On misunderstanding ranked ballots

Recently, the Government of the Province of Ontario, Canada, announced that it would consider legislation that would allow municipalities in the province to use ranked ballots (aka the alternative vote, preferential voting, etc.) to elect mayors and/or councillors. Currently, these elections are conducted using single-member plurality (aka First-Past-the-Post).

Regular readers of this blog know that I have written extensively about this voting system, primarily during the 2011 referendum on AV held in the United Kingdom. This link will take you to the list of posts that have the “Alternative Vote” tag attached to them. Many of those posts were written to address what could only be described as absolutely ludicrous criticism of AV that was routinely raised by those who opposed the system. I made it clear that I myself am not necessarily a huge fan of AV, especially if used to elect MPs – it isn’t at all proportional and can lead to as distorted results as does FPTP, plus it has it’s own special set of problems – but I still felt a need to address the inaccuracies that were circulating.

Now the issue has surfaced in Canada, and with it, media coverage. And as expected, most of the reporters writing about ranked ballots really don’t fully understand how the system works.

First, a bit of context. I stated above that AV isn’t a proportional voting system. That is one of the main reasons why it would not be the first choice of many for electing federal MPs or provincial MLAs. However, in Ontario (as is the case in the majority of municipalities in Canada), political parties do not exist at the municipal level. Because of this reality, a proportional system isn’t needed, and AV/ranked ballots would actually be an ideal system. Now, we don’t know yet what exact system of ranked ballots might eventually be adopted. The bill put forward would simply amend existing legislation to allow cities to adopt some form of AV, but it would be up to the city to decide if they want full preferential, optional preferential, etc. Consequently, I cannot address specifics, only how AV works in general.

I have a number of posts that explain how AV works, at, least, the form that was proposed for the UK. If you are not familiar with ranked ballot voting systems, you might want to read this post I wrote explaining how to vote and how votes would be counted under the AV system proposed for the UK. I don’t want to go into detail about that in this post. Suffice it to say that voters will be asked to rank the candidates on their ballot in order of preference. Votes are counted the usual way, but if no candidate receives 50% + 1 of the votes cast on the first count, the last place candidate is dropped, the ballots cast for that candidate are then redistributed based on second preferences. The votes are then recounted. If there is still no candidate with 50% + 1 of the votes still in play, then the process is repeated until a candidate emerges with 50%+1 of the votes still in play.

There are couple of important points to understand. Ranked ballots favour the candidate who is ahead on the first count. Australia is the only jurisdiction which has a long history of using AV, both at the federal and state level, and it is extremely rare that a candidate who was in 3rd place on the first count ends up winning. It has happened only twice in over 30 years. It happens a bit more often that a candidate in second place after the first count goes on to win, but most of the time, the candidate who was ahead on the first count wins. And that makes sense – the closer you are to the 50%+1 target, the fewer vote transfers you need. The candidate in second place needs a far greater number of transfers to simply catch up, never mind win. The further back you are after the first count, the more unlikely it is that you’ll gather enough vote transfers to make up the gap and pull ahead. Please keep those points in mind.

One of the first articles which appeared was this Globe and Mail piece by Adrian Morrow. Mr Morrow writes:

Toronto city council voted last June to ask the province for the power to switch from first-past-the-post to ranked balloting. But Ontario is now looking at going further to allow all municipalities to change their method of voting. Whether legislation would offer a choice between the current system and ranked balloting only or whether other methods of voting, such as proportional representation, would also be allowed, is not clear.

Proportional voting systems are designed to ensure that party seats in a party accurately reflect the overall percentage of votes cast for each party. As I mentioned above, there are no political parties at the municipal level in the province of Ontario. If you don’t have political parties, you can’t use proportional representation. There isn’t anything to proportionally allocate.

Mr. Morrow also writes:

Under a ranked-ballot system, voters number their choice of candidate. If no candidate wins a majority of number-one picks, then voters’ second and third choices are tabulated until a candidate achieves more than 50 per cent of the vote.

This is simply a very awkward statement. It isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s far from being an accurate explanation of how votes are counted under AV. Please refer to the link I posted to my earlier blog post explaining how votes are counted under AV.

Recently, the Ottawa Citizen ran an editorial entitled Ranked ballots and fair elections. While there are a couple of good points raised in the editorial, the following made my head spin:

Preferential ballots can shift the balance of power in another, possibly unintended, way. They can allow candidates who are the third or second choice of many — but the first choice of almost none — to win.

I have tried desperately to figure out how on earth whoever wrote this thinks ballots are counted under AV. This simply makes no sense whatsoever. How on earth does the writer think candidates ended up in second or third place after the first count? It was because people voted for them AS THEIR FIRST CHOICE. They simply didn’t get as many first choice votes as the person who did end up in first place. Let me illustrate it this way.

There are five candidates running for Mayor of a small town. There are 25,000 eligible voters who cast ballots, ranking the candidates in order of preference. With 25,000 votes cast, a candidate would need to 12,501 votes to be elected. After the votes are counted the first time, we have the following result:

Candidate

First Preference Votes

Raul Castillo 9000
Jane Green 8500
Angela Chu 4000
David Black 2500
Mike Howe 1000
Total Votes 25,000
Votes needed to win 12,501

No candidate reached the 50%+1 mark, but, contrary to what the Ottawa Citizen editorial writer would have you believe, all of the candidates were the first choice of a large number of voters. Mr. Castillo was ranked #1 by 9000 voters, and the second place candidate, Ms Green, was ranked #1 by 8500 voters. Even our last place candidate, Mr. Howe, was the first choice of 1000 voters. If we look at the above scenario, only two of the five candidates have a chance of winning: Mr. Castillo and Ms Green. Mr. Howe would be the first candidate dropped from the ballot because he finished last, and his votes would be redistributed based on second preferences. The fourth place candidate, Mr. Black, would need 10,001 votes to win, and the best he could pick up would be 1000 second preference votes from Mr. Howe’s supporters, and it is unlikely that all of Mr. Howe’s supporters ranked Mr. Black as their 2nd preference. Mr. Black wouldn’t even be able to move ahead of Ms. Chu, and he will be the second candidate eliminated if no one wins on the second count. Ms. Chu would need 8501 votes to win, and even if she were the second choice of all of Mr. Howe’s and Mr. Black’s supporters, that would still not be enough to even move her ahead of Ms. Green.

I won’t go through the whole scenario of how subsequent votes counts might go. My point here is solely to make it clear that it is simply impossible for someone who is “the first choice of almost none” to ever be elected under AV. I can only surmise the the editorial writer has zero understanding of how AV works, and how votes are counted.

If this initiative moves forward in Ontario, I expect there will be many more equally ill-written and ill-informed articles and editorials on the Alternative Vote. You might want to bookmark some of my earlier pieces for future reference.

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