Yup, today is the day the UK (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) get to decide how to vote in the next elections.
[Update: this is also worth a read. Esp the H2G2 quote at the start]
I missed a lot of the background, not owing a TV or reading the news paper much, but it appears it's First Past the Post (FPTP) against Alterative Voting (AV). Here's a quick summary of each.
FPTP. This is the current system, and also how New Zealand used to vote. Everyone ticks one name for their local MP. Add all the ticks up. Whoever has the most votes wins, EVEN IF THE TOTAL IS UNDER 50%. So someone could get in with only 34% of the vote if there are three strong candidatures.
For minor parties (anyone who isn't the Conservatives / Labour and maybe Lib/Dem), this is awful, as they seldom would win a seat - if they have 20% of the vote, nationally, they could get zero seats. Not overly representative, and a lot of people will only consider the major parties, otherwise they "waste their vote".** It's exceptionally good at keeping two major parties in power.**
AV. This is the new system. It's a little more complex, but not much. Here's how it works:
Given a list of candidates, you put a 1 next to the person you want to get in the most, and 2 next to the next person etc (you need to pick one or more - you don't need to rank all of them). So if you really like the greens, you'd put them in at 1, but if they don't get in, you might want Labour, so put them in at 2.
This is pretty much what most people do in their heads anyway - well, I want to vote for these guys, but there is no way they'll get in, so I'll vote for my second (or third) choice
Now, when the votes are counted, there are a few more steps:
First all the "1" votes are counted. If anyone gets more than 50%, they win. End of counting.
The bottom candidate is removed, and their "2" votes are added to the existing votes counted before. Again, if anyone now has over 50%, they win.
Repeat until someone gets more than 50%.
If it sounds like some people get to vote twice, it sort of is - but everyone gets to do it. You get your first pick, but if they are not in the race, you get your second. Here's a nice cartoon which explains it quite well.
Now, New Zealand went thru this about 15-25 years ago, but we did it slightly differently.
We had 3 sets of votes (referendums - referenda), over 3 general elections (12 years), ending in 1996. The first asked this question:
Do you want to change the voting system from FPTP to a proportional voting system?
(AV is sort of a proportional voting system)
The second queston was which one to pick. Obviously, there was a lot of press / propoganda about which was better, which is fine and how it should be:
Do you want MMP, STV, AM or AV?
See here for what these all are. MMP - Mixed Member Proportional won this round. Then we had another vote:
Do you want MMP or FPTP?
MMP won, again, and we now use this as our main voting system. It's not perfect, but then no system is. In the past, we had 2 parties which were represented: National (think Tory), and Labour (think... Labour!), with the odd seat going to a minor party if they had someone strong enough (usually no more than 2-3 seats out of 120).
With MMP, everyone gets 2 votes. You vote for the local person you want to represent you, and you vote for the party you want.** You do not have to vote for the same party that the person is in!** For example, where I used to live in Wellington, I liked the Labour person, but I prefer the Green's for my party, and I can vote like that.
For the local MP, it's basically FPTP. Add up the votes. Who gets the most, gets in.
For the party vote, add up all the votes nationally, and drop off any party which gets under 5% unless they also win a local seat. Then based on vote percentage, give them seats out of the
other 60 120 seats. So if Labour gets 50% of the national vote, they get another 30 60 seats in total. If they win 30 local seats, they then pick 30 people of their "list", which is a ranked list of people, and published before the election. Often, high-ranking MP's are on both the list and up as a local MP, because if someone wins a local MP seat, they are removed from the list, and the next bottom list person gets in.
Thanks heaps to Damon for pointing out that I got the party vote bit wrong. Doah! Now fixed. It's actually a lot more "fair" than I thought! If you get 10% of the vote, you get 10% of the seats. End of story.
This has allowed New Zealand to have excellent representation from minor parties - the greens and the maori party especially. We regularly have coalition governments, and they usually work quite well, as the two major parties have natural allys (greens with labour, act with national etc). I think a few more rules are needed around people leaving parties (esp if they are list MPs), but in general it works well.
Unlike what is presented in the UK press, a party like the BNP wouldn't get any seats, as they seldom break the 5% mark - but if they did, frankly, they should be represented! That's the point of democracy.
I'm not sure the UK had the option tho - I think it was just "AV or FPTP", which is sad, as AV is not, in my opinion, a very good system, tho it appears to work for Australia (they also have a law which says you must vote, or you get fined quite a large amount)
For the record, I'm voting YES to AV. Anything is better than FPTP.