Preferential voting isn’t the solution some think it might be

There have been a growing number of columns and articles in various Canadian media over the past few months bemoaning the state of our parliamentary democracy and proposing various changes which might improve the situation. More often than not, electoral reform is mentioned – either in the column itself, or by a reader commenting on the piece.

There does seem to be a growing recognition or acceptance that the First-Past-the-Post voting system doesn’t quite work the way people would like. I won’t say it doesn’t work the way it should because it works exactly as it should. It simply isn’t the ideal system for multi-party democracies.

Inevitably, in these discussions, someone proposes some form of proportional representation, usually Mixed-Member-Proportional, where most MPs would be elected the usual way, but then each party’s numbers would be topped up with list MPs to more closely reflect the party’s actual percentage of the vote. And also inevitably, many other people chime in denouncing any form of PR because it leads to coalition government which is of course completely unstable – just look at (insert name of favourite basketcase country here).

The voting system change that seems to garner (or be garnering) the most support is the very one the UK rejected in the 2011 referendum – the Alternative Vote (AV), or preferential voting. As I’ve explained in the very, very many posts I wrote during the lead-up to that referendum, under AV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. To be elected, a candidate has to get over 50% of the votes cast. If no candidate tops 50% after the first count, then the candidate with the lowest vote total is dropped from the ballot and the votes for that candidate are redistributed based on the second preferences indicated by voters. This process continues until someone ends up with over 50%. See this post I wrote back in 2011 to explain to British readers how the vote would work.

AV isn’t used in a lot of places. Australia is the best example available of a western democracy which uses it. At the federal level, they use “full prefential voting” to elect the House of Representatives (a completely different system is used to elect Senators – see this handy guide to voting systems used in Australia). That simply means that voters have to rank every single candidate on the ballot. I believe they can leave one candidate unranked, and that will be counted as their last choice, but if they leave more than one candidate unranked, the ballot is rejected. At the State level, some states also use full preferential to elect their Legislative Assemblies, while others use “optional preferential”. Under this variant, voters can rank as many or as few candidates as they want – this was the model proposed in the UK. Under optional preferential, voters can treat their ballot as a FPTP ballot if they so desire – voting for one candidate and one candidate only.

The Alternative Vote appeals to many because it is fairly simple (not quite as simple as FPTP, but certainly far less complex than other voting systems out there), and it would address the issue of MPs being elected with minority support. As I’ve also repeatedly blogged, the majority of MPs in Canada win their seat with less than 50% of the vote cast in their riding – sometimes a lot less. AV would put an end to that, in theory, at least.

It is really important to understand that this is the only advantage or benefit AV has over FPTP. In many ways, it can lead to even more distorted results than FPTP currently does, e.g. a single party winning even more seats than it might have under FPTP. It is not at all proportional, so it won’t put an end to majority governments formed by a party with much less than majority support, meaning many voters will continue to feel as if their votes don’t count.

Each form of AV also presents other problems. Full preferential, where a voter would have to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper, would force many – probably most voters –  into making what can only be described as artificial choices. Some voters simply don’t have a second choice – they vote for one party and one party only, and would have no desire to even attempt to rank any other candidates. Other voters might have an easier time ranking the two or three major parties on the ballot, but here’s the big problem. Most ballot papers in Canada have several candidates listed, often as many as 10 or so. Apart from the candidates representing the three or four major parties in the country, there are also a large number of candidates representing fringe parties most people have never heard of, as well as candidates running as independents. Leaving aside the one-party-only people, for everyone else, it would be a very trying experience, if not even a complete joke, to try to rank the fringe and independent candidates. And never mind trying to rank candidates you’ve never heard of, what about having to rank candidates you dislike equally? Think about this for a minute, about how many candidates were actually listed on your ballot the last time you voted. Now imagine having to rank every single one of those individuals in order of preference in order for your ballot to count.

So go with optional preferential – problem solved. Indeed. But let’s remember that the only advantage AV has over FPTP is that it is supposed to ensure that the MP elected is elected with over 50% support in that riding. While most think that means “50% of the votes cast”, if you’re using optional preferential, what you end up with is someone elected with 50% of the votes still in play, which may be a very different number from the total number of votes cast. Under optional preferential, voters can choose to cast their vote for one candidate only, and indeed, many do just that. This is a phenomena known as “plumping”. Optional preferential has been used in Canada in the past, in three different provinces, and I have a post looking at what happened in those provinces during the time they used optional preferential. As you can see, the plumping rate was quite high – sometimes over 60%. That means only a minority of people were actually ranking more than one candidate. I am willing to guess that at best, most voters who do bother to rank will rank only two or three candidates. If the majority of ballots can’t be transferred after the first count, the one advantage AV has over FPTP pretty much disappears.

As well, optional preferential can end up costing parties seats because of voters treating their ballot as a FPTP ballot. See this post by Australian elections expert Antony Green on the recent election in Queensland. There is also evidence that optional preferential disadvantages smaller parties (and independents) – just as FPTP does. As Green points out in this post, wherein he re-does the 2010 Australian federal election using optional preferential rather than full preferential, “optional preferential voting always advantages the party with the highest first preference vote.”

It may interest some proponents of AV to know that the State of Queensland is currently conducting an inquiry into its electoral law, and an important focus of that is whether optional preferential should be retained (discussion paper PDF here). From page 37 of that discussion paper (emphasis added):

A key issue with OPV is that it has the potential to become a de facto ‘first past the post’ system. Preferences can be quickly exhausted where a large number of voters choose to vote ‘1’ only. This is particularly problematic where a large number of candidates are contesting a seat. In such a circumstance, it would be possible for a candidate to be elected with only a small proportion of the vote, which could leave the majority of the population unrepresented.

As part of its analysis of a survey of ballot papers from the 2009 state election, the ECQ found that approximately 63.03% of ballot papers were marked ‘1’ only. At the 2006 election, 62.15% of surveyed ballot papers fell into this category. Up until the 2001 election, the number of ballot papers marked ‘1’ only had been significantly lower (20.7% in the 1995 election).

Meanwhile, others in Australia are calling for a move towards proper proportional representation.

While I agree with most that AV/preferential voting might be the easiest electoral reform to implement here in Canada because it isn’t that different from FPTP, there are some very important issues associated with it that need to be carefully considered. It won’t be the panacea many seem to think it might be.

Related Posts:

Radical Centrist