Saturday, 12 March 2011

The value of the alternative vote

As someone on the U.K. electoral roll, I want to give an ordered list of preferences when I vote, so that the outcome can reflect my opinion of all the candidates. However, I think the pro-A.V. campaign has made a serious mistake that compromises its chance of success at the May 5 referendum. By describing the proposed system as the "alternative vote" they are emphasising implementation details over the value that voters stand to gain.

The alternative vote is so named because if a voter's highest ranked candidate is unable to win, their vote goes to their highest ranked alternative i.e. their next preference. In other words, the alternative vote is named after a detail of the algorithm used to resolve voters' preferences into an electorial outcome. In Australia, where the system is used to elect our equivalent of Britain's House of Commons, we refer to it as preferential voting. Technically, A.V. is just one possible implementation of a preferential system.

The value of preferential voting is that it gives voters the opportunity to express their views on all the candidates - not just their most favoured. A supporter of the Conservative party living in a seat that is dominated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats should not have to vote tactically to have a say in the outcome. Rather, they should be able to give their first preference to the Conservative candidate and use their subsequent preferences to indicate which of the other two parties they prefer.

The name "preferential voting" satisfies the need of the public to know why they should vote for the new system in the referendum. The name "alternative vote" satisfies the need of electoral reform wonks to discuss the technical details of their area of expertise.

On software projects, we also have the problem that the how can overwhelm the why. Agile software practitioners address this issue by stating requirements as user stories which include the expected value of the proposed feature. Typically, these stories are expressed using the As a... I want... so that... template. The first sentence of this post is written in this format.

By choosing a name that emphasises arcane details over delivered value, the Yes campaign has jeopardised its chances of success on May 5.

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