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Minneapolis IRV goes to Britain for the royal wedding

by Eric Ferguson on April 30, 2011

OK, that headline isn’t true. Or even fully coherent. There is a grain of truth however, because Britain is having a referendum May 5 on whether to institute IRV, which they call Alternative Voting (AV), for parliamentary elections. Naturally, if we do something in Minneapolis, the whole world wants to copy, which must be why Britain decided to do this.

OK, they may not have even heard of Minneapolis, but journalist and columnist Johann Hari made the case in a recent column and in his latest podcast, and the arguments for an against are remarkably similar to the IRV debates we have here. I recommend listening to the podcast over reading the column because they seem to be the same, but it worked better spoken.

Getting this referendum was a demand of the Liberal Democrat Party for forming a coalition with the Conservative Party, presumably to solve their problem of consistently getting fewer seats than their share of the popular vote would suggest. Hari isn’t a Lib Dem, but British proponents are trying to solve the same problem we have here. Plurality winners, called First Past the Post in Britain, might be utterly despised by a large majority of voters, but win the election anyway. It’s a bit worse in Britain even than here. The Conservatives are getting to govern with 36% of the vote. That’s about what Jesse Ventura won with in 1998. At least we’re just a state:

Let me explain. In Britain today, we have a centre-left majority who want this to be a country with European-level taxes, European-standard public services and European-level equality. We have had this for a very long time. Even at the height of Thatcherism, 56 per cent of people voted for parties committed to higher taxes and higher spending. But the centre-left vote is split between several parties – while the right-wing vote clusters around the Conservatives. So under FPTP they get to rule and dominate out of all proportion to their actual support, and drag most of us in a direction we don’t want to go. That’s why the Tories are united in supporting the current system, and throwing a fortune at preventing any change.

Apparently in British parliamentary elections, they have huge numbers of plurality winners, and overall, the party with the majority of seats almost always had just a plurality of votes. American elections don’t normally have a third party able to gain enough votes to sway a result, but sometimes we do, like almost every Minnesota election where the IP puts up a strong candidate. We don’t of course know how competitive third parties would be if voters didn’t have to worry about wasting a vote on a hopeless candidate and risking a win by someone they can’t stand — so they vote for someone just a bit less noxious.

This system has a series of obvious advantages. At the moment, your MP can appeal to a small minority and win. Under AV, she will have to work harder to appeal to a majority of people in your area – and you can express your political desires much more clearly. For example, I want a government that is more left-wing and more green than either Labour or the Tories, but at every election under FPTP, I have no way of saying that. If I vote Green, I risk splitting the centre-left vote, and letting a Tory win – the result I want least. So I have to vote Labour, even though it’s an uncomfortable fit (especially at the height of New Labour). Under AV, you and I can express our views much more clearly.

The counter-arguments are mostly similar to the debates we have here, namely that people are too dumb to figure it out, it will cost too much, and it gives some people extra votes — though Minnesota conservatives didn’t think of the killing premature babies argument. Really, that’s part of the case against:

Against this, the No to AV campaign has run the oddest political campaign in living memory. Their central argument is that the British people are too thick to understand the argument I’ve just made. Their broadcasts are filled with puzzled voters who are left helpless at the idea of counting 1,2,3 in the ballot box, and end up raging in incomprehension and begging to be allowed just to draw a cross. They then fall into such confusion they accidentally elect a fascist. I almost admire the boldness of this political message: vote No to AV because you and your friends are clearly brain-damaged.

When this argument gained little traction, they switched to another one. This next sentence is not a joke: check out their website to see it for yourself. They said that voting for AV would kill premature babies and soldiers in Afghanistan. Really. They bought ads showing these vulnerable groups, and claimed AV would take £250m directly from their incubators and body armour and squander it on counting. There’s only one problem. The figure is made up. Where did it come from? They claimed AV requires voting machines costing £120m – even though Australia has AV and counts its ballots by hand. Then they included the cost of the referendum itself – which is happening now, whether you vote no or not.

Their arguments just got weirder and weirder. They claimed AV gives some people “two or three votes.” How? If I go into a shop to buy a Mars bar and they’ve run out so I get my second preference – a Twix – do I leave with two chocolate bars? Then they claimed – in Sayeeda Warsi’s words – “a vote for AV is a vote for the BNP”. This can only be consciously dishonest. In reality the BNP is campaigning against AV, because they know it kills their chances: they might conceivably get 25 percent in a seat one day, but they’ll never get 50 percent. This is the importing of the most crude Karl Rove-style tactics to Britain.

I couldn’t find the premature babies claim on the No to AV site, but it looks like it was removed, because I found references to it and a photo of a poster.

In all our debates over IRV, I never heard the candy bar analogy before. That’s a good one.

Interesting how Hari could refer to “Karl Rove-style tactics” without feeling a need to explain the reference to a British audience. Even out of office, the Bush administration is an embarrassment. I saw another example of a Rovian tactic when I looked up the No to AV web site, two pieces of fear-mongering in one sentence: “Governments would be selected through backroom deals and people would have no control over where their vote goes.” Backroom deals — did they completely miss how long it took their own government to form as coalition talks went on … in secret? How many people intended to vote for the resulting coalition? Roughly zero. As Hari points out, 66% voted for are represented by someone they didn’t vote for. Some control.

The campaign against IRV in Minneapolis wasn’t all that strong, but if we try to institute it statewide, we can probably consider this “No to AV” campaign the sort of thing we’ll be hit with by our own conservatives. Maybe. I throw in the “maybe” because if Republicans believe Tom Horner cost Tom Emmer the governor race, maybe they’ll be open to it. If not though, then maybe we’re getting a preview of the “No to IRV” or “No to RCV” campaign.

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