Myth busting: Do you get more than one vote under AV?

By Jonathan Bartley
January 24, 2011

There has been quite a bit of nonsense talked about AV giving people “more than one vote” (eg votes being counted "five or six times") or “treating voters unequally”. The claim wasn’t even entertained by the Jenkins’ Commission on the voting system when it looked at AV. The idea was however once tested in the courts in the US.

As highlighted recently, AV is being increasingly adopted by US cities after referendums, not least because it shows that it can challenge the power of big money in politics.

As long ago as the 1970s however, a rather desperate court challenge was mounted after a city election. It was claimed that AV (known as Instant Runoff Voting 'IRV' in the US and also previously as ‘MPV’) gave minority candidates two votes and treated voters “unequally”. If the claims held any water, then such a system would be unconstitutional.

But in Stephenson vs. the Ann Arbor Board of City Canvassers in 1975, a Michigan court ruled emphatically that Majority Preferential Voting (or MPV, as IRV was then known) was in compliance with the constitution. It did not give anyone more than one vote. It treated people equally.

In his decision, Judge James Fleming wrote:

"Each voter has the same right at the time he casts his or her ballot. Each voter has his or her ballot counted once in any count that determines whether one candidate has a majority of the votes. Each voter has the same opportunity as the next voter in deciding whether or not to list numerical preferences for his or her candidate and has the same equality of opportunity as any other voter if his or her candidate is eliminated as the lowest vote-getter, and his or her second choice preference becomes the viable vote."

Later he continues:

“Under the 'MPV System' one person or voter has more than one effective vote for one office. No voter's vote can be counted more than once for the same candidate. In the final analysis, no voter is given greater weight in his or her vote over the vote of another voter, although to understand this does require a conceptual understanding of how the effect of a 'MPV System' is like that of a run-off election. The form of majority preferential voting employed in the City of Ann Arbor's election of its Mayor does not violate the one-man, one-vote mandate nor does it deprive anyone of equal protection rights under the Michigan or United States Constitutions.”

You can read the full judgement here:

Contrast this ruling with what the Jenkins' Commission concluded about the existing First Past the Post System in the UK:

"One thing that FPTP assuredly does not do is to allow the elector to exercise a free choice in both the selection of a constituency representative and the determination of the government of the country."

"The next criticism of FPTP is that it narrows the terrain over which the political battle is fought, and also, in an associated although not an identical point, excludes many voters from ever helping to elect a winning candidate."

"One of the most salient characteristics of the system is that it makes it as difficult as possible for a third party to win seats and thus does its best to render that threat innocuous".

When it comes to a comparison between First Past the Post and the Alternative Vote it does seem pretty clear - at least as far as those whose job it has been to judge the two systems - which system best supports voter equality and the idea of one person one vote, and which one does not.

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