'You just don't need voting machines for AV'

Written by  Why did you decide to join Yes? on 18 April 2011 in Diary
Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson explains why AV is not the perfect system, but an improvement on what we have now

I was really concerned about the unfairness of our voting system, long before I even got involved in politics and joined the Liberal Democrats. That came from growing up in a constituency where it didn’t matter what you did, whether you voted or not frankly, because Labour would always get in. And it just seemed to me that this was a crazy way to have a voting system. So actually one of the things that attracted me to the Liberal Democrats alongside other polices was their belief in a proportional representation system. It was kind of obvious that I want to change the voting system and we’ve got this opportunity to do so. That’s why I want to be involved in the Yes campaign because we’ve never had this chance before. This is a historic first in British politics and so we need to grab this opportunity and make the case to the public. From the conversations I’ve been having with my constituents, they also are seized with the understanding of why we have to change our broken political system and the chance to do it.

For you, is AV the ultimate system, or is it a step in the right direction towards proportional representation?

No, well, I’m a Liberal Democrat. I could talk for Britain on the merits and de-merits of different electoral systems. It’s one of my favourite questions when I go and visit local schools because they do topics on different types of electoral system. Of course Scotland’s really interesting because we’ve got four different electoral systems, five if you count that when you vote in council by-election you’re using AV instead of STV. So STV is like my ideal, perfect world system. But I take the view that we’ve got the opportunity to improve things here and AV is definitely an improvement. I actually think it’s got advantages over say for example, the system we’ve got for the Scottish Parliament. While that is more proportional it has its downsides as well. As I say, I can talk for Britain. My absolute perfect world scenario would be STV. But at the end of the day, let’s not let the best be the enemy of the good. We’ve got a chance to make a change for the better, let’s take it.

It’s probably fair to say that the referendum campaign in Scotland is certainly very much low key compared to the Scottish Parliament election. We’ve got a general election in Scotland on the 5 May and so the extent that people are interested in politics, that’s taking up a large share as you would expect of the interest. I certainly know more about the Yes campaign, but I presume there’s similar No campaign groups. We’ve certainly got around the country, I’m aware of the group in Glasgow is obviously my closest one and I’ve been in to telephone at the phonebank there, so there is stuff there that’s going on, but probably much more at a grassroots level than on a national media level. I’m sure that will change. I’m sure in the run up to the 5 May then the various broadcasters and the newspapers will be exposing the arguments on both sides in a kind of public information type way but understandably a lot of the focus is on what party is going to be leading the government in Scotland, who’s going to be First Minister, which policies are going to be enacted under the new Scottish parliament when that’s elected.

What is the truth about the need for voting machines after the next election? And what is the Electoral Reform Society's involvement?

The only voting machines that I’ve been aware of were for counting the local council elections. I mean you just don’t need voting machines for AV. Have they [No to AV] ever managed to answer that question as to why they think it would? I’ll give you an example right, in my constituency, in the last two years we’ve had two by-elections in the council. Now when you have STV, it’s STV because you have a multi-member ward. When you have a by-election therefore you count with AV because AV is basically STV but for a single-member ward. We had both those by-elections and they were counted in the exact same way, by hand, as every other election has been counted.

I think No to AV's point was that they felt the ERS has a financial interest in Yes winning, because it might then open up the opportunity for them to...

Well, I don’t know the intricacies of the Electoral Reform Society but I do know that those two things are entirely separate. The ERS have an interest in Yes winning because they are the Electoral Reform Society. They were set up and their members, who have joined that organisation who pay money because they really believe in this, want electoral reform. So of course, the ERS is going to be in favour of a Yes vote. If it wasn’t, then its board of directors would be kicked out by its membership. These are people who this is one of the most important issues possibly if they are only a member of the ERS it is their most important political issue.

I think the other part of their argument is there’s been no decision after the election as to whether they would introduce voting machines. The Cabinet Office said they’d wait for the result and then they’d address those kind of things. Do you know anything about that?

No. I just don’t understand. Australia has AV, and they have never used voting machines. What would you need the voting machines to do?

No claim that ballot papers are five times more likely to be spoilt under AV compared to First Past the Post because of misunderstanding or because of miscounting.

