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Voting reform: what are the options?

By Alice Tarleton

Updated on 11 May 2010

Electoral reform is on the agenda as the main parties try to woo the Lib Dems into a coalition - but what exactly are the different voting reform options, and who would they benefit?


The Lib Dems are embroiled in crunch talks on forming a government - and voting reform, one of their long-held ambitions, looks like becoming a reality in some form.

The Conservatives last night offered the Lib Dems a referendum on moving to the alternative vote (AV) system, something Labour also promised in its manifesto.

This is not, however, the proportional electoral system the Lib Dems want. Here are four of the main voting options - and the kind of parliaments they would create.

First past the post
How it works: The current system - the country is divided into constituencies which elect an MP. The winner takes all in each seat - so an MP can get in with a majority of 100 or 10,000 votes. Although the Conservatives won a bigger share of the vote in this election than Tony Blair did to win in 2005, the way votes are divided between constituencies meant David Cameron failed to win the majority of parliamentary seats.

What the 2010 parliament looks like: The Conservatives are the largest party, but don't have the 326 seats required for an overall majority.

Who wants it? It's the Conservatives' preferred system for Westminster elections. Their manifesto supported it because "it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with" - words that may seem hollow given the current coalition wranglings. Labour stuck with the system it inherited throughout its 13 years in power, though it has now promised a vote on the alternative vote system (see below).

Voting reform: what does the public want?
The majority - 62 per cent - backed Nick Clegg's plan for PR, according to a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times. Only 13 per cent opposed it. But a different poll in today's Sun was less pronounced - 46 per cent were in favour of (an unspecified form of) proportional representation, while 37 per cent wanted to keep the status quo. Only a quarter of Conservative voters polled by YouGov yesterday wanted PR, while nearly three-quarters of Lib Dems did.

Alternative Vote (AV)
How it works: Like the current system, voters are grouped in the same constituencies, which each return one MP. But rather than putting a cross by their preferred candidate's name, voters rank the hopefuls by number. If no one gets more than 50 per cent of first choices, the second preferences of votes at the bottom are redistributed between the other candidates, until someone gets a majority. Although it means MPs have to have the support - if not necessarily being the first choice - of the majority of their constituents, it's still not a proportional system. It's used in the Australian house of representatives.

How would it change parliament? The Electoral Reform Society modelled the likely election outcome if this system had been in place. They took first-past-the-post votes as first preferences, and second preferences based on ComRes polling data. The gap between Labour and the Conservatives narrows, and the Lib Dems would get roughly a handful of extra seats:

Who wants it? The Conservatives offered Nick Clegg a referendum on AV as part of a coalition deal last night, although senior Tories were quick to say this doesn't mean the party would have to back a voting switch. Labour promised to put the system to a vote in their manifesto. The Lib Dems have said in the past that it's a "small step in the right direction" - but it's a long way from their preferred reform option.

Hung parliament: follow the latest developments on our liveblog

Alternative Vote with Top-up (AV+)
What it is: Voters elect both a constituency MP via AV, and a "top-up" MP from a regional list. Constituenices become slightly bigger, but having the top-up MPs to balance out the consituency pattern makes the parliament more proportional.

How would it change parliament? With 550 MPs elected from constituencies, and around 100 from a top-up list, parliament would look something like this. The Lib Dems would finally get more than 100 MPs, and the Conservatives would be even further from an overall majority.

Who wants it? Although not in use anywhere in the world, this was the recommendation of the Jenkins review into voting reform, set up by Labour when they first came to power. "On balance, the AV-plus system would balance the varying demands we're seeing in our politics," Professor Justin Fisher of Brunel University told Channel 4 News.

More from our political editor Gary Gibbon
- Game on for a Lib Dem-Tory coalition
- Burnham speaks out against a rainbow coalition
- Are the Tories 'stuffed'?

Single Transferable Vote
What is it? Large - well, compared to the current system - constituencies elect between three and five MPs. Voters rank candidates by preference; when a first choice gets enough or too few votes, the vote is passed on to their next choice of candidate. This means fewer votes are wasted, but the link between an individual MP and their constituency is broken. It's used in the Australian senate, Ireland, and local and European elections in Northern Ireland, among others.

How would it change parliament? Although not completely proportional to the number of votes cast, the gap between the three main parties has narrowed again:

These projections are based on the way people vote at the moment, adjusted for the different systems. They don't take into account how people might vote differently under a more proportional system - where tactical voting became less relevant. "If people voted as they did on 6 May, the Greens might get one or two extra MPs under this system. But we'd argue that more people would vote for smaller parties if we had a more proportional system," said the Electoral Reform Society's Andy White, who crunched the numbers.

Who wants it? This is the Lib Dems' preferred option. Plaid Cymru and the SNP are also fans. The Greens also support proportional representation, although their manifesto backs another system (additional member)

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