Cats can’t vote

by Matthew Cobb

The UK is currently in the midst of its second referendum (the first, in 1974, was over membership of what is now called the EU). This video explains the situation, using cats. Personally, I say bring on Reform Cat (350 ft tall, ginger, and shoots laser beams out of his eyes. See the end of the video).

If you want the background, or can’t understand the deliberately silly 1940s accent used on the video, here’s my take on it. Please feel free to dis/agree in the comments!

Currently British MPs are elected by ‘first past the post’ – the candidate with the most votes wins. This is the system used in many countries, and if there are only two parties, it’s obviously fair. But if there are several candidates, this can mean that the winner in fact enjoys the support of a small minority of voters. At a national level, it can equally mean that the government in fact enjoys the support of a minority of voters (indeed this is generally the case).

Last year, the parliamentary election led to a ‘hung’ parliament with no single party having an absolute majority. As a result, two parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats, went into coalition. One price for this deal was the calling of a referendum on the electoral system – the Conservatives are traditionally extremely hostile to this, so this was a concession from them. In the past, the Lib-Dems have favoured full proportional representation, whereby the proportion of votes cast for a particular party is directly reflected in the proportion of elected representatives.

On Thursday, the referendum will take place. The proposal is not proportional representation but rather an ‘Alternative Vote’ system, where each elector lists the candidates they want to vote for in order of preference (1, 2, 3…). 1 is your top preference.

The count takes place like this: all the “1”s are counted up; if a candidate has >50 % of the votes, they are elected. End of. If there is no clear winner on the first count, then the candidate with the lowest vote is eliminated, and all her “2” votes are then added to each candidate, as appropriate. If this produces a candidate with > 50%, they’re elected. If not, the procedure continues. In the UK, all three main political parties use a version of this system to elect their leaders (including David Cameron).

The campaign has been particularly nasty, with the two component parts of the coalition making inflammatory allegations about each other. The third party, the Labour Party, is split on the issue. I think I will probably abstain – I think we should have proper PR, and this AV business will not provide this. I have been tempted to give a bloody nose to Nick Clegg (Lib-Dem leader) by voting No, but that would then give succour to David Cameron. And vice versa for voting Yes. So, as I said at the top, bring on Reform Cat!


  1. Helen
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    At least AV is better than ‘first past the post.

    • Dominic
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:17 am | Permalink

      Marginally, but it is margins we are dealing with here. This vote is not going to change the system. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

      I cannot begin to understand why the Liberal Democrats did not hold out for PR as the price of joining the government. They should have otherwise just let the Conservatives form a minority government & maybe supported the budget.

      • Helen
        Posted May 3, 2011 at 3:34 am | Permalink

        Quite: why didn’t the LibDems show some courage?

        • SAWells
          Posted May 3, 2011 at 5:07 am | Permalink

          A conservative minority government would have meant another election within the year and a lot of pissed-off people voting in a Tory majority government. We would not be enjoying that at all.

          • Dominic
            Posted May 3, 2011 at 5:10 am | Permalink

            That is impossible to either agree with or deny!

  2. bric
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    As Helen says, we have to vote for the better of the two systems offered, which is clearly AV. If FPTP wins that will be the end of any discussion for decades, but an AV system *could* develop into a full PR (ie democratic) electoral regime.
    The biggest factor for me has been the incredibly patronising tone of the anti-AV adverts – Oh it’s so complicated! you stupid plebs could never understand it! We’ve been doing this way for hundreds of years AND WE KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU

  3. SAWells
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    For the love of Ceiling Cat don’t abstain. If FPTP wins over AV, you will not be getting PR any time this century; prepare yourself for endless choruses of “well, when offered a choice, voters decided to stick with FPTP”.

    Kill FPTP first. AV isn’t perfect, but it’s better then FPTP. Your odds of getting AV are enormously increased once FPTP is gone; the dam will have been broken.

    • Dominic
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:10 am | Permalink

      You cannot abstain – you can spoil your ballot paper.

      Write “Universal suffrage is the counter revolution!” on the paper – that’ll show ’em!

    • agentwhim
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 3:03 am | Permalink

      +1 don’t abstain, vote yes.

      • יאיר רזק
        Posted May 3, 2011 at 4:08 am | Permalink

        +1 don’t abstain, votes yes, too.

  4. Nick Evans
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    If you do want a fuller version of PR, you should decide which vote is more likely to bring that about: AV, which will be a bit more proportional and give more influence to the traditionally pro-PR parties, or retaining FPTP, which generally doesn’t. Bit of a no brainer, really.

    Though I have to say the Yes campaign’s literature has been just as patronising as the No campaign’s. If perhaps not quite as dishonest.

  5. Dominic
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    “If this produces a candidate with > 50%” – of the remaining votes… etc

  6. Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    For a clear cut illustration of the drawbacks of the FPTP system, one need not look further than Canada tonight. “Majority” government with 40% of the popular vote – Oh Canada, fuck yah!

