As a casual Australian observer, it has been fascinating observing the debate about introducing the ‘alternative vote’ (AV) or preferential voting for British elections. Preferential voting is standard for all Australian elections and preference flows get widely discussed before each election. Many people often wonder why AV has not been adopted more widely as it ensures no one’s vote is wasted.
One thing that has stood out in the British debate has been the many falsehoods about AV that are peddled by its opponents such as its complexity and even that it is more unfair than first past the post. The most recent has been on voter turnout by Margaret Beckett:
This is so important it has to rise above party politics. Only three other countries use AV and one, Fiji, is abandoning it. It led to a significant drop in the number of people voting in Australia – that’s why they had to make voting compulsory. AV doesn’t help democracy, it stands in its way.
Beckett’s claim should be critically examined as there is no clear link between the introduction of AV and the drop off in the number of people voting that occurred in Australia. Preferential voting was introduced in Australia at a federal level by a conservative government in 1918. In 1919, the first general election where preferential voting was used, turnout was 71%. The federal introduction of compulsory voting in 1924 only occurred after the 1922 federal election where turnout declined to 59%. If there was a clear link, turnout would have significantly declined in 1919. Beckett’s conclusion that AV leads to a decline in voter turnout draws a long bow from no clear evidence.
It is important to remember that the AV model being proposed in the referendum is optional preferential voting (OPV), not compulsory preferential voting. There needs to be a clear distinction between compulsory preferencing used in Australia and optional preferencing used for state elections in Queensland and New South Wales. Unlike compulsory preferential voting, OPV gives the voter the ability to choose not to preference by exhausting his or her vote. It also gives a greater weight to first preference votes, decreasing the tendency of perverse outcomes such as where the candidate who comes third determines who wins in a three cornered contests.
OPV can be a double edged sword. It can advantage or disadvantage a party depending on the political landscape. It enabled Queensland Labor to run an effective “Just Vote 1″ campaign against a conservative coalition at a state level but it has also enabled minor parties such as the Greens to gradually eat into Labor’s primary vote and allow those votes to exhaust.
The merits of AV and its effect on Labour’s electoral chances should be debated. However, to claim that AV will decrease voter turnout is just wrong. It is not based on any conclusive evidence from Australia and only serves to further muddle the AV debate.