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Will the Mayoral election be decided by Supplementary Votes?

Will the Mayoral election be decided by Supplementary Votes?

🕔29.Apr 2017

A few of you saddos possibly spent last Sunday afternoon tele-watching the Arsenal-Manchester City FA Cup semi-final. I, by contrast writes Chris Game, attended live a not semi- but very ‘Final Public Debate’ for the West Midlands Mayor somewhere in what is rightly termed the NEC complex – and considered it time well spent (phew, Ed).

Not least because, in addition to the entertainment itself, several of the candidates’ remarks provide me with an easy opening to the blog I was intending to write anyway on the Supplementary Vote (SV) electoral system we’ll be using in next Thursday’s election.

For most UK voters SV, though relatively simple, is still relatively unfamiliar, having been used in only mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections. But, if anyone should understand it, you’d think it would be the candidates.

Yet, of the five present on Sunday, one both misidentified it and made incorrect claims on its behalf, while two others issued, apparently in earnest, what I’ll suggest is both bad and democratically detrimental advice to potential voters.

First, though, a comparison. In the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) area we’re approaching two big elections. On 8th June, we’re being asked to use again the familiar but anti-proportional, winner-takes-all, ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) system to enhance the mandate of an already domineering one-party majority government elected by under 37% of voters and under a quarter of the registered electorate.

READ: Conservative hat-trick forecast in Birmingham at General Election.

In 2015, nearly 4 million UKIP voters gave the party the third largest vote share, but earned themselves just one MP in a 650-member House: one-third of the votes of the government party but 330 fewer MPs. That’s how democratic it is.

Half of all votes cast (22 million) were ‘wasted’ by going to losing candidates, and, as normally happens nowadays, most MPs were elected with a majority of votes cast against them. With so relatively few votes actually contributing to the result, the surprise is less that a third of electors didn’t vote, than that two-thirds did.

In this sense, the mayoral elections are significantly different. SV is far from perfect, but it’s relatively easy to administer and generally produces a visible and accepted majority winner.  Most importantly, though, we have a much better chance, if we take it, of seeing our votes – even our initial votes for losing candidates – actually contribute to the result than we will on 8th June.

In that sense, SV is a much more incentivising system – for voters and also for candidates, who need to look beyond their core supporters for possibly decisive supplementary votes.

I touched briefly on SV in an earlier blog.  Now, with the two leading runners – the Conservatives’ Andy Street (8/11) and Labour’s Siôn Simon (11/10) – still hovering around evens and clearly some way ahead of the rest of the field, both the time and conditions are ideal for a closer look.

Its almost accidental adoption stemmed from the early 1990s, when Labour, well into its second decade of opposition, decided there might after all be some merit in the electoral reform cause it had previously opposed.

The party came up, therefore, with an electoral system for the Commons (SV) that both resembled and differed from the Alternative Vote (AV) we were to reject decisively nearly 20 years later in the Coalition’s 2011 referendum. By which time, executive mayors had come along in 2002 and SV was taken down off its shelf, dusted off, and used for their election.

Contrary to the impression given on Sunday by UKIP mayoral candidate, Pete Durnell – who actually contested an SV election when he stood for Police and Crime Commissioner in 2016 – the two systems aren’t and don’t even look identical.

They do, though, have similarities, as SV in particular has with the ongoing French Presidential election, except that while the latter is taking two weeks over the run-off, ours will happen over a few hours next Friday at the Barclaycard Arena.

All are preferential systems, allowing voters to express a choice of candidates en route to the eventual election of a single one. However, with AV, voters have one ballot paper, on which they rank candidates 1, 2, 3 etc. in order of preference. A candidate receiving more than half the first preference votes is elected outright.

Otherwise, the candidate with least preferences is eliminated, their second preference votes moving to one of the remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate has over half the votes, and can claim to have been elected eventually on a majority mandate.

SV is a kind of abbreviated AV, voters having only two, rather than unlimited, choices. Hence the two-column ballot paper – one for them to mark their first choice, and one, if they wish, for their second. It’s that simple.










All first choices are counted, and, if a candidate has a majority, they are elected – end of.  If not, as generally happens in multi-candidate contests, just the top two candidates continue to the second count, and the votes of those eliminated redistributed according to their second-choice votes to determine the winner.

Some argue that AV would be a better system for ensuring a single elected leader has the eventual backing of an absolute, rather than relative, majority of those who voted, but SV’s record for producing decisive and accepted results is in practice pretty good.

