Thursday, 5 May 2011

Take your pen and your ballot paper, shut your eyes, and...

One of the most debated points about AV is whether it is too confusing for members of the public to understand. Nick Clegg says it's dead easy; David Cameron says it's much too complicated. Who is right?

Cameron looking confused

Clegg says that it's as easy as 1, 2, 3: all you have to do is to rank the candidates in order of preference. And once you stop having preferences, you stop ranking. It's no more complicated than asking someone to get you a cheese sandwich, and telling them that if there are no cheese sandwiches left then you'll have a tuna one instead. How can that be hard to understand?

Cameron, on the other hand, quotes from a book explaining AV:

As the process continues the preferences allocated to the remaining candidates may not be the second choices of those electors whose first-choice candidates have been eliminated. It may be that after three candidates have been eliminated, say, when a fourth candidate is removed from the contest one of the electors who gave her first preference to him gave her second, third and fourth preferences to the three other candidates who have already been eliminated, so her fifth preference is then allocated to one of the remaining candidates.

He's read it several times, he says, and still doesn't understand it; and he suspects most people will have similar trouble. How can anyone say that AV is easy?

So who's right?

Clegg looking simple
Essentially, they both are: they're talking about completely different things, one of which is simple, and one of which is complicated. Clegg says that AV is simple because it's easy to understand how to vote; Cameron says that AV is confusing because it's difficult to understand how the votes are added up. What you will have to do at the next general election, if the referendum gets through, is just not that complicated, and pretty much anyone can do it; but understanding how the numbers got turned into results is much harder, and is highly likely to fox a large proportion of the electorate.

So where does that leave us? The key question underlying this is: what should voters be expected to understand? Is it enough that they understand how to vote, or should the vast majority of voters also be able to understand how the votes are tallied?

One could make a good case for either side. One might well argue that as long as enough people understand the system and are satisfied that it is fair, then it doesn't matter if some other people don't understand the full details, as long as they are able to cast their vote. But it could also be argued that the democratic process should be transparent to everyone, that I have a right to understand what happens to my ballot paper after I drop it in the box, and that if the process is too confusing for me to follow then I'm denied full participation in the election.

I don't know the answer. But it is rather disappointing that the question hasn't been discussed, because it is an important one.

If you think that everyone should be able to understand how the votes are tallied, then AV is, as Cameron says, too complicated, and I don't see how you can support the referendum.

If, on the other hand, you think that that is unnecessarily strict, and that it is sufficient for voters to understand how to cast their votes, then AV is, as Clegg says, perfectly simple, and you might be happy to support the referendum (though this would only rule out one argument against it, rather than provide a conclusive argument for it).

But that's something you'll have to think through for yourself.

Oh dear. Confusing, isn't it?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The nasty part is that we are not being given a choice of voting systems, somebody already selected just TWO for us to vote on! How democratic is that? I like neither tuna nor cheese sandwiches! Schulze anyone?