    Anyone ready to welcome an eventual exodus of refugee scientists?


    • Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Welcome to at 4 (if not 5) years of theocracy.

    • Tyro
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      I’ve been bitter about this all day.

      What’s even more shameful is that in British Columbia we had a referendum in 2005 and 57% voted to drop FPTP for Single Transferable Voting (another modification of proportional representation). Result? It needed to gain a super-majority of 60% so it failed. (Even worse still, we tried again in 2009 and the numbers flipped with 60% voting for FPTP. WTF?!)

      Changing the status-quo can be difficult and frustrating. I wish the Brits the very best of luck. We need some good role models.

    • Mike from Ottawa
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

      The refugee scientists will be coming sooner than “eventual” since the Tories had already announced they were going to gut government funding of basis research in favour of what amounts to more subsidy to business in the form of more market-ready stuff.

      So, you’re welcome, America, both for your thanks for the scientists and ironically for the political techniques that contributed to the result, like the round the clock TV attack ads the Tories had been running for years.

      • Posted May 5, 2011 at 3:34 am | Permalink

        Sad. I was a bit proud of Canada for being a beacon of basic science, with some fields actually receiving more funding (in dollars) than they do across the border, a country 10x our size. For example, we actually have more people involved in eukaryotic diversity research than the US, in terms of absolute numbers, not just proportion! And our American colleagues are a bit envious of us for receiving better funding. Situation seems to be similar for things like barcoding too.

        Farewell to all that. One by one, we surrender our few advantages over the US to become a bland, powerless carbon copy of our southern neighbour.

        Wow, I really did get attached to this country after 11 years… actually pains me to see it fall. =(

  7. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    If you don’t vote yes in this referendum, you will not be given another chance to have your say for many, many years. AV may not be the best choice but it is the only choice we are being given so I will be voting yes.

    As bric has said, the patronising and condescending tone of the no campaign is really insulting. AV is not difficult to understand, it is easy and I’m getting fed up with being told I won’t understand it.

    A further point, look at the no camp. The Tories, the BNP and lastly, Rupert Murdoch & The Sun. If that lot aren’t enough to convince you to vote yes, then nothing will.

    • bric
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:50 am | Permalink

      In a campaign speech before the May 5 referendum, the Prime Minister cited Winston Churchill’s view that AV meant “the most worthless votes go to the most worthless candidates” – and we would therefore end up with worthless people being elected. Nice to know that, unlike most of the Electorate, he doesn’t think this is happening already.
      I must quote a commenter on Drowned in Sound ( ) –
      Basically, whatever the merits of the arguments, it’s going to come down to this:

      1. Do you want to give Nick Clegg a kicking/are you so politically unengaged that you will believe any scare tactic lies and misinformation? or
      2. Do you realise that everyone involved in the No campaign is a grade A cunt?

      • Dominic
        Posted May 3, 2011 at 3:40 am | Permalink


    • jiten
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      No, don’t look at the no camp. Don’t look at any camp. Base your choice on whether the arguments are any good for or against. As any rational person would do.
      The problem with AV is that we’re more likely to get hung parliaments with the 3rd party being king-makers. And it will be very difficult to remove them, so they will always be in government regardless of their percentage of votes.

  8. matunos
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    I wish we have AV (ranked ballot, instant runoff, whatever you want to call it) in the US; but I am definitely opposed to a proportional vote for determining representatives (it’s bad enough that we still allow faithless electors in the Electoral College). I prefer to be represented by individuals, not by parties.

  9. cnocspeireag
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    I have a 600+ mile drive ahead of me on Thursday (election day) and our polling stations only open at 7am.
    I wasn’t going to vote, but the kittehs have convinced me to delay my departure and vote for change, if only the first stage. if we lose, we shall stand no chance of democracy in my lifetime.
    Remember the damage Thatcher and Blair did without any mandate:perhaps this will prevent a recurrence, although the liars and the stupid are in the lead so far.

  10. Teapot
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    Personally I always wanted some form of STV (such as AV) anyway. PR is a terrible system as it gives even more power to the parties.

    Let’s hope people take the opportunity to make things a bit better, but I’m not optimistic.

  11. BigBob
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    The ‘No’ campaign literature helped to make up my mind, but for all the wrong reasons. I stood reading it in the kitchen saying ‘That’s a lie … and … that’s a lie … and … voting already has a price so you can deduct that’. The ‘no’ people look pretty desperate.

    I couldn’t believe my ears when ‘Lord’ David Owen recommended voting ‘no’ and holding out for proportional representation. As others have pointed out, even the cats in the street know that should we get a no result, Cameron et al will say the people rejected reform.

