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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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 my first choice 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. Consequently, I do fully endorse its use at the municipal level. 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:


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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The preferential ballot favours the party with the most first preference votes

I have written several posts looking at the growing popularity of the preferential ballot/the alternative vote (AV) here in Canada – see this recent one, for example. I even attempted a redo of the 2011 Canadian federal election using the preferential ballot rather than our current FPTP. As I explained in that post, and in others, the big problem in attempting to forecast how the election would have played out using AV was the absence of data concerning voters’ preferences. Some polling firms would (and still do) regularly ask people which party was their second choice, but no one ever looked at voters’ potential 3rd, 4th, etc. choices.

However, a new poll by Abacus Data has done just that. According to Eric Grenier, in this article in the Globe and Mail, the poll asked respondents to rank seven parties from 1 to 7 (in other words, it used full preferential rather than optional preferential). I cannot find this data on the Abacus website. Mr. Grenier examined the numbers and posits that using a preferential ballot “would limit the ability of the Conservatives to win elections”:

With a preferential ballot, however, the Conservatives would come out further ahead. They would lead in 147 ridings on the first ballot (after distributing the marginal support for the smaller parties), compared to only 108 for the New Democrats, 76 for the Liberals, four for the Bloc Québécois, and three for the Greens (primarily due to an anomalous result in the poll in Atlantic Canada).

The Conservatives would have majority support in 60 ridings and win those automatically, while the NDP would win 23 seats on the first ballot and the Liberals 11. But that Tory advantage would disappear once the instant run-off was conducted.

The Conservatives would lose their first ballot lead in 30 ridings, and be reduced to only 117. The New Democrats would move ahead in 18 more seats and take 126, while the Liberals would win 17 more ridings and increase their total to 93. The Greens would hold on to two of the three seats in which they led, while the Bloc Québécois would lose all four.

I am not entirely certain how he comes to that conclusion. The last paragraph quoted above is particularly confusing to me.

Despite Mr. Grenier’s assertions at the outset of the article that the preferential ballot “is used in many jurisdictions around the world”, the only really comparable example available to us is Australia. Full preferential (where voters have to rank every single candidate on their ballot for the vote to count) is used at the federal level to elect the House of Representatives, and in some states, while a couple of states use optional preferential, where voters can choose to rank as many or as few candidates as they want. Indeed, many opt to rank only one candidate and optional preferential becomes a de facto FPTP ballot. This is what happened when AV was used in some provinces here in Canada in the past.

What Mr. Grenier seems to overlook is that the preferential ballot, in particular optional preferential, always favours the party which receives the most first preference votes – at least going by Australia’s long history with this form of voting. Grenier rightly notes that the Conservatives “would have majority support in 60 ridings and win those automatically”. However, things are a bit more complicated after that. Going by Australia’s experience, Conservative candidates would not, as Grenier posits, “lose their first ballot lead in 30 ridings” based on second preferences. It all depends on how close those Conservative candidates are to the 50%+1 needed to win the seat under AV. The closer they are to that mark, the fewer votes transfers they require. Consequently, a Conservative candidate with 45% of the vote on the first ballot count, would most likely still win the seat because they need far fewer votes to boost them over the 50% mark. Even if they were further from the 50% target, say at 40%, but the 2nd place candidate was well behind, say at 30%, the Conservative would still most likely win. Only in instances where two candidates were quite literally neck and neck on the first ballot count would the outcome be up in the air.

Readers interested in preferential voting should regularly read Antony Green’s Election Blog. Green is an Australian elections expert who blogs about both federal and state elections in that country, which, I reiterate, is really the only jurisdction at all comparable to Canada which uses the preferential ballot. As Green explains in this post:

At the 2010 Federal election, 64 of the 150 seats were won by a candidate with a majority on first preferences, and a further 75 won by the highest polling candidate at the start of the count after the further distribution of preferences. Optional preferential voting would have had little impact on these 139 contests.

However, in the 11 contests where the candidate leading on first preferences did not win, optional preferential voting could have changed the result.


