Report of the Electoral Matters Committee

ParlVicThe Parliament of the Australian state of Victoria’s Electoral Matters Committee released the report of its Inquiry into the future of Victoria’s electoral administration. It’s a lengthy (144 pages) report, and much of it deals with the nitty-gritty of voting in the State of Victoria. Chapter 3, however, might be of more general interest to Canadians who advocate for the adoption of the preferential ballot (aka the ranked ballot, or the Alternative Vote).

There are two different voting systems used in the State of Victoria. Full preferential voting is used to elect Members to the Legislative Assembly, while single transferable vote (STV) is used to elect the upper chamber, the Legislative Council.

Full preferential means that for a ballot to count, what is known in Australia as a formal ballot, the voter has to rank, in order of preference, every single candidate listed on the ballot. If the voter fails to do so, theirs becomes an informal ballot and is not counted – what we here in Canada would call a spoiled ballot.

While one of the main concerns about voting here in Canada is undoubtedly the issue of voter turnout, this is not the case in Australia, which has compulsory voting. Instead, the main concern around the use of full preferential is the increase in the number of informal ballots. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to the State of Victoria; the rates of informal voting are increasing in most Australian jurisdictions, both at the state and federal level.

At the 2010 Victorian state election, the rate of informal voting for the Legislative Assembly was 4.96%, which means that just under 5% of the ballots cast couldn’t be counted because they hadn’t been filled in properly. This is the highest rate of information voting ever, and a 50% increase over the 2002 election. While I can understand why this trend would worry people, when contrasted to Canadian elections which see a voter turnout barely topping 50% at times, I can’t help but see this as a relatively mild concern. Yet, it is a problem, and Chapter Three of the report looks at ways to try to reverse this trend.

Long story short, the Committee put forward the following recommendation:

Recommendations 3.1: The Committee recommends the Victoria Government amend the Electoral Act 2002 (Vic) to introduce a system of optional preferential voting (OPV) for Victorian Legislative Assembly elections. In drafting these amendments the Victorian Government should examine the model of OPB used in NSW and Queensland.

Both New South Wales and Queensland use what the report calls “full” Optional Preferential Voting (OPV). Electors in NSW and Queensland have the choice of voting for one candidate, more than one candidate, or all of the candidates on the ballot paper. In other words, they don’t have to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper; they can rank only their first choice, or rank as many or as few as they please. Both states have lower rates of informal voting than Victoria; the rate for the 2011 Legislative Assembly election in NSW was 3.2%, while the rate in the 2012 Queensland Legislative Assembly vote was 2.2%.

While the rate of informal voting (spoiled ballots) might be better under full OPV, it has other problems associated with it. The report does reference these. The most glaring one, to me at least, is that because voters can choose to rank only one candidate on their ballot, there is a risk that full OPV becomes a de facto First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. And indeed, there is evidence that this is happening. In 2011, the Queensland Attorney General reported to Cabinet on Queensland’s OPV voting system and noted that in the 2009 state election, 63% of ballot papers were marked “1″ only. At the 2006 election, the rate was 62%. Up until 2001, the rate had been significantly lower – only 20.7% in 1995, for example.

Why does this matter? As I have explained in numerous past posts on this topic, the only advantage any type of ranked ballot has over FPTP is that it is supposed to eliminate candidates being elected without majority support. As we all know, under FPTP, it isn’t unusual for candidates to win with minority support, meaning, they receive less than 50% of the votes cast. A majority of MPs in both the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons were elected with less than 50% support – often a lot less.

There is significant support for adopting preferential voting in Canada – both federally and more recently, it has been proposed for municipalities in Ontario. I don’t think anyone in Canada is proposing full preferential – requiring voters to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper – at least, every single discussion I have seen on the topic here in Canada refers to optional preferential. However, I have also never seen anyone address this reality about OPV – that not all voters will bother to rank candidates, and if most ballots are marked with “1″ only, then we’ll still be stuck with essentially a FPTP system.

Another problem with OPV is that it favours the candidate in first place on the first count. Or as Antony Green put it: “Optional preferential voting makes it easier for the candidate leading on first preferences to reach 50% of a shrinking pool of votes in the count, and harder for a second placed candidate to come from behind and win.” This again reinforces the FPTP-ness of OPV.

Full preferential is problematic in its own right, however. Most ballot papers here in Canada have more than 3-4 candidates on them. While it might be easy enough for most voters to rank candidates from the big parties, how do you then rank independents and candidates representing fringe parties you may never have heard of? Or take the mayoral race for the City of Toronto – while only a handful of candidates get any real media coverage, there are over 40 candidates actually running for mayor at time of writing. Who on earth would even want to attempt to rank all of them in some sort of order of preference?

