The Alternative Vote has a number of versions around but the one we will be voting on is the "full optional preference" version, practised in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland for state elections, whereby voters can number as little as a single candidate for their vote to be valid. (Elections for the federal parliament and most of the other states use the "compulsory preference" version where voters have to number all candidates to count.) New South Wales will be going to the polls on March 26th and it will be possible to compare the claims made in our AV referendum.
(For those who want to see & find out more of the election in the wider context the best guide is the ABC 2011 New South Wales Election.)
At least two claims have been made that are already possible to check against existing experience in the state. Quickly running through them:
Claim 1. AV will mean parties can fight elections as a Coalition, offering voters candidates from both parties.
The full number of candidates in the last (2007) election is available at ABC News Election Preview. There were 93 seats and with the Liberals and Nationals fighting as a Coalition it was possible for voters to have a choice.
However the table shows that each seat had only one Coalition candidate. In fact it would have been playing with fire for the Coalition to offer competing candidates in all but a few seats. There would have been a real risk of votes for one Coalition party failing to transfer to the other, not least due to many voters "plumping" or just using a single preference. For parties aiming to win as many seats as possible this is not a desirable situation and so it's unsurprising that the Coalition stands a single candidate. (In Queensland it proved even harder for the Coalition parties to agree such an arrangement and eventually the two parties merged to eliminate the problem.)
Claim 2. AV will put an end to negative campaigning and parties will have to offer positive reasons to vote for them.
This is one of the wilder claims, and frankly feels like a typical case of seizing on any unpopular element in politics and pretending the proposed change will magic it away. In fact the types of campaigning used reflect the political culture, the effectiveness of methods and any laws governing it far far more than the voting system in use. New South Wales is certainly not free of negative campaigning as this Labor party advert from the last election shows:
If you can find one positive reason to vote for Labor in there (beyond their ability to make cartoons and catchy songs) I'll buy you a pint.
(By the way there is one myth about AV that stems from New South Wales that can be cleared up. There's a belief in some quarters that AV will lead to ballot papers that are the size of tablecloths - some of you may remember David Dimbleby producing one such monster on a few election nights. In fact those monster ballot papers are for the state upper house which is elected by Single Transferable Vote with an option to use a Group voting ticket. That's something different from AV and there are plenty of good reasons for voting against it without the need to resort to such scare myths.)