The lesson here is that optional preferential voting always advantages the party with the highest first preference vote.

In other words, in the 2010 federal election in Australia, a majority of seats (139 out of 150) were won by the candidate who was ahead after the first count. Sixty-four were won by a majority on the first ballot, and 75 were won on subsequent ballots – by the candidate who’d been in first place on the first count. That is using full preferential. Only in 11 instances did the candidate who’d been leading on the first ballot fail to actually win the seat. Had optional preferential been used instead, in only 3 cases would the candidate in the lead after the first ballot have failed to win.

It is good that a polling firm here in Canada has finally started to explore voters’ preferences beyond their 1st and 2nd choices, but I don’t think Mr. Grenier fully understands how AV tends to play out – at least based on what happens in Australia.

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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.

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The length of two swords

Recently, the brilliant UK actor Philip Glenister (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, State of Play, Mad Dogs, Hidden, etc.) was interviewed on the Andrew Marr show in connection with his latest role, that of Chief Government Whip in the play “This House“, which is set in 1974, when Labour had a shaky minority government.The discussion turned to the innately adversarial nature of politics in the UK House of Commons, with Marr noting that the play was in some ways an attack on the British parliamentary tradition, that of two sides against each other, and that underneath, there was a dream of a better way of doing things, a call for politics to be more consensual. Glenister noted that UK was “one of the few democracies, just by the layout of our parliament… it’s in a rectangular shape as opposed to in the round. It’s only one of two in the world.”

If Glenister is correct, and there are only two democracies in the world with rectangular Chambers which force government and opposition to face off against each other on opposing sides, then the Canada is the other one. The Canadian House of Commons, the Senate and most of the Canadian provincial and territorial legislatures are also rectangular, the exceptions being the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut and the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories.

What is being implied here is that layout of the Chamber, government on one side, opposition parties on the other, makes our politics more adversarial because it imposes an “Us vs Them” feel from the outset. This is the same argument put forward by architects in this very interesting article, “The Shape of Debate to Come“.

However, it is debatable to what extent the shape of the chamber might influence how adversarial or consensual debate will be. As Professor White notes in the above article, countries which end up with a more consensual approach to politics also tend to use some form of proportional representation rather than First-Past-the-Post:

But, in an email, he said there was “pretty much zero” chance of more co-operative behaviour in Canadian legislatures. And he put the differences in approach in legislatures such as Wales and Scotland more down to mixed electoral systems, not just first-past-the-post.

He said: “Unquestionably the opposing rows of benches in standard Westminster parliaments reinforces the adversarial nature of the place; for my students I liken it to opposing armies or sports teams squaring off. At the same time, I see seating arrangements as very much secondary to underlying political culture and prevailing political norms.

“The Manitoba [legislature], which is semi-circular, has exceedingly nasty, adversarial partisan politics, and the US Congress these days is hardly a paragon of non-partisanship.”

Because PR makes it very difficult for any one party to form a majority government on its own, this means that coalition government tends to be the norm in countries which use some form of PR, and that reality alone will require parties to work harder to find some sort of consensus. As Prof. White points out, despite sitting in the round, politics in both Manitoba and the US Congress are very partisan and adversarial, and both jurisdictions use FPTP. The Australian House of Representatives is horseshoe-shaped, and politics Down Under is every bit as partisan as it is up here, particularly in the current minority parliament. Australia uses the Alternative Vote to elect its MPs, a voting system which requires voters to rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference, and to win the seat, a candidate must gain over 50% of the vote, either outright, or through transferred preferences. AV, like FPTP, is not at all proportional, which may explain why political debate in the House of Representatives is partisan and adversarial.

This summer, it was reported that the UK Parliament could be closed for five years for extensive refurbishment, with MPs and Lords “convened in a replica chamber or a conference centre for the duration of the repair work, which could start in 2015.” This immediately alarmed some. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson raised the threat of some advocating that a new, refurbished chamber would be “a chance to move the MPs to a lifeless, European style semi-circular chamber that supposedly encourages them to co-operate.” Fraser comments on how deathly boring debate is in the Scottish Parliament, which is circular. He does not mention that Scottish Members of Parliament (MSPs) are elected using Mixed-Member Proportional representation (MMP).

