An indicative referendum on the voting system was held in the United Kingdom on 5 May 1994, alongside the local elections. The first question asked voters if they desired to change the voting system from the existing First Past the Post system. The second question asked voters which system they would like to replace the voting system with - with the choices being Party List Proportional Representation, Mixed Member Proportional Representation, Single Transferable Vote, Parallel Voting and Alternative Vote.
The referendum had no legally binding effect, but the government of Jeremy Ashdown had pledged that if the first referendum was carried, the government would hold a second referendum
The First Past the Post system has been the traditional method used to elect the House of Commons (Bloc voting was used in 2-member constituencies until their abolition in 1950). However, during the 1980s the system came under criticism after anomalous results were produced in the 1984 and 1988 general elections. This was because the Liberal-SDP Alliance had emerged as a third force. Whereas the Conservatives and Labour Party had votes respectively concentrated in certain areas and regions, support for the Alliance was dispersed and this made it hard for them to win seats. As a result, the Alliance made electoral reform a key priority.
In the 1984 election, the Alliance won 36 seats to Labour's 150, despite the fact that they had received more 1.3 million more votes than Labour. This created a confusing situation for voters as to which party represented the "opposition" to Thatcher's government. David Steel argued that the Alliance were the "legitimate opposition" while Labour rejected these claims and continued to sit as the official opposition to the government.
Nevertheless, the Alliance had finished in second place in many constituencies and were able to use these results as a basis for future electoral gains. In the 1988 election, the Liberals quadrupled their membership and overtook Labour to become the largest opposition party. However, there was still a disparity in seats; the Alliance outpolled Labour by a margin of 5.2 million votes but only won 11 more seats.
The Alliance, now firmly established as the primary party of opposition, went on to win the 1993 general election by a landslide. In the campaign, Jeremy Ashdown promised to have an indicative referendum on how to reform the voting system, followed by a formal referendum a year later on whether to adopt the changes.
The first referendum asked the question "Do you believe that the system used to elect MPs to the House of Commons should be changed?" The ballot also stated that "If the majority of voters approve this question, a referendum will be held on whether to adopt the system chosen in the second question."
The "Yes" campaign was supported by the Liberal Party, the Social Democratic Party and the opposition Labour Party. It was also endorsed by almost all minor parties, including the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru.
The "No" campaign was primarily supported by the Conservative Party who defended the existing system. However, many were willing to wait until the final stage referendum before voting down the changes. In addition, some Conservatives such as Ken Clark supported adopting the Alternative Vote system, which would have produced similar results to the existing system.
The first question was carried by a 60.9%-39.1% margin, with a voter turnout of 51.3%.
The second referendum asked the question "If the system used to elect MPs to the House of Commons were to be changed, which system would you support? Rank the choices in order of preference." The Alternative Vote system was used to choose the winner; this was to reduce the Spoiler effect.
The voting systems used in question were (from most proportional to most majoritarian):
- Party List Proportional Representation: 85% of the seats would be elected using Open List proportional representation in electoral districts (consisting mainly of the ceremonial counties of England, the preserved counties of Wales, the regions of Scotland and Northern Ireland at-large). The remaining 15% would be given to parties which were left under-represented. A party would have to win 5% of the vote at-large or 10% of the vote in an electoral district to win seats.
- Mixed Member Proportional Representation: 60% of the seats would be elected using First Past the Post, while the remaining 40% of seats would be split up among electoral districts (consisting of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the regions of England) and elected using party lists. The number of list seats won by a party would be adjusted to ensure that the overall proportion of seats it won would be equivalent to the proportion of the vote it received. A party would have to win 5% of the at-large vote or 10% of the vote in an electoral district to win list seats.
- Single Transferable Vote: The country would be divided into 3-5 member districts, each with a given quota of votes required for candidates to win seats. Voters would rank candidates in order of preference. Candidates who immediately meet the quota would be elected, while votes for minor candidates and surplus votes for winning candidates would be transferred to other candidates to allow them to win.
- Parallel Voting: As with Mixed Member Proportional Representation, 60% of the seats would be elected using First Past the Post. However, the number of lists seats won by a party would be equivalent to its proportion of the list vote won, rather than being calculated to reduce the disparity caused by First Past the Post.
- Alternative Vote: The existing single-member constituencies would be used to elect the seats. However, instead of expressing a single preference, voters would rank candidates in order of preference.
Turnout in the second referendum was 50.2%. Alternative Vote attracted the most first preference choices (35.4%) due to the fact it was supported by the Conservatives and anti-reformists. Single Transferable vote was the first choice of 30.9% of the voters, but once alternative proportional systems were eliminated, it gained enough transferred to win. Ashdown noted the irony that "AV was defeated by AV."
As a result of the first question being carried and Single Transferable Vote being nominated as the replacement , a third referendum was scheduled for 4 May 1995 on whether to replace the existing system with STV. The referendum was carried by a 52.1%-47.9% margin and STV was first used in the 1997 general election.