While the Victoria Electoral Matters Committee is favouring OPV, I think my preferred option would be Modified OPV, as used in Tasmania. It’s sort of a hybrid of full and optional preferential. In Tasmania, for a vote to count, the voter has to rank at least five candidates. They can rank more than five if they want, but the rest are optional. I think this would be a good compromise for any jurisdiction in Canada that might adopt preferential voting. It would ensure that the system doesn’t resort back to a de facto FPTP system, but at the same time, wouldn’t force Canadians into making (too many) “artificial” choices. Note – I’m not 100% beholden to the number five – but I wouldn’t go any lower than 3 and think it might be best if it were more than three as that might have unduly negative consequences for minor parties.

If you’re interested in the Electoral Matters Committee report, it can be downloaded here.

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  • JD Mussel

    I disagree that that’s the only advantage of AV. It also gives voters more choice and the ability to give their true preference without wasting their vote or splitting the vote of their side. In Britain, many voters preferring a minor party without a chance of election will choose to vote strategically for a bigger party because of such fears – thus creating a vicious cycle (people don’t vote for a small party because it is small because people don’t want to waste their vote on it) that makes entry into an already very high-threshold system even more difficult; meanwhile, three-way marginals makes voting more discouraging for more mainstream-party voters, as they can’t tell which party to vote for for their ‘bloc’ to win. in Australia, people rank minor parties (or their preferred party in a triangular contest) first without such fears. This is a very significant advantage beyond simply making a majority win more likely.

    • Radical Centrist

      I don’t entirely disagree with you, however, if we agree that there are two main issues with FPTP – lack of proportionality and MPs winning with minority support, as a voting system, the only one of those AV addresses, in theory at least, is the latter. But that only works if a majority of voters actually bother to rank more than one candidate. No one in Canada, when they discuss AV, ever talks about full preferential (requiring voters to rank all candidates) only optional preferential as was proposed for the UK. It is an issue in Australia in the states that use OPV that a majority of voters now use their ballot as a de facto FPTP ballot, and as such, undermine the only real advantage AV has over FPTP by turning into FPTP.

      • JD Mussel

        If we agree that those are the main issues, then yes. But I’m not sure I do: as long as it doesn’t result in a wrong winner, I generally don’t mind disproportionality as much as others do. (In any case, my preference goes to the Australian model: bicameralism with a powerful upper house elected by PR, with a majoritarian lower house.) As to minority support, I only mind that when it comes as a result of a ‘split vote’, and AV of any type gives voters the opportunity to avoid that. I certainly don’t think Canadians would allow AV to devolve into FPTP if it were introduced right now.

        • Radical Centrist

          Totally disagree on the upper house thing! I strongly favour what we have now. But going back to AV, I think a awful lot of Canadians would just mark one candidate. That’s what happened in the past in the three provinces that used AV for a bit, as I explained in this post:
          There are a lot of people who so strongly back one party only that they just can’t conceive of casting a secondary vote for some other party. Unless you require that people rank a minimum number, I think way more people than you think will just FPTP.

          • JD Mussel

            Yes, I read that post a while back while browsing your blog. Somehow I think things will be different now, more than fifty years later and a (much more) multi-party system. The fifties was indeed a time of strong party loyalties, at least if Canada was anything like Europe; today, the NDP rose from third/fourth party to official opposition in the matter of weeks thanks to a strong debate performance, while the Conservatives were formed as a union of two parties not 15 years ago; lastly: the surge of the Green party, perhaps the party that stands most to benefit in terms of votes; no doubt they would mount a strong ’1st-preference Green, 2nd preference ___’ campaign.

            But I may be wrong; I am not Canadian, and my observations are very much superficial. As to the bicameralism issue, I am curious as to your view, but first I’d like to share mine with you. I recently wrote a paper summarising my proposals for Canada. If you’re interested, I’d be happy to send it to you by email.

          • Radical Centrist

            Sure – I’d be very interested in reading your paper. You can send to thoughtundermined at gmail dot com.

          • 2Jenn

            I’d just like to remind you both that we can have a preferential ballot AND a moderately-proportional system in one of several different ways. Every MP would be elected by people in a specific region, there wouldn’t be so many parties in Parliament that governing becomes near impossible, people would feel that their choice is counted; why not take the best of all worlds?

          • Radical Centrist

            I am fully aware of that – it just seems that currently, AV has momentum as it tends to appeal to many who aren’t keen on actual PR. And many think it would be an easier “sell”.