But is the electoral system alone enough to determine how consensual or adversarial politics will be in a given jurisdiction? Thomas Carl Lundberg, in his paper “Politics is Still an Adversarial Business: Minority Government and Mixed-Member Proportional Representation in Scotland and New Zealand“, concluded that while both nations introduced MMP in part to bring about a “new politics”, in the end, “the impact of institutional engineering upon the behaviour of politicians has been limited.” New Zealand adopted MMP in 1996, Scotland in 1999. New Zealand has seen the formation of mostly minority governments under MMP (albeit minority coalition government rather than single-party minority government) supported by other smaller parties through confidence and supply agreements, while Scotland has experienced two terms of majority coalition government, one term of single-party  minority government, and most recently, to the surprise of most, a single-party majority government.

The reasons why MMP has had limited success in curbing adversarial politics in Scotland and New Zealand, according to Lundberg are varied. Long before New Zealand adopted MMP, it had a very strong two-party system (Labour on the left and the National Party on the right) and a long history of single-party majority government. With the introduction of MMP in 1996, that didn’t really change. Politics remained quite adversarial between Labour and the National Party, but both of the main parties learned to work with the much smaller parties in order to form governments.

Scotland on the surface may appear more consensual, but there are other tensions at work. Scotland has a true multiparty system, that is one in which “there are three to five relevant parties which are not separated (polarised) by a large or intense ideological distance” (which isn’t the case in New Zealand). Rather, Scotland’s party system “is characterised by two significant cleavages” – class divisions and “the process of building the UK (with England at the centre dominating the periphery composed of Scotland, Wales and Ireland) in the latter.” The two largest parties in Scotland are Labour and the Scottish National Party – both are centre-left, and they have a long, adversarial relationship dating back before devolution, or to quote the former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats: “there is a level of visceral hatred between the Nationalists and Labour to this day. So, it just transferred from London to Edinburgh … we just so massively underestimated how important it is for people to have good, personal relationships across all parties.”

Simply put, how adversarial or consensual politics might be in a given democracy will depend on many factors. While the shape of the debating chamber and the voting system used to elect members undoubtedly play a part, changing one or both will not necessarily bring about more polite politics.

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Artificial preferences

There continues to be interest among many Canadians in the Alternative Vote (AV). Most recently the Liberal Party of Canada adopted a resolution calling for the implementation of a preferential ballot for national elections. This blog attempted to redo the May 2011 election using AV, and other bloggers have produced similar posts. This blog continues to get queries from individuals about that AV projection post.

It is fair enough to say that AV is not the preferred option of most who favour electoral reform for one very important reason: it is not at all proportional and will do little to rectify the main failing of First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), namely, the election of a legislature where the number of seats won by the various parties in no way reflects how people actually voted. In some instances, AV can actually lead to even more disproportionate results than FPTP.  Please read this post for a more detailed look at the many problems associated with preferential voting and why it really isn’t an ideal reform. The only issue AV would address is that of MPs being elected with minority support in their ridings. Under AV, it would not be possible to win a seat with less than 50% of the vote cast in a giving riding. Votes would be redistributed based on indicated preferences until one candidate emerged with at least 50% support.

Despite AV’s many glaring shortcomings, the above does redeem it in the eyes of many. However, they may be overlooking a very real issue with AV – and that is the practice known as “plumping”.

Under AV, voters are supposed to rank the candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference. Australia, for federal elections to the House of Representatives, uses compulsory preferences: voters are required to rank each and every candidate on the ballot. Failure to do so results in a spoiled ballot. The Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales use optional preferential voting, meaning voters can rank as few or as many candidates on the ballot as they like. This is where plumping comes into play.

Plumping is the practice of voters indicating support for one and only one candidate. In other words, the voter treats their ballot the same as they would under FPTP – they select one candidate only and refuse to indicate any preferences for any of the others.

