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How AV can lead to the election of the least favoured candidate

According to Yes to Fairer Votes, Alternative Vote (AV) is “as simple as 1,2,3…. The principle behind AV is just as simple. An election winner should need the support of a majority of the people.” That sounds fair. So how is it that, under AV, you could end up with the least popular candidate? Not so fair after all. Here’s how it can happen (with thanks to John Bone of the University of York for a very similar example):

Imagine this hypothetical constituency of 100 people:

45 people prefer party X but would all give their second preferences to party Z.

40 people prefer party Y but 12 would give their second preferences

to party X and the remaining 28 to party Z.

15 people prefer party Z but would all give their second preferences to party Y.

Under First Past the Post (FPTP), Party X would win with 45 votes. That’s not fair, say the Fairer votes advocates. Because 55 prefer other parties.

Under AV, Party Y would win because party Z would be eliminated and their votes transferred to party Y, giving Y 55 votes, a clear majority. That’s fairer, say the Fairer votes advocates which seems to make sense. But this is only because they assume that the second preferences (of party Z voters) are worth the same as everyone else’s first preferences.

But if that’s true, aren’t everyone’s second preferences worth the same as first preferences? And if that’s true, we could simply add up everyone’s first and second preferences. This would show that party Z is actually the most popular with 88 votes with party X on 57, and party Y the least popular on 55.

Now, you may think this is a clever trick — and in a way you’re right. But it is a trick which is based on the “Fairer Votes” own assumption, namely the equivalent value of first and second preferences. So it is a perfectly reasonable way to demonstrate the falsity of the Fairer Votes claim.

If you don’t make that assumption, which FPTP defenders don’t, then of course you couldn’t claim that the winner under AV had “majority support” in the first place.


  1. Peter Roosevelt says:

    Please… You want people’s second choice to count AGAINST their first choice. That’s crazy. With AV, that never happens.

    In your example, the CURRENT system is the one that elects the least favored candidate. AV elects the candidate who was right behind that candidate in plurality and defeats that candidate in a one-on-one runoff. That’s obviously fairer than first past the post.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      In my example, I am not counting anyone’s “second choice to count AGAINST their first choice.” I am counting everyone’s second choice to count in addition to their first choice, which is surely fairer than just counting the second choices of those least liked as a first preference.

  2. Gary Elsby says:

    Nice trick. Had me going for a while.

    Under FPTP 45 wins and 55 are binned.

    Everyone else, X Y Z has more of a win under AV.

    Therefore AV is superior by a mile.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      No Gary. There are only three candidates. You need to have another go!

  3. Gary Elsby says:

    I don’t need another go.
    Each of X Y and Z win by more votes than X does on its own under FPTP.
    AV is superior.

    If I pass my baton onto my preferred choice, then that choice can go for a gold medal.
    I choose not to pass it to someone I wish to come second.

    Politics and ballots is not a fair contest.
    If we adopt FPTP, you can bet your house on it that the outcome is corrupted.

    Ed wishes that all Labour MPs are “selected by the majority of voters (AV)”.

    Labour 2010 manifesto says: ‘all MPs should be selected by a majority of voters’.

    Are we to believe that any Labour MP who goes against both advice and instruction, is doing so because of your argument you put forward, or will they do so because they hang by the skin of their teeth via a FPTP minority?

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