Over five London Mayoral elections, for example, the elected Mayor’s average lead over his run-off opponent (all 10 ‘top twos’ so far have been male) has been nearly 10%, and no result has been seriously disputed.

Londoners, though, have become used to SV. We haven’t, and, with the arrival of the General Election, the Government clearly cares even less than it did previously about whether or not most of us understand the system for electing Metro Mayors.

And, to judge by some of the results from last week’s Birmingham Mail survey of nearly 2,500 of us across the region, a lot of us don’t, at least completely.

It wasn’t a statistically random sample. Birmingham, Coventry and Walsall, for example, were all relatively over-represented, as were men.  Oh yes, and also amnesiacs and fibbers – given that 72% reckoned they’d voted in the 2015 election, in an area where the overall turnout was barely 60%.

On the other hand, 24% admitted knowing nothing at all about the election, and another 17% thought that might have “heard vaguely about it”, which, while dispiriting, did sound about right.

Anyway, the ‘result’ was excitingly close, fully confirming its real-life unpredictability. The two leading candidates were within five votes of each other after the first count – Simon 472, Street 467 – ahead of Pete Durnell (UKIP, 208), Beverley Nielsen (Lib Dem, 111), James Burn (Green, 102), and Graham Stevenson (Communist, 59).

The distribution of second preference votes – including those cast by backers of Simon or Street in the first count – was surprisingly close, all candidates except Stevenson receiving between 275 votes (Simon) and 212 (Nielsen). The final result, therefore, was a narrow win for Simon, but confirmed that the actual election was, as Local Government Correspondent, Neil Elkes, rightly pronounced, “too close to call”.

I, however, was particularly interested in the novel feature of SV, those second preference votes: how and how effectively they were used, and what that use seemed to suggest of the participants’ understanding of the two-vote system.

I was generously permitted to examine all the sample’s individual votes, and the following table comprises my summary of the second votes of roughly a third, that there is no reason to suppose was unrepresentative of the whole.










Indeed, at first glance, the spread of Totals in the bottom row reflects quite closely the full results listed above. The ‘problem’, of course, is that, of Simon’s potential supplement of 97 votes, only just over a quarter (29) would in reality be added to his first-count total. And only 23 of Street’s 71. And NONE of the other 430 second votes would feature in the second-round count at all.

Which suggests most obviously that, from these results, SV isn’t having the voter-empowering impact that its supporters like to claim for it. What we can’t know, without learning more about these polled voters’ understanding and intentions, is whether responsibility lies mainly with them or the system.

Why, for instance, did the 69 choose not to use their second votes at all? Did the 45 who gave their second vote to the candidate representing the biggest, indeed only, threat to their first-choice candidate realise that in the actual election it wouldn’t get counted? Did the quarter of the whole sample who cast votes for the same candidate twice know they were instantly wasting the second one?

I could guess answers to some of these rhetorical questions, but I prefer to end this blog where I began it, at last Sunday’s NEC debate. Where, as noted, UKIP’s Pete Durnell not only confused SV with the Alternative Vote, but then went on to assert that whatever system he was talking about produced “no wasted votes”.

It would be an astounding claim for any system, but for SV, as my table shows, simply ridiculous, even in, from the voters’ viewpoint, a potentially ‘ideal’ situation in which there are and have been from the outset just two front runners, Simon and Street.

Both of whom in their concluding remarks on Sunday advised their own supporters, apparently seriously, to vote for them first and NOT USE their second vote at all – which, assuming it can’t be out of ignorance, seemed simply wilful and democratically detrimental (agreed, I was astounded they both gave me that answer – Ed).

No vote, if already counted towards the first-choice candidate, can be counted twice. So, however it’s cast, it can’t harm that candidate.

Let me conclude, then, with the advice the French sometimes give to uncertain voters in their two-round system: cast your first vote with your cœur (heart), the second with your tête (head).

So, supposing I personally found, say, James Burn or Beverley Nielsen the most appealing candidates, but also recognised that neither in practice is likely to finish in the first two after the first count.

My first, cœur vote could go to one of them, and be counted and recorded, and my second vote to whichever of the likely final two – Simon and Street – my tête tells me would make the better Mayor, and again it would be counted and recorded.

I might well still lose, but I’ll at least feel I got more out of my trip to the polling station than if I lose on 8th June.

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