The ramifications of this are clear. If a significant percentage of voters refuse to take advantage of an AV ballot and rank candidates in order of preference, this impacts the number of ballots available for vote transfer on subsequent counts. A candidate may well eventually win with 50% of the vote, but the number of votes in play by the final count may be far fewer than the total number cast.

As discussed in this post, AV was used in three provinces in Canada many decades ago (and only briefly in one province).  Professor Harold J. Jansen has studied the use of AV in those provinces and one of his findings is that plumping was very prevalent as the following table shows:

Incidence of “Plumping”: Proportion of Voters Indicating only a First Preference



British Columbia


% Plumped


% Plumped


% Plumped


















Data n/a

















(Source: Harold J. Jansen, The Political Consequences of the Alternative Vote: Lessons from Western Canada, Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique 37:3 (September/septembre 2004) 647-669)

The above numbers are rather disturbing. If well over half of voters refuse to indicate any preferences, that rather undermines the one main advantage of the Alternative Vote. Proponents of AV tend to ignore the fact that a significant percentage of voters really don’t have any second choices. They support one party and one party only, and any “choice” they would make to indicate a preference for other parties would simply be false.

This was an argument against AV that I regularly encountered during the lead-up to to the AV referendum held in May 2011 in the UK. It was especially prevalent on Conservative blogs and forums. Take for example, this piece by Robert Halfon written for ConservativeHome in September 2010. In it, Halfon writes (emphasis mine):

Similarly, the Alternative Vote places an artificial construct on voter’s intentions, forcing them to make second preference choices – before they actually know the result, which inevitably would disproportionately favour the Liberal Democrats as being the ‘centre’ party.


The beauty of TSB (The Second Ballot system) is both its fairness, and simplicity.  Instead of having an ‘Alternative Vote’ and artificial second preferences, a ballot is held a week or two later in which the top two candidates slug it out for pole position.  Not only does this give electors a few extra days to consider their options based on the first result, it ensures that they are not forced into making a ‘saccharine’ second choice (which AV would force them to do), before they know whether or not their first preference candidate will get over 50% of the vote.

You may well disagree with Mr. Halfon that any preferences indicated on an AV ballot would be “artificial”, but that is indeed the reality for a great number of voters. They don’t want any party but the party they support to win, and so would most likely opt to plump their ballot. If past experience in Western Canada is anything to go by, the only real advantage of AV over FPTP would be undermined by voters refusing to rank more than one candidate and instead treating the election as FPTP election. If only a minority of voters are ranking candidates, a candidate may still end up with over 50% of the votes still in play, but that might result in a “false” majority.

The obvious way to avoid plumping is to adopt compulsory preferences as used in federal elections in Australia, in other words, forcing voters to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper. This would certainly give more credence to Mr. Halfon’s claims of artificial choices. People might grudgingly force themselves to seriously rank 2-3 candidates, but some ridings in Canada have 8-10 candidates on the ballot. Most of these individuals represent fringe parties, or are running as independents. I doubt very much that most voters would be putting serious thought into how they rank the majority of the candidates on their ballot paper. Being forced to vote that way might actually lead to a decrease in voter turnout.

Beyond the issue of plumping, which rarely gets discussed by proponents of AV, Jansen’s paper explores many other aspects of AV based on Alberta’s, Saskatchwan’s and British Columbia’s experience with that voting system. His conclusions include the following points:

  • AV differed little from FPTP in most aspects of its operations;
  • none of the three Western provinces experienced any increase or decrease in turnout that could be attributed to AV;
  • AV contributed to higher rates of ballot rejection in all three provinces;
  • it was associated with an increase in the number of parties seeking office (electoral parties), but not with an increased number of parties represented in the legislature (legislative parties);
  • AV did little  to encourage less adversarial politics or to encourage coalitions to form between the parties (hence the propensity of voters to plump their ballots);
  • there is little evidence that election outcomes under AV would have been any different under FPTP – only a minority of contests required multiple counts and of those, only a tiny fraction of candidates who were not leading after the first count managed to attract enough second and subsequent preferences to win.

