a "throw-away" voter here in the USA -- it is a huge shame.

    Best wishes U.K. !

  4. Tom, I'm spreading this to every Canadian I know. We are in our fourth general election since 2003 because the Conservative Party has won a minority government each time. The majority of Canadians don't want a Conservative govt and yet they continue to get in because of our "first past the gate" voting system." AV could be the solution.

  5. In California we call it "Ranked Choice Voting", and it seems to work o.k. We did get a couple of unexpected results in the previous elections where underdog candidates came from way behind to win (Oakland's Mayor for example). Mostly it avoids the costly run-off elections we always got stuck with in a close election year.

  6. Heh, looks like we've got North America wrapped up at least :)

    William, the official campaign reasons against it are all just nonsense - design to play off fear and ignorance.

    There are some more nuanced reasons against it. This editorial in the Financial Times gives a fair overview (they come out in favour in balance).

    Academic polling experts also have some concerns, but they are quite technical (it is not necessarily concordant - meaning the result is not always perfect). There are 'constituency-based' systems out there that are preferred by some experts - but pretty much all experts think that AV is superior to FPTP. If you're interested in the technical nitty gritty, there was a recent workshop on the topic at the London School of Economics.

  7. Brit here, and I like this post :) I like the blog post you linked too, as well. A more non-nerd-friendly article about it is here, which I would also recommend:

    (that's the one I'm getting my family to read)

  8. Hi LIz, there's also a nice little video by Dan Snow, which is great for sharing with the undecideds:

  9. The No campaign has a huge slush fund, donated by a handful of the super-rich

    And you say that this had nothing to to with religion.

    Right-wing politicians will always prefer voting system which benefit compact minorities, such as FPTP. If you're backed by lots of money and the church, than it easy to set up a small minority. People who vote for these RW parties, cannot risk eternal damnation for protecting their worldly interests; this explains because stopping abortion is major goal of the right. Plus, religious type is aganist left-wing economic policies.

    Further, if a party is backed by few deep pockets, then internal democracy can be easily sidestepped. If a party is backed by lots of small pockets, then internal democracy become an issue. This is way left-wing parties are usally more divided than their right-wing cunterparts.

  10. Canadian here.

    Ever since reading this article, I've been pushing the idea of ranked voting on all my friends.

    I'm hoping we can get a fairer voting system set up on my side of the pond. Sadly, both the Liberals and the Cons are against fair voting because it benefits the smaller parties at the expense of the larger ones.

    Best of luck getting the AV in place on your side.


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