    AV is simple, it’s better and the outcome of an election in which AV is used will more closely fit the will of the voters than does FPTP. Bring it on.

    • Dominic
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 3:53 am | Permalink

      I have had no literature at all, & no one has explained to me whether I can vote say 1, 3 & 5. I know you can vote down as far or as few as you wish, say just 1, or just 1 & 2, & you cannot vote 2,3,4 etc & not vote 1 or it will be considered spoilt…

      The vote on AV should have been an AV vote, with several systems to choose from!

      • bric
        Posted May 3, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink

        Oh boy us hoi poloi would never got our heads round that

  12. Posted May 3, 2011 at 3:52 am | Permalink

    The AV system is what we use here in Australia, and I think it works out OK. Add in compulsory voting and you have a system that makes sense 😉

    • Dominic
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      Compulsory voting? B-b-b-but then ALL the ignorant peasants would have a say?!

      • Posted May 3, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

        No, it means all of the ignorant peasants MUST have their say, whether they like it or not.

        I personally like it as it ensures that no one can complain that the government does not have a mandate, as everyone has had to do their civic duty to choose a representative. Admittedly a politician invariably wins, but the thought is there.

    • Teapot
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      The Yes campaign clearly should have been fronted by Rolf Harris and Kylie Minogue. “Say g’day to AV” or something like that.

      Or even better, Richie Benaud. Who wouldn’t trust what he told them?

  13. Ilya
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    Well, if we want to talk about lies in campaign posters, one of them is repeated by Matthew in this post. The Conservatives do *not* use AV to choose their leader – they use exhaustive run-off system, i.e. they vote in successive rounds, and in each round the candidate with the smallest number of votes is eliminated. The AV is wanted by Libdems to ensure that their unpopularity with voters does not wipe them out at the next election.

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 5:42 am | Permalink

      “Lie” seems a bit strong, Ilya.

      I wrote “In the UK, all three main political parties use a version of this system to elect their leaders (including David Cameron).” The exhaustive run-off system is indeed a *version* of AV, except that in each round, everyone votes again.

      Whatever the detail – why don’t the Tories use FPTP to elect their leader?

      • AC
        Posted May 3, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

        As you correctly point out, Matthew, the only real difference between run-off voting and AV is that everyone votes again each round (which makes tactical voting easier). There really isn’t much difference from a practical point of view.

      • Ilya
        Posted May 3, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        It is not a version of AV since one doesn’t rank candidates but votes for only one candidate. So I have to disagree on that. And I don’t see the point of saying that we should adopt whatever the voting system the Tories use to elect their leader.
        Anyway, what it’s really about is why we are having this referendum now. And the answer is that it’s the result of backroom shenanigans of Libdems trying to cover for their betrayal of pre-election promises on tuition fees and spending cuts.

        • Nick Evans
          Posted May 4, 2011 at 3:59 am | Permalink

          It is a version of AV, but one that involves voting in the different rounds separately, rather than all together. Clearly an area where there’s room for a difference of opinion, though. So difficult to categorise as a lie – unlike the stuff that the No campaign have come out with about costs and some people getting extra votes, which are untrue however you look at them.

          The timing for this referendum was sorted well before the tuition fees debacle, by the way. And it’s hardly distracting from the cuts.

  14. MadScientist
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    The preferential system is an extremely bad system and it fails miserably whenever there is no clear winner in the primary vote. It’s one of those things that sounds like a good idea but upon inspection is obviously a dud. Nor does the preferential system address the “rule via a minority of voters” claim. For a preferential system to be only as bad as the current system (or perhaps slightly better), we need a guarantee that (a) You can only name a first and second choice – you *must not* rank any more than 2 choices, and (b) parties cannot allocate a preference – if the voter does not explicitly name Preference 2, then it must be assumed that the voter doesn’t want anything to do with the other losers.

    • SAWells
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 5:12 am | Permalink

      “The preferential system is an extremely bad system and it fails miserably whenever there is no clear winner in the primary vote.”

      Citation needed; or, to put it more clearly, WRONG.

      FPTP is the one that fails miserably when there’s no clear winner in the primary vote, because it hands the victory to whoever has a tiny majority.

  15. litchik
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    I was listening to a debate on this on BBC 4 and was struck by two things, the opposition’s main argument was that it would cost money – mind you I heard this on that pomp and circumstance weeding day (to serve at which they brought back troops from Afghanistan.) But we should be willing to spend money on getting democracy right, right? OK, then on to Labor and Lib-Dem folks who both said AV won’t work, but it’s a step in the right direction. My sense is that voter response will be very low. There is one fighting for it and all the arguing past each other will confuse a number of voters and certainly fail to ignite any passion for AV. Still, I think we Americans should be paying attention since a new system of voting here maybe the only thing that can dig us out of our oligarchy. Although OUR first institutional moves need be dismantling the electoral college and over turning Citizens United. (Such a 1984 name)

    Great discussion.

