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Published: Thursday, 5/5/2011

U.K. votes Thursday on new way to elect Parliament

BY MACKENZIE CARPENTER
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

LONDON -- Barbie Lillywhite finds herself one confused British voter.

"I have no idea what we're supposed to be voting on, so why should I bother to go to the polls at all?" said Ms. Lillywhite, a cabdriver in Kent.

Britons go to the polls Thursday for the first binding electoral referendum in the United Kingdom's history.

Scarcely a week after many Britons felt a sense of unity in a royal wedding, they are finding themselves befuddled.

Thursday's "alternative vote" referendum would provide another way of electing members of parliament, ostensibly leading to the inclusion of more third-party members of Parliament, more coalition governments -- and more "dialogue and pluralism" supporters say -- as opposed to one-party rule by either of the country's two largest parties, the Conservatives or Labor. It also would reduce the number of members of Parliament from 650 to 600.

This will be only the second time in British history that a referendum has been held throughout the U.K. The first was the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum in 1975.

It comes at a time when Britain is being ruled by a coalition between David Cameron's Conservative Party, which didn't get enough votes for an outright majority in the 2010 election, and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats, who came in third. Mr. Clegg agreed to give Mr. Cameron his votes -- for a majority -- in exchange for holding the referendum.

Mr. Cameron has campaigned hard for a no vote on the referendum, Mr. Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are for it, and the opposition Labor Party ostensibly doesn't like it because it includes boundary changes that benefit the conservative parties.

Actually Labor, a strong backer of trade unions and the social welfare system, isn't particularly interested in power-sharing, even with Liberal Democrats, whom they did try to woo into a coalition after last year's three-way stalemate. Labor leaders are resentful that Mr. Clegg, the Liberal Democrat, opted to join with Mr. Cameron in a coalition government -- and then broke a campaign promise to oppose a hike in student fees, prompting huge protests this year.

Most polls show that proponents of the referendum will be resoundingly defeated.

"This is just a smoke screen they're using to avoid confronting the really urgent issues of the day," said Nathan Wooding, 24, of Cranbrook, about 70 miles from London. "Instead of dealing with education, immigration, and defense, the current government is all tangled up in changing the voting system."

Mr. Wooding said he's voting against the referendum.

The current system is "first past the post": The person among a group of candidates who wins the most votes gets to be a member of Parliament. Critics say that produces party hacks who represent a narrow slice of the electorate.

Under the proposed voting system, "proportional representation" would require that votes would be added up differently, in an instant runoff where candidates are ranked in order of preference.

People can nominate as many preferences as they like. Only first-preference votes are counted initially. Anyone getting more than 50 percent of these is elected automatically. If that doesn't happen, here is where it gets complicated:

The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, but their second and third choices are transferred to those remaining candidates in a second round. If one candidate then has more than 50 percent of the votes in this round, they are elected.

If not, the remaining candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their second preferences (or third preferences if they were the second choice of someone who voted for the first candidate to be eliminated) reallocated. This continues until one candidate has 50 percent or more of the vote in that round of counting, or there are no more votes to be distributed.

Got it? Neither do many Britons.

Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mackenzie Carpenter is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.

Contact her at: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.



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