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Nicked – the musical (revisited)

Back in February, I wrote about a musical being produced in the UK based on the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Entitled Nicked, it was staged in Suffolk on 30 April, as part of the HighTide Festival. You can read a review of it here.

And even better, you can see a performance of one of the numbers from the show on YouTube. The song is called Tinderbox and features Labour leader Ed Miliband trying to drive a wedge between Nick Clegg and David Cameron. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would love to see the entire show.

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How the AV referendum killed the republican movement

In an earlier post, I wrote that referendums aren’t very useful means of deciding key policy issues and that the entire referendum campaign on the Alternative Vote has been rather disgraceful.

This view has only been reinforced following news today that the No side admits it used completely made-up figures when it claimed adopting AV would cost £250-mn. Of course, this revelation came out on the day of the vote, too late for many who had already voted by postal ballot and who might have voted No in large part because they believed these claims.

However, the way in which the referendum on AV has transpired raises another interesting point. If a referendum on a relatively minor issue such as changing the country’s voting system can be defeated by a campaign based largely on lies, half-truths and hyperbole, how on earth would a referendum on a much more emotional issue, such as doing away with the monarchy be handled?

During the lead-up to the 29 April wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, debate on the continued existence of the monarchy surfaced, with many calling for a move to an elected head of state. I don’t really know how strong the UK’s republican movement is, but there were certainly a fair number of op ed pieces and people commenting that the monarchy was an anachronism, and didn’t reflect a modern, democratic and egalitarian country. Many also pointed out that while the Queen herself remains fairly popular, the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, is not, and that the thought of Charles becoming King would only accelerate the move towards a republic.

However, if the referendum on AV is anything to go by, the big loser here may very well be Britain’s republican movement, as Alex Massie wrote yesterday in the Spectator:

If the British public rejects a relatively minor change to the electoral system there is almost no chance, at any conceivable point in any conceivable future, they will vote for a republic. Custom and the Burkean arguments for custom are powerful things (and probably the best arguments in favour of FPTP). I know that republicans often think that time is on their side and that the stupid people will eventually “wake up”. They won’t. If electoral reform is a goner that’s even more reason to suppose that a republic will, happily, remain an eternally lost cause.

The No2AV side repeatedly claimed that AV wasn’t “British”, and that alone was reason enough to vote against it. If a change to the voting system can be considered an assault on the very essence of what is “British”, how on earth could anyone even contemplate doing away with the monarchy – which predates FPTP by a few centuries at least.

Massie may sound elitist when he writes that the ‘stupid people’ won’t ever wake-up and see the light, but I have to agree with him. People aren’t so much ‘stupid’ as they are indifferent. If they’ve never given much thought to the merits of an elected vs hereditary head of state, they will be easily manipulated during a campaign to move from one to the other. Nothing is more typically British than the monarchy, and if a voting system can be undermined for not being ‘British’, then the idea of an elected head of state could surely be considered treason.

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The May 2011 Canadian election under AV

(Note: If you are looking for statistical data re: the 2 May 2011 Canadian federal election, please visit Elections Canada or the Pundits’ Guide to Canadian Federal Elections [which uses Elections Canada data].)

I came across a couple of blog posts written by people in the UK looking at what transpired in Monday’s general election and arguing that had said election taken place under the Alternative Vote rather than FPTP, the Conservative party would not have emerged with a majority government.

In a previous post, I wrote that my initial impression was that even under AV, the Conservatives would still have emerged with a majority. I hadn’t had a chance to examine riding by riding results, but given how AV has worked in Australia, in most instances, the candidate that emerges in first place after the first count, but short of a majority of votes cast, retains the seat even after preferences are factored in.

I have since had a chance to look at the preliminary results from the May 2 election in some detail.

(Note: what follows is based on preliminary results from the Elections Canada website, not certified final results. Consequently, some of these number might change in the coming weeks. Two seats will undergo mandated recounts due to the closeness of the results.)

Based on the preliminary results available on the Elections Canada website, there were 163 seats (53%) that were won with less than 50% of the vote (out of 308). This is a slight improvement over the 2008 election, I should point out. In 2008, 61% of the seats were won with less than a majority of the vote.