  16. R J Langley
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Is anyone else just a little disappointed to see, from the video above, that cats apparently vote along purely racial lines?

  17. John
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    We have had instant runoff/ranked choice voting for six years now in San Francisco and it seems to work well, although I personally can’t vote since I commute.

    Here is one thing to consider: if the US used IRV in presidential elections, George W. Bush would not have won.

    • Dave J L
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      Do you mean you live outside the relevant area or you don’t get chance to vote because of travelling for work? If the latter do you not have postal votes in the US?

      • John
        Posted May 3, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        We do have mail voting, but my residence is outside the City. I only mention that for full disclosure, as I personally have not experienced IRV, even though I am affected by it.

  18. Dave J L
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    Few things have irritated me so consistently over the past few months as the No campaign’s constant use of entirely irrelevant sporting analogies. Various sportsmen and women have come out in support, all essentially to say ‘well in my sport the person who comes first is the winner, it’s so obvious!’, and a leaflet that came through my door pointed to the last-placed runner in a race with a note reading, ‘the winner under AV’ both of which are utterly nonsensical examples – unfortunately I think many undecided people will take such arguments at face value and vote no, because they don’t give it enough thought (I think the Yes campaign haven’t done particularly well in countering these arguments either mind you).

    There are many more things about the No campaign which have annoyed me but I don’t want to start on a rant…

  19. embertine
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Already done my postal vote, with a big fat cross in the YES box.

    Anyone who thinks that AV means the last placed comes in first has badly failed in maths comprehension.

  20. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I think after last night here in Canada, only cats should be allowed to vote in Alberta. Just saying.

    • Posted May 5, 2011 at 3:38 am | Permalink

      And all of southern Ontario outside Toronto city proper and a couple university ridings like London and Guelph…

  21. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Wow, this is some serious stuff.

  22. Nathan Hevenstone
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Wow. I *wish* we had this in the US. It’d make it so much easier to vote…

    • John
      Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      At least we would no longer be forced to only two parties. Then voting for Nader would not have helped Bush win. We might also have avoided our Civil War. So we hold our nose and vote for a major party just to avoid another disaster.

  23. sminhinnick
    Posted May 4, 2011 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    Matthew Cobb writes that with FPTP “the candidate with the most votes wins. This is the system used in many countries, and if there are only two parties, it’s obviously fair.”

    Well no, it’s not. The electorate boundaries can be “gerrymandered” to cluster the opponents into ghettoized electorates, and give slim margins to the manipulators in the majority of other electorates. Which gives the win to the party that controls the boundary-setting process.

    I understand that this sort of thing happens in the good old U.S. of A.

    I was heavily involved in New Zealand’s move to proportional representation in the 1990’s. The “no” campaign is always easier because they only have to frighten the voters into keeping the status quo by any underhand means.

    AV is not proportional, and returns roughly similar results to FPTP. This is according to New Zealand’s Report of The Royal Commission on the Electoral System 1986, which examined a wide range of voting systems and recommended MMP (Mixed Member Proportional representation) for New Zealand.

    Thank goodness we got MMP in by the skin of our teeth, despite (or possibly because of) an extremely well-financed and dirty campaign by our business-elite opponents.

    The 1986 report was so well done that it became a university text book for Political Studies majors (and is available here: – still very relevant and readable)

    On Saturday 26 November 2011, New Zealand is having a another referendum to determine whether we keep MMP. (,_2011).

    Verily, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

  24. Posted May 4, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    “This is the system used in many countries, and if there are only two parties, it’s obviously fair.”

    True, but the real evil is that in most places where there are only two parties, the reason why there are only two parties is that any other party is hugely underrepresented and votes for them can cause the other party to lose.

    A two-party system is only slightly better than a one-party system.

  25. Explicit Atheist
    Posted May 4, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    AV is simple, its better then FPTP, but it is far from being among the best methods.

    In a pairwise Condorcet ranking system, each candidate is paired with all of the other candidates, and the candidate who beats all the others in these pair contests, is the winner. When there is no one single pair winner, there is a cycle, such as A>B, B>C, C>A. These cycles can be resolved by a top down approach (Tideman’s Ranked pairs), or a bottom up approach (Cloneproof Schwartz Sequential Dropping), or, my own favorite, a combination of both (Condorcet with Dual Dropping which minimizes the dropping cost). This is not proportional, it is for electing a single winner when there are multiple candidates, and its unquestionably a fairer and more accurate way of ranking the candidates than AV.

    • Posted May 4, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      This probably sounds elitist, but anything this complex, no matter whether it is the optimal solution, is very unlikely to be voted in by the majority of people who can barely calculate a 15% tip at a restaurant. AV is a simple system, and unquestionably better than FPTP. Sure it is a compromise, but then so is democracy itself.

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