Alternative Vote System

Democracy as we know it stands on the back of free and fair elections. However, no voting system is without its flaws. While many of the world's major democracies employ plurality voting systems (United Kingdom, United States, Canada) or proportional/mixed voting systems (Germany, Finland, Japan), only a few use the Alternative Vote System. 

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Table of contents

    What is the Alternative Vote System

    Alternative Vote System Alternative vote ballot StudySmarterFig. 1 – Alternative vote ballot.

    The Alternative Vote (AV) system (also known as instant runoff voting in the United States) is a preferential voting system designed to address the problem of vote-splitting, which occurs as a by-product of holding elections using the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. The AV system differs from FPTP in that it asks voters to rank each candidate in order of their preference.

    For example, when a voter receives their ballot on election day, they each candidate in order of preference -- from their favourite to least favourite. The votes are then tallied. If a candidate receives a majority of votes (50% +1 vote), they win. If no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. However, instead of discarding the eliminated candidate's votes, they distribute each vote to the voters' second most preferred candidate. This process repeats until either a candidate wins a majority of the votes or until only one candidate remains.

    That's a lot to unpack! So let's break this process down in a more simplified way.

    Alternative Vote Counting Process

    Imagine three candidates running for elected office (we'll call them candidates A, B, and C). If no candidate receives a majority of votes after the first vote count, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. In this case, let's say that's candidate A. Instead of throwing away candidate A's votes, his votes are redistributed according to his voters' second preference. So if most of the voters that supported candidate A had candidate B as their second preference, those second preference votes would then be allocated to candidate B. This process repeats until a candidate receives a majority of votes or until only one candidate is remaining.


    First-Past-The-Post is a plurality voting system used in the United Kingdom to elect Members of Parliament, whereby the candidate that receives the most votes (a plurality rather than a majority) wins the seat in parliament.

    Vote Splitting

    Vote splitting is an electoral effect associated with plurality voting systems like First-Past-The-Post, in which the distribution of votes over multiple candidates with similar platforms decreases the chance of any one of them winning whilst increasing the chances of a dissimilar candidate winning.

    Types of Alternative Vote Systems

    There are two types of AV systems:

    1. Alternative Vote 2. Alternative Vote (Plus)The AV Plus system differs from the traditional type of Alternative Vote System in that it includes a party-list component. Similar to the AV system, with AV Plus, voters are asked to rank individual candidates in order of preference. They must also select a party from the party-list column. The party-list votes are then distributed to represent each party’s share of the votes proportionally. The AV Plus system is not currently being used anywhere in the world. For that reason, we will focus on the more widely used type, Alternative Vote system,

    Characteristics of the Alternative Voting System

    Alternative Vote System Voting Illustration StudySmarterFig. 2 Voting illustration

    One of the most interesting characteristics of the AV system is that it encourages candidates to run less divisive campaigns and broaden their appeal to a broader constituency.

    Why is this?

    From a purely strategic standpoint, if a candidate wants to be successful in the election, they will need to position themselves to become the second (or even third) most preferred candidate among their opponents' voters. For example, should their opponent be eliminated, candidates are more likely to receive their opponent's second and third preference votes if they appeal to a broader voter segment, minimise divisive rhetoric, and avoid negative campaigning. Research shows that when using the AV system, candidates whose ideas are more extreme, more polarising or lie on the fringes of the political spectrum are the most likely to be eliminated first.

    Alternative Vote System Advantages

    There are both advantages and disadvantages to the Alternative Vote System. The following table shows some of the advantages of using the alternative voting system.

    AV System Advantages
    Encourages candidates to extend their appeal to a broader constituency
    Tends to reward centrist candidates and penalise those on the extremist fringe
    Discourages negative campaigning
    Voters can cast a vote for their first-choice candidate without worrying about wasting their vote (if their first-choice candidate doesn't win, their second or third-choice candidate might)
    Helps eliminate vote splitting and the election of candidates the majority of voters do not support
    Proponents argue AV makes voting more democratic
    Table 1 – Alternative Vote System Advantages.

    Alternative Vote System Disadvantages

    The following table shows some of the disadvantages of using the alternative voting system.

    AV System Disadvantages

    The AV system is NOT proportional, and in certain instances can produce more disproportional results than FPTP

    It is more complex than FPTP and could disincentivise the public to vote

    The AV system can lead to "Donkey voting", which means voters choose candidates in the order they appear on the ballot

    The AV system can be unpredictable in its application and can lead to the election of the least unfavourable candidate rather than the most popular candidate

    It takes longer to count the votes using the AV system

    AV voting machines can be costly to implement

    Table 2 – Alternative Voting System Disadvantages.

