Stay informed with ERS email updates.

Sign up for..

The Alternative Vote

Voting Systems

The Alternative Vote

What is the Alternative Vote?

The Alternative Vote (AV) is very much like First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Like FPTP, it is used to elect representatives for single-member constituencies, except that rather than simply marking one solitary 'X' on the ballot paper, the voter has the chance to rank the candidates on offer.
The voter thus puts a '1' by their first-preference candidate, and can continue, if they wish, to put a '2' by their second-preference, and so on, until they don't care anymore or they run out of names. In some AV elections, such as most Australian elections, electors are required to rank all candidates.
If a candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes (more people put them as number one than all the rest combined), then they are elected.
If no candidate gains a majority on first preferences, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. This process is repeated until someone gets over 50 per cent.
AV is thus not a proportional system, and can in fact be more disproportional than FPTP.

Also known as:

  • Instant-runoff Voting (IRV), so-called because the process is similar to holding one runoff election after another, with the preferences determining how votes are re-allocated.
  • Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), an alternative that came about because apparently people were getting confused why, under elections headed instant runoff, the result wasn't instant.
  • Preferential voting, primarily in Australia and New Zealand. Calling AV preferential voting is technically correct, as it involves both preferences and voting, but then so does STV, so simply using the term preferential voting can be a bit misleading.

Real-world application of AV

  • Australian House of Representatives.
  • Australian Legislative Assemblies ("lower houses") of all states and territories (bar Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, which both use STV).
  • Australian Legislative Council in Tasmania.
  • Irish Presidential election.
  • By-elections to the Dáil (the lower house of the Irish Parliament).
  • By-elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
  • Papua New Guinea National Parliament (1964-1975 and from 2007).
  • Fijian House of Representatives.
  • Numerous American Mayoral and district elections, as well as Student Union elections.

Alternative methods of the Alternative Vote

In some AV elections, voters have a choice of ranking the candidates themselves or trusting their number one choice to have done a good enough job for them. In these elections, such as those for the Fijian House of Representatives, every political party or candidate ranks all the other candidates; the voter then has the option to agree with this ranking, by just voting for their preferred candidate, or to rank all (or some) of the candidates themselves.
Where such an option is present, the majority of voters tend to vote 'above the line', meaning that they trust the ranking to their preferred choice, rather than do it themselves. It is known as 'above the line' because the ballot paper tends to have two sections, 'above the line' for simply marking one preference, or 'below the line' for the do-it-yourself version.

Arguments used in support of AV

  • All MPs would have the support of a majority of their constituents.
  • It retains the same constituencies, meaning no need to redraw boundaries, and no overt erosion of the constituency-MP link.
  • It more accurately reflects public opinion of extremist parties, who are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes.
  • Coalition governments are no more likely to arise under AV than under First-Past-the-Post.
  • It eliminates the need for tactical voting. Electors can vote for their first-choice candidate without fear of wasting their vote.
  • A change to AV could be a step towards the adoption of STV.
  • It encourages candidates to chase second- and third-preferences, which lessens the need for negative campaigning (one don't want to slag off a candidate whose second preferences one wants) and rewards broad-church policies.

Arguments used against AV

  • It can be less proportional than First-Past-the-Post.
  • It does very little to improve the voice of traditionally under-represented groups in parliament, strengthening the dominance of the 'central' viewpoint.
  • There is no transfer of power from party authority to the voters.
  • It is prone to a certain amount of 'Donkey voting', where voters rank candidates randomly, not knowing enough about all of them to make an informed decision.
  • Under certain circumstances, a shrewd voter can get a better result by lying. If, for example, it is known that the contest will be fought between two strong candidates, supporters of one might rank third parties above the other, even if the other is technically their second choice. See Wikipedia's worked example.
  • In a broadly three-way race, where there are two strong parties who actively dislike each other and a third 'compromise' candidate sitting in between, the compromise candidate is likely to be defeated in the first round, despite the fact that they could well be the most universally acceptable option.

ERS Policy on AV

The Electoral Reform Society regards AV as the best voting system when a single position is being elected. However, as AV is not a proportional system, the Society does not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament, council, committees, etc


Regulations for the election of one person by means of the single transferable vote (Alternative Vote) are available  here>>