Friday, February 18, 2011

Patel unwittingly makes a Priti good case for saying Yes to AV

Over at ConHome, the Tory MP Priti Patel has written a response to a rare supporter of electoral reform from her own party. To be fair to her, although virtually all the objections she raises to AV are hair-splitting technical points synthetically elevated to jumbo-sized significance, and indeed three are plain untruths (that AV would make coalitions "the norm", that it would cost £250 million, and that some voters would have more votes than others), she is at least engaging with the issue at hand, instead of making fatuous points about how electoral reform will DESTROY THE LIVES OF NEWBORN BABIES. All the same, there is one portion of her article that initially puzzled me, and it relates - rather obscurely - to the election of the mayor of the town of Burlington in the US state of Vermont in 2009. This is Patel's somewhat partial account of what happened -

"In fact, sometimes AV can even make staying at home tactically better than turning out to vote at all – the ‘no-show paradox.’ In the US, for example, Republicans in Burlington, Vermont would have been better off had some of them stayed home during the last mayoral election that they ran under AV (of course, they’ve since ditched it and returned to First Past the Post). Had some Republicans not voted for their candidate, the centrist Democrat – for whom most Republicans cast their second preferences – would have made it to the second round and beat the left-wing Progressive, who went on to win despite coming second in the first round."

Now, you might be forgiven for deducing from all this that the "centrist Democrat" is the candidate who, in Patel's terms, "should have won". But that can't possibly be the case - the very fact that the Democrat didn't make it to the second round of the AV count (or Instant Run-off Voting to use the far superior American name) indicates that he must have finished third - or lower - on first preferences, and thus wouldn't have won under the first-past-the-post system Patel supports. Moreover, the fact that Patel is telling us that Republican voters acted counter-productively by turning out to vote indicates that their candidate must have finished in the top two in the first round. And if the Progressive was second, that must mean...?

Yep, you've guessed it. A quick check of Wikipedia reveals that it was in fact the Republican candidate who was ahead on first preferences, and who thus would have prevailed under first-past-the-post. And yet the fact that a left-wing Progressive was able to beat him in a straight two-way final round conclusively demonstrates that there was an outright anti-Republican majority in that electorate, and that the hypothetical first-past-the-post result would have been an utter perversion of democracy.

I'm afraid No campaigners are going to have to come up with something better than examples of AV doing exactly the job it's supposed to.

(For the record, the return to first-past-the-post in Burlington that Patel refers to was decided by a 52%-48% vote in a referendum. I'm not sure such a wafer-thin margin quite justifies her complacent "of course".)

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