    Examples of Alternative Voting Systems

    Alternative Vote System Example of a Preferential ballot StudySmarterFig. 3 Example of a Preferential ballot

    An excellent example of an alternative voting system is its use in Australia. First introduced in 1918 to replace the FPTP system and address the problem of vote-splitting, Australia has been using the AV system ever since. It is the only major democracy to use the system. Currently, Australia uses various preferential voting systems in nearly all of its elections, from the upper and lower houses to municipal, state, and federal legislatures.

    The use of the AV system in Australia slightly varies depending on which state is holding the election. Australia uses Full Preferential Voting (FPV), which means that voters must rank in order of preference for each candidate on the ballot. South Wales uses the Optional Preferential Voting (OPV), whereby voters rank at least one or as many as all candidates in order of preference.

    As a result of Australia's decision to employ preferential voting, the two-party system is less prevalent. More noteworthy, minor parties have gained more influence in Australian politics.

    Papua New Guinea also used the AV system from 1964 to 1975.

    Alternative Vote in the UK

    During the 2010 UK general election, the David Cameron-led Conservative Party won 306 seats in parliament, falling well short of the number needed for a majority. With the underperforming Labour Party gaining only 258 seats, no party claimed a majority, which led to a hung parliament. As a result, the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg and with 57 seats of their own, found themselves in a position where they would play a pivotal role in forming the new government.

    After lengthy negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats could reach no deal to form a government. In the end, the Liberal Democrats agreed to a deal with David Cameron's Conservative Party to form a coalition government. Success came about after the two parties negotiated a joint programme of government and put together an elaborate process to help reconcile policy differences between them. One of the key negotiations centred around the voting system used to elect MPs in Westminster. The Conservative Party had consistently opposed any plans to reform the First-Past-The-Post electoral system, the system used to elect MPs in Westminster (it tends to overrepresent Conservatives). The Liberal Democrats advocated a proportional voting system, which advocates argue is more representative and one that tends to produce more diverse parliaments.

    In the end, the Conservatives agreed to hold a referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV) system for Westminster elections. The referendum was held in 2011 but failed to garner support among the electorate (70% of voters rejected the AV system).

    Today, the AV system is not used in the United Kingdom. However, both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats use the AV system to elect their own party leaders.

    Alternative Vote System - Key takeaways

    • The alternative Vote System, also known as instant runoff, is an electoral system where voters can rank the candidates.
    • First Past the Post system (FPTP) is a simple form of plurality where the voter is presented with the names of the candidates to choose only one of them.
    • I'll rework the advantages and disadvantages and a key takeaway when it is done.
    • The main example of an alternative voting system is the election process in Australia. It was first introduced in 1918 to replace the FPTP system when problems within the conservatives arose as votes among candidates were split, even though their interests were aligned.
    • Currently, the UK has Westminster's First Past the Post system, which functions as the regular FTPT system.


    1. The Electoral Knowledge Network (ACE Project), Electoral Systems: First Past the Post, 2022.
    2. Editors of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Alternative Voting Systems, 2020.
    3. The Brittanica Editors, Alternative Voting, 2021.
    4. The Electoral Reform Society UK Editors, Voting Systems: Alternative Vote, 2011.
    5. The BBC News Editors, What is Alternative Vote? 2011.
    6. Table 1 – Alternative Vote System Advantages.
    7. Table 2 – Alternative Voting System Disadvantages.
    8. Fig. 1 Yes in May to the Alternative vote ballot ( by CGP Grey ( licensed by CC-BY-2.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    9. Fig. 3 Preferential ballot ( by Rspeer ( licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Alternative Vote System

    What is an Alternative Vote system?

    It is a majoritarian electoral system where voting is done through a system of preferences reflected in the ballots.

    How does the Alternative Vote system work?

    Voters are required to number candidates on the ballot based on their preferences. It seeks an absolute majority, so their votes are passed to the next preferential candidate if a candidate ranks low on the general tendency. Until a candidate has a majority of votes, the process is repeated.

    Where is the Alternative Vote system used?

    Currently, it is used in Australia, Sri Lanka, and to choose party leaders in the UK and Canada.

    What is the advantage of the Alternative Vote system?

    It allows a candidate to be chosen on general preference, eliminates a split of votes, enables better representation of minorities, encourages party cooperation and diversifies party influence.

    What is the purpose of the Alternative Vote system?

    To allow for better representation of minorities in closely related ethnic groups and populations. In addition, it enables majorities and minorities to be represented in the government simultaneously.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following countries uses AV in their Presidential elections?

    Voters cast their vote on the ballot paper with?

    When was the first referendum in the UK held?


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