I just don’t understand. And where does that come from? In terms of misunderstanding, if people misunderstand and think it’s still a FPTP election, that’s not a spoilt ballot paper, they can vote with an X. The returning officers’ general rule is, is the voter’s intention clear? I’ve seen in election where people have put a smiley face in the box next to the candidate and that’s been agreed – these are the ones that are a bit contentious – between candidates and agents and they’ve said I think the voting intention is clear, everybody agrees, whether it’s an X. People have, again, been asked to vote with an X but I’ve seen cases where people vote with a 1 next to a candidate and that also has been agreed. So if the voters' intention is clear, it will not be a spoilt ballot. I just don’t understand why they seem to think people can’t vote 1,2,3. I mean it’s that simple. But if they just want to vote 1 or X then that’s allowed too. So even the people who like the way we do it now, they can continue voting the way they do now if they really, really want to and don’t want to have their vote count if their preferred candidate comes last.

What about additional costs? David Cameron in his speech said that things like quangos might have to be set up afterwards, and consultants brought in, and that Yes have been unable to cost that.

I don’t really understand where this cost thing comes from except from no trying to scare people into not having a better voting system. When they talk about the cost figure, the vast majority of the cost that they attribute to AV are machines, which as we’ve just discussed, nobody has actually said why that will be needed. The Conservative Party, when they counted their leadership ballot, they used machines.

No, but they use a different system that is not straightforward AV.

They vote in different round, don’t they? but it’s kind of like doing the Tory system but it’s all in one paper. I mean it really is the same. There are so many election that are done under AV that do not... anyone that’s been in politics will have been voting this way for years and years and they don’t have the money for expensive voting machines. As I say, Australia don’t. So the No campaign really hasn't answered the questions as to why voting machines are needed and the reason they can’t answer that question is because they are not needed and they’re just trying to scaremonger. They also try to include in their cost the cost of the referendum. Well yes, it costs money to have a referendum. It costs money to have elections. But they’re not arguing we shouldn’t have elections. And actually, whether or not we have a No vote, or a Yes vote, the money, the cost of the referendum will have been spent anyway, so that’s not a cost of voting Yes. Consultants might be needed, quangos might be needed? We don’t need to set up quangos! We’ve got an Electoral Commission that can produce information, we’ve already got returning officers and we’ve got all the machinery of how you do elections. All this means is you vote in a slightly different very, very simple way. And it’s counted, still by hand, but in a series of rounds. It couldn’t be simpler.

What about extremism? Yes have the poster with Nick Griffin saying ‘Say No to the BNP. Vote Yes on 5 May.' Do you think it’s right to have pictures of Nick Griffin on national campaign literature?

Well, Nick Griffin is supporting the No campaign, the BNP are supporting the No vote. When you’ve got the No campaign trying to suggest if the numbers go our way, then it makes it easier for extremists, I think we need to point out that, if it did the BNP would be voting Yes. But they’re not.

Well, the BNP are actually in favour of PR.

Exactly, exactly, because they know that the only time – well, there’s two times that they’ve managed to get people elected. One is under a PR-list system for the European elections, and I think that’s a down side of the list system. That’s why it’s not my preferred system, and the other side is under First Past the Post, where you have very split votes, and you have council wards where you have perhaps a four-way fight, maybe even a five-way fight if you’ve got an independent and the BNP managed to win on 20-21% of the vote. But those people whose votes are split amongst the coalition, between Labour, Conservative Lib Dem and say Independent, the vast majority of them, even if the Labour candidate doesn’t do very well, those voters would be much more easily transferred to Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Independent than the BNP. Because much of the Tories and Labour Party might hate each other, but there’s a kind of line there that most people wouldn’t cross when it comes to the BNP. So FPTP has given us BNP elected representatives. Yes, the list system has given us BNP elected representatives. AV is much less likely to, because you have to have a wide base of support. The transfer votes, the second and third preferences, I mean who’s going to put the BNP as their second preference? You know either you are an extremist and you’re voting BNP or you’re mainstream and you’re not going to give them your second preference.

But then, BNP candidates who are likely to be knocked out first, are actually likely to have their second and third preferences counted more so than someone who voted for Labour or Lib Dems.

If you vote Labour or Lib Dem and they stay in the race, then your vote counts in the next round. Every individual still has the right to have a vote. Much as I don’t like the BNP, I’m a democrat. They have the right to exist as a party as long as they stick within the rules of the land in terms of not inciting violence and so on. And people have the right to vote for them. And just because I find their policies absolutely abhorrent, I wouldn’t say that somebody who chooses to vote for them doesn’t have a right to vote. We live in a democracy.

Tags: Alternative vote (AV), Alternative Vote referendum, BNP, Electoral Commission, Electoral Reform Society, Extremism, Full transcript, Jo Swinson, Nick Griffin, Voting machines

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