Friday, 9 November 2012

Police elections - how to vote

One thing that will be new to almost everyone who turns out to vote in the Police Commissioner elections next Thursday is the voting system. The Supplementary Vote (SV) system gives you a chance to make two choices.

The ballot paper has two columns - for a first choice and a second choice. In each case you mark your preference with an X.

So long as you mark a first choice, your vote will count. But you also have the chance to say who your second preference is with another X. Obviously if you cast it for the same candidate as your first preference then it won't count - but your first preference will still be valid.

What does this mean in practice? In order to win, a candidate needs to have a majority (ie over half) of the first preference votes. If no one has this majority then the top two vote-getters go through to the second round. All the ballot papers cast for the remaining candidates are examined and if the second preferences are cast for one of the top two then these votes are transferred to the second choice. The second choice votes are added to the first and the person with the most votes wins.

Although this gives voters a little more voting power, it's a far from perfect system. The Alternative Vote (AV) system rejected by voters in the referendum last year is far better.

What's wrong with SV? Well for a start, voters have to guess who will make it through to the top two if they want to make sure that their vote will count. If neither of their preferences is for one of the top two then their vote is, effectively, wasted. And with ten candidates on the ballot in Devon and Cornwall for an entirely new position with no voting history, this might be a challenge even for ardent political geeks like me.

For an example from history, look at the first London Mayoral election back in 2000. In that election, the official Labour candidate failed to make the top two. So a voter who chose a fringe candidate as their first choice and put Labour second might have thought they were voting with their heart first and head second. But in the end neither vote counted.

In my view the ideal voting system should not involve tactical voting or guesswork of this sort.

And there is no guarantee that the ultimate winner will secure more than half the votes cast. In most SV elections in the UK (the system has previously been used for a number of mayoral elections in 12 towns and cities), comparatively few people have ended up casting a second preference vote that transfers. That's not to say the second preference votes that do transfer don't matter - in many cases they have been crucial. But a combination of lack of understanding of the system and poor guesswork leaves most voters out in the cold.

Next Thursday electors should go out and cast their first preference for the candidate they think will do the best job as Police Commissioner. If they truly want their second preference to have a chance of counting, then they should use this for someone they think will end up being in the top two. Historically, local elections in Devon and Cornwall have been between the Lib Dems and Conservatives across most of the patch and between Labour and Conservatives in the cities. To be honest, a voter not including one of those three as either their first or second preference is unlikely to see their vote count. And even I as a member of one of those parties thinks that is wrong.

1 comment:

Stephen Cornish said...

Good informative post although I'd disagree over AV being better as I voted against it in the referendum. Not sure SV is much better but my research for that referendum convinced me that all voting methods have their flaws and that the one we have is the best of a bad bunch.