Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

The Political Party conferences are over and the House of Commons will begin sitting on Monday 11th October.  On Tuesday 12th, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will be debated by a “Committee of the Whole House”.  Constitutionally, the Bill presents the possibility of yet another major change.

First, there will be a referendum – to be held on 5th May 2011 – to see whether the electorate votes in favour of abolishing the present “first past the post” system of election and replacing it with the form of “Alternative Vote” included in the Bill.

Alternative Vote (AV) will permit each voter to indicate an order of preference for each of the candidates – 1, 2, 3 ... etc.  The voter may indicate just one preference.  However, a voter who does this may well limit his or her influence over the eventual outcome since the vote would not count if the chosen candidate failed to secure over 50% of the vote at the first count.

The size of the House of Commons will become limited to 600 members each one representing a new constituency.  [An exception to “new” constituencies is that, in Scotland, the Western Isles and Orkney-Shetland will remain as they currently are].   The task of drawing up the revised constituency boundaries will be undertaken by the four Boundary Commissions and they will have until the end of September 2013 to do so.

An interesting angle, somewhat hidden in the detail, relates to prisoners.  Those prisoners who are not eligible to vote in an election will not be able to vote in the referendum.  The government claims that this will not breach Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights since, they argue, the referendum is not an election concerning the choice of the legislature.  Article 3 of Protocol 1 states: “The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”

The key features of the alternative vote system set out in the Bill are that:

Voters rank candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference, using 1, 2, 3 etc.

Voters may express a preference for as many or as few candidates as they wish. This means that a voter may vote for one candidate only if they wish. This is known as an ‘optional preferential’ system.

If after the counting of voters’ first preferences, any candidate has more than 50% of the votes at this stage then he or she is declared the winner. 

If no candidate has more than 50% of the votes counted, then there would be a further round of counting. The candidate in last place is eliminated, and each vote originally allocated to the eliminated candidate is reallocated to a remaining candidate according to the next preference expressed on each ballot paper. 

Where there is no next preference given, the ballot paper cannot be reallocated and is no longer counted. If a candidate has more than 50% of the votes left in the count once this reallocation has taken place he or she is elected. If not, then a further round of counting will take place and the candidate now in last place is eliminated and their votes reallocated. This process continues until one candidate has more than 50% of the votes left in the count, and is elected. 

Other information:

The changes in the Bill were first set out in Coalition: Our Programme for Government

Explanatory Notes to the Bill are also available. 

The Electoral Reform Society website contains excellent information about AV 

AV – the case for reform – Guardian 7th September 2010

Tribune Magazine – 20th September 2010 arguing that Labour should oppose this Bill

“AV opens the door to a new political world in which coalitions become the norm, and single-party majority government a distant memory. Defeat for AV could quickly end the coalition. But success would bind it together – for a long time to come.” - Vernon Bogdanor

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