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In this BBC News article, my attention was drawn to a footnote in a figure summarising a vote result:

voting numbers
Source: BBC News

The footnote says:

Final numbers include one Conservative MP voting in both lobbies

What? MPs can vote twice on a single motion? How does that work? Do they walk through one lobby, then quickly run around the hall and walk through the other lobby? Can they do that? Then what would stop them from walking through the same lobby twice?

Unlock!?

  • The title is a bit misleading, voting both for and against is a special case of the more general "voting twice". Voting twice encompasses voting for twice or voting against twice, neither of which are actually possibly in the lobby system of voting. – RedGrittyBrick Mar 27 '19 at 10:28
  • @RedGrittyBrick The title is not misleading. The answer is, apparently, that they can vote twice, as long as the two votes are for different answers. – gerrit Mar 27 '19 at 10:39
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The two lobbies are for yes and no. Voting in both is an abstention basically. And it happens often enough:

Voting analysis website the Public Whip documents hundreds of instances of voting both ways since 1997, when its records begin.

But the practice dates back at least to the 1970s, when the first scolding by the Speaker against the unorthodox procedure is on record.

Apparently MPs who are conflicted in some way engage in that "positive" or "deliberate" abstention of voting in both lobbies, for example:

Lib Dem MP Mark Williams voted yes and no on the government's proposed sell-off of publicly owned forests in 2011.

He disapproved of the policy, but felt that as a member for Ceredigion, a constituency on the Welsh coast, it would have been wrong for him to take a stand on something that affected England only.

There is no formal abstention in Westminster. The traditional way to abstain in that system is to not vote at all (but this will not count you as present, I think).

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  • Can't they abstain in any other way? – gerrit Mar 26 '19 at 8:58
  • @gerrit: by voting neither way; there's no formal abstention; I've edited that in. – Fizz Mar 26 '19 at 9:05
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    @gerrit they can just not vote, sure. Often voting twice is just a cock up, they vote the wrong way, realize and then vote the other way to undo it. Another possibility is if they were supposed to abstain in a pairing arrangement with another MP who can't be there, but forgot to and need to undo their vote. – user Mar 26 '19 at 9:05
  • @gerrit yes, they could simply not vote, but this sends more of a message (like spoiling your ballot vs not turning up) – JeffUK Mar 26 '19 at 9:06
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    "The traditional way to abstain in that system is to not vote at all": isn't that the normal meaning of "abstain"? The general (and original) meaning of the word is to refrain from doing something. – phoog Mar 26 '19 at 17:43
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Apparently, in this particular case, Ed Vaizey voted against the amendment by mistake. Then he had to vote the second time to nullify his vote.

Today, Vaizey retweeted his constituent praising him on supporting the amendment, which, in a way, confirms that he originally intended to vote "aye" and voted "no" by mistake:

Good to hear that my MP @edvaizey was one of the Tory rebels who supported the Letwin Amendment yesterday. Common sense is starting to prevail.
@theoelliott 5:20 PM - 26 Mar 2019

EDIT:

In another tweet, Vaizey confirms the Mirror report that he voted by accident the first time:

I can now look British Airways pilots in the eye

@ch33sl3y Replying to @June4th
"NOTE: A 30th Tory, Ed Vaizey, voted both aye and no. Normally this is known as a 'positive abstention' - but the Mirror understands he voted both ways by accident!"
You couldn't make it up.

@edvaizey 11:07 PM - 26 Mar 2019

Here, Vaizey compares himself to the pilots of British Airways who recently landed in Scotland instead of Germany by mistake.

END EDIT

MPs are not allowed to change their vote, so quickly voting again is the only way to cancel a vote by error (Division factsheet from the House of Commons Information Office):

Abstention
There is no means in the House whereby a Member may register an abstention. But Members may continue to occupy their seats during a division to signify abstention.
A Member who has voted by error may, if he or she has time, cross over to the other lobby and vote again, hence nullifying the effect of his or her original vote, though of course this procedure does not allow him actually to register a vote in favour of the proposition on which he made the first mistake. Members can also, if they wish, stay in the lobby and not register a vote at all.

Also, an MP can vote both ways deliberately to signal an active abstention.

Public Whip has a list of 726 occasions of double voting.

Amazingly, on 726 occasions in these parliaments, an MP has voted twice in the same division. It's a little known fact that this is perfectly allowable, provided one vote is aye and the other is no. For details see under the heading "abstention" in the division factsheet from the House of Commons Information Office.

An MP may have done this to cancel the effect of a mistaken vote in the wrong lobby. However, it would seem reasonable to encourage the practice as a signal of active abstention from the vote. You can see in the table below one clear case of this happening, where many Conservative members abstain on a fishing issue.

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