LONDON—British voters were deciding Thursday whether to change how members of Parliament are elected—an issue that has split the government but didn’t appear to excite the public.
Voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were also electing members of regional government legislatures, and hundreds of local council seats were at stake around the country.
Polls ahead of Thursday’s referendum indicated that most voters were content to keep the first-past-the-post system, in which the candidate with the most votes in a district wins a seat in the House of Commons.
Polls detected less support for a change to the Alternate Vote, where voters mark their ballots in order of preference. If no one wins a majority on the first count, votes of the lowest-ranked candidates would be distributed according to preferences.
The referendum was the condition on which the perennially third-place Liberal Democrats joined a new coalition government last spring led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
In a unique split, Cameron campaigned against changing the system while his deputy prime minister, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, urged voters to change. Clegg’s effectiveness was compromised somewhat by his previous description of the Alternate Vote as “a miserable little compromise.”
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who backed the Alternate Vote, refused to make any joint appearances with Clegg.
Clegg’s decision to join the Conservative-led coalition government ended 13 years of Labour rule and was unpopular with many in his party, which was expected to absorb significant losses Thursday in local and regional elections.
Opponents of the Alternate Vote said the “first-past-the-post” had served Britain well, and their TV ads hammered away at the apparent unfairness of having the second- or third-fast runner being declared the winner of a race.
Supporters of change noted that only a third of the members in the House of Commons won a majority of the votes in their districts.
Liberal Democrats have the most to gain from changing the voting system. In Britain’s general election last year, they got 23 percent of the vote but only 9 percent of the 650 seats in the House of Commons.
In Scotland, the separatist Scottish National Party was expected to win enough seats in the regional parliament for party leader Alex Salmond to continue as leader of a minority government.
The SNP has downplayed its aspiration of Scottish independence but gained credit for enacting free personal care for the elderly and free university education, in contrast to the sharply higher tuition fees being imposed in England.
The Scottish government’s most controversial move came in 2009, when it freed convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds because he had cancer. Al-Megrahi returned to a hero’s welcome in Libya.