Electoral Commission: AV referendum question should be simplified

The question for the proposed referendum on the UK Parliamentary voting system should be made shorter and easier to understand, according to an assessment published by the Electoral Commission.

As I blogged back in July when when the original question was proposed,

The Electoral Commission is statutorily required to consider the intelligibility of the question, before reporting back to Parliament, who will consider the comments and have the final say after Recess.

Today’s report examines the question:

Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?

The Commission undertook research to find out whether people could easily understand the question, and concluded:

On the whole, people taking part in the research found the UK Government’s proposed referendum question clear and understood what it was about. But some people, particularly those with lower levels of education or literacy, found the question hard work and did not understand it. The structure of the question, its length, and some of the language used made it harder to read than it needed to be.

The Commission has recommended a redrafted question that addresses these issues.

The Commission also reports that, so far, voters have a limited understanding of the voting systems they will be asked to choose between in the proposed referendum on 5 May 2011. The elections watchdog identified a gap in public knowledge and understanding of what ‘first past the post’ means and, in particular, what the ‘alternative vote’ electoral system is.

The Commission’s suggested redraft of the question:

At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?

While the redrafted question is shorter and simpler, it deals with the structure rather than the meaning, and necessarily does not expand on the terms “first past the post” and “alternative vote” that some people did not understand.

For example, research showed that people had various assumptions about the meaning of “alternative vote”:

  • A different channel for voting other than in a polling station, such as postal voting or internet voting.
  • A different system for voting to what is used now (‘First Past the Post’) – but not a particular system. They thought the actual system would be decided later.
  • A system based on proportional representation, similar to those already used for some elections in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The research was carried out through focus groups and interviews with people from a variety of backgrounds, of different ages and varying levels of literacy. The Commission sought the views of interested parties (including the main political parties) and would-be campaigners, but notes that only one response was received from this sector, despite reminders.

The report, and the suggested question rewording, underlines the important role of campaign groups and the media and the Electoral Commission itself in the run-up to the referendum, in explaining both voting systems and publicising the referendum.

You can read the full report here.

The qualitative research is here.

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This entry was posted in Election law and News.


  • Just one of the problems with the name ‘Alternative Vote’ noted here. I don’t understand how it caught on as a name just because of how vague it is. When I’m describing it to people, the first thing I say is “It’s also known as Instant Run-off”, which much better communicates what the system actually does.

  • Colin Green 30th Sep '10 - 1:11pm

    I always talk about is as “preference voting” and then use the phrases “first preference”, “second preference” and so on. It makes more sense this way. Alternative Vote is a terrible name but it is a fairer system than First Past The Post.

  • David Wright 30th Sep '10 - 5:44pm

    I always thought the original wording was too complex, but I’m not sure the EC suggestion is much better. Maybe it needs to say something about marking candidates “1 2 3 and so on” instead of “X”.

  • Ensure that at every polling station during the referendum there is someone official on hand to explain verbally the distinction between FPTP and AV for those who are confused. Why should those with a low I.Q., poor education or inadequate understanding be disenfranchised? It would also contribute to employment at a time when so many public sector jobs will have been axed by the Blue and Orange Tories.

  • Stuart Mitchell 30th Sep '10 - 6:56pm

    If people cannot understand such a simple question, what hope have they of understanding the AV system itself? This is one of the many reasons I’ll be voting No.

  • From the full report; the link above is actually to the summary ( http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/102696/PVSC-Bill-QA-Report.pdf , page 24):

    “3.76 [No2AV] were concerned about the use of the term ‘First Past the Post’ because it could have negative connotations in comparing Parliamentary democracy to horse racing, in their view introducing bias to the question. (Naming the system FPTP was not, in fact, an issue that emerged in our voter research). They preferred the use of ‘current system’.”

    And a bit further down, in 3.79, responding to No2AV’s suggestion that the term “instant runoff voting” should be used instead:

    “… Drawing from our research evidence, however, we do not believe that using the term ‘instant runoff voting’ or other ways suggested of describing AV is likely to improve voter understanding of the referendum question.”

  • Paul Griffiths 30th Sep '10 - 11:32pm

    The EC’s suggestion is an improvement. As the report makes clear, the main problem is not the question per se but rather that most people don’t yet understand the term “alternative vote” (it is far too late to change the name now). But that will be addressed during the campaign.

  • Patrick Smith 30th Sep '10 - 11:50pm

    The shorter wording of the question is better than the initial research carried out by the ERC with 162 people, most being asked in a group situation.

    The views in the research of the less educated persons are of most interest, as these groups represent the greatest numbers of potential support for change and therefore have most to win.

    I believe that much depends on our front line L/D Team and Labour and Tory and Green Party supporters making out the case for much required change to AV using simple words using all ways and means available.

  • Maybe AV should instead be called “Majority Vote” or “Majority Winner” – i.e. the candidate who wins must have a majority of the votes, not just more than any one other candidate (which is usually a minority).

  • When briefing a research director in my first marketing job ever, I remember him saying somewhat impatiently: ‘Just tell me the result you want, and I’ll design the questions accordingly!’ This may be an extreme case, but well worth thinking about in this context. Language is all important. Another point, we activists may embrace the notion of change, but 40 years in marketing have taught me that most consumers are scared off by the word ‘change’. Particularly when uttered out loud. It’s all about minimising emotional risks associated with new things. Hence, their somewhat unwelcome reaction ‘better the devil you know’!

  • Stuart Mitchell 1st Oct '10 - 6:15pm

    blanco: “Maybe AV should instead be called “Majority Vote” or “Majority Winner” – i.e. the candidate who wins must have a majority of the votes, not just more than any one other candidate”

    Trouble is, that claim is mathematically false. Under AV, for every 1% of voters who refuse to vote for either of the top two candidates, the proportion of votes required to win goes down by 0.5%.

    So if (say) 20% of voters vote only for candidates placed third or worse, then the election can be won with just 40% of the vote. Hardly a majority, in fact in principle there is *no difference whatsoever* between AV and FPTP in this regard.

    This is a very simple mathematical point, yet even expensively educated party leaders seem unable to grasp it.

  • Trouble is, what blanco argued is mathematically correct. Under an AV system a candidate needs the support of a majority of all voters who make full use of their rights.

    Certainly, under both systems votes are wasted. They are no PR systems. The big difference, though, is that under FPTP many voters don’t count through no fault of their own, while under AV it is the voters who decide not to fully exercise their rights.

    Surely, that is a significant difference.

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