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God Save First-Past-the-Post Elections!

May 1, 2011

If you thought the British couldn’t find a better waste of money than the Royal Wedding, just wait until this Thursday, when David Cameron’s government conducts a national referendum — the second in UK history — that Cameron himself opposes. The subject is a new voting system that some US libertarians have fancied for this country. And I think I’m going to have to side with Mr. Cameron on this one.

After last year’s general election produced a hung parliament, Cameron’s Conservative Party formed a coalition with the third-place Liberal Democrats. The price of Lib-Dem support was Cameron’s agreement to hold a referendum on the so-called Alternative Vote system. Instead of simply voting for a candidate and declaring the person with the most votes the winner, the Alternative Vote allows voters to rank all candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of the first-preference votes, the candidate with the lowest total is eliminated and his votes are redistributed according to each voter’s subsequent preferences. This process repeats until a candidate obtains a majority.

Many US Libertarian Party activists support the Alternate Vote system — the national LP platform has endorsed it — which is referred to here as instant-runoff voting (IRV). The system has been used in some local elections. Burlington, Vermont, conducted two mayoral elections under IRV, but after the second election resulted in the first-preference winner losing the final count, voters repealed the system.

As the term IRV suggests, supporters tout the method as eliminating the need for costly runoff elections in cases where there is a minimum threshold to elect a candidate (for example, Burlington has always required a 40% threshold to elect its mayor). Why have a second election when you can have voters rank their second (or third or fourth) choice in advance? This seems to drive a lot of LP support for the idea.

In the UK — where elections have always been “first past the post” without requiring a minimum percentage — AV supporters say the system is “fairer” and more democratic, since House of Commons candidates will now need a majority to win election; under first-part-the-post, a winner might only receive one-third of the votes if more than two parties contest the seat. And since voters can rank their preferences for multiple candidates, they can cast a first-preference ballot for a minor-party candidate without worrying their vote will be “wasted,” since they can still cast a lower-preference vote for a mainstream candidate.

This is the sore point for AV opponents. David Cameron, opining against the referendum in Sunday’s Telegraph, who insists the traditional, first-past-the-post method is actually fairer:

It is enshrined in our constitution and integral to our history – and AV flies in the face of all that because it destroys one person, one vote.

If you vote for a mainstream candidate who comes top in the first round, your other preferences will never be counted.

But if you vote for a fringe candidate who gets knocked out early, your other votes will be counted.

That means the second, third, even fourth votes of someone who supports the Monster Raving Looney Party can count as much as the first vote of someone who supports a mainstream party. That is unfair and undemocratic.

The pro-AV campaign counters that ranking preference merely allows the voter to transfer his existing vote without actually generating a new one. As the Yes in May 2011 organization’s website put it, “If you go to the chip shop, and order cod and chips but they are out of cod, and you choose pie and chips instead, you have still only had one meal.”

From the libertarian — small l, not LP — perspective, it’s unclear how AV helps or hurts individual rights one way or the other. It seems AV supporters’ primary objective is increasing voter participation, and that’s far from a desirable libertarian objective. Every increase in the franchise has coincided with a massive expansion of state power. When voting becomes a “right,” natural rights tend to suffer.

Indeed, the principal “benefit” of AV is that it manufactures the illusion of majority rule. The whole point is to manipulate the ballot count until someone has a majority of the votes counted, if not an absolute majority. Thus the winner can claim “legitimacy” based on the fact he received most of the votes that were counted — the final time.

The only large-scale democracy that employs AV is Australia, which has used it in lower house elections since 1912. Australia also has compulsory voting, where people are fined if they don’t go to the polls — yet another handy tool when you’re trying to maintain the illusion of majority consent for the state’s operations.

And if the Australian example is instructive, AV does not substantially improve the competitiveness of minor parties. Australia, like the UK, has two dominant parties with a third party that occasionally swings the balance of power. Only one seat (out of 150) in the current Australian House of Representatives is not held by one of these three parties. In contrast, the current British House of Commons has 29 (out of 650) seats held by minor parties.

That Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, back AV is also telling. They are unlikely to gain many more seats under this system versus the current one. But AV could help them preserve their niche as a swing bloc in the House. AV will help prevent “erosion” of Lib-Dem voters who might turn to the Labour Party, and it could create a structural leftist majority for the two parties — which would also explain the veracity of the Conservative opposition.

AV could also be a stepping stone towards the dream of third parties everywhere — proportional representation, where seats are assigned in the legislature by popular support for political parties without regard for local constituencies. Again, there are some LP-types who think this would be good for their cause. And again, I’m skeptical. Proportional representation can be the worst of all worlds. Legislators are loyal to a political organization first, not any particular group of voters. More importantly, proportional representation fractures legislative bodies to the point where governments build “coalitions” by nakedly bribing smaller parties with favors — which means more government spending and more economic intervention.

Small-l libertarians should avoid the temptation of AV/IRV, proportional representation, and other electoral system “reforms.” The absence of competing political parties within a legislature is less problematic than the absence of competition between legislative and executive (and judicial) powers. As Danny Sanchez noted the other day, “It was after the House of Commons became all-powerful in the late 19th century that Great Britain became a welfare-warfare state” — a consequence of the weakening of the monarchy and Lords as competing sources of political authority.

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