Of those 163 seats, I quickly determined that 136 would have yielded the same outcome under AV. The main reason for this was because in a majority of these ridings, the candidate who finished first was very close to the 50% mark, and so would have required few votes transferred on preferences to achieve a majority. In other instances, the winning candidate was further from the 50% goal, but had a significant lead over the second-place candidate. With such a large gap between first and second, the odds of the candidate in second-place after the first count moving ahead of the first place candidate were at best remote.

This left me with 27 seats that might have had a different outcome under AV.

I decided to try to guesstimate how many of these likely would have changed hands under AV. Please note that my methodology is, to be blunt, deeply flawed. There were no mock AV polls conducted in Canada as occurred in the UK in 2010. I got the impression that some of the UK bloggers I referenced above may have been working on the assumption that, for example, all NDP voters would have indicated Liberals as their second choice, and vice versa, and that few, if any votes would have transferred to Conservative candidates. Others may simply have added up all the votes cast in a given riding for the non-Conservative candidates and found that total to exceed the total votes won by the Conservative, and concluded that under AV, obviously, a non-Conservative would have won. While my methodology is far from scientific, anyone doing what I’ve just described is using an even more flawed methodology.

The closest thing I had that indicated potential second-preference voting trends was an EKOS poll conducted just before the election (April 26-28 2011) which asked voters about their second choice (click on the gallery images and scroll through to find the second choice chart – I can’t link to it directly). EKOS asks this question to try to determine how committed supporters are to their party of choice, not to guess at how they might vote if they could rank candidates. They don’t ask about 3rd or 4th preferences.

The poll indicates two important facts to keep in mind. First, a significant number of those polled (30.6%) stated they had no second choice. This is important because, as we know, not everyone would indicate a second preference on an AV ballot. Of course, they weren’t being asked about second preferences under AV voting, but the fact that many voters are very committed to one party and have next to no interest in other parties matters. Among party supporters, Conservative voters are the least likely to indicate a second preference – 47.4% said they had no second choice. They were followed by Green party supporters (27.4%), BQ supporters (21.7%), NDP voters (17.4%) and Liberals (17.1).

Next, it’s a mistake to assume that NDP, Liberal and Green supporters wouldn’t indicate a Conservative as their second choice. While the Conservatives were the party least likely to be chosen as anyone’s second choice (not counting the BQ since most Canadians can’t vote for BQ candidates), 13.5% of NDP voters, 12.6% of Liberal supporters, 11% of Green supporters and 7% of BQ supporters indicated that the Conservatives were their second choice. That is why it is a huge mistake to conclude that all “progressive” voters would favour another “progressive” party as their second choice.

Conservative supporters’ second choices were: NDP 21%, Liberal 16%, Green 11% and Bloc 0.5%; NDP supporters opted for the Liberals 37.7%, Greens 19%, Conservatives 13.5% and BQ 11%; Liberal supporters said their second choices were: NDP 54%, Conservatives 12.6%, Greens 12.0% and BQ 3.3%, while Green supporters favoured the NDP 40%, Liberals 17%, Conservatives 11% and BQ 2.6%. Finally, BQ voters’ second choices were the NDP 48%, Liberals 13%, Greens 8% and Conservatives 7%.

Using this poll as a guide, to simulate voting under AV using preliminary results from Elections Canada, I first reduced the number of transferable votes for each eliminated party by the percentage of those who indicated they had no second choice. Meaning, if the Green candidate was the first eliminated, I reduced the total number of votes cast for the Greens by 27% since that is how many Green supporters indicated they had no second choices. Before anyone jumps in to criticize this methodology, I know full well that this wouldn’t necessarily hold up if we were actually using AV rather than FPTP, nor would they apply across every riding. For example, I would think that Conservative supporters in provinces outside Alberta would be more likely to rank other candidates, and Conservatives in Alberta even less likely to rank candidates (but since only one seat in Alberta was won with less than 50% of the vote, this is a rather moot point). Still, I preferred to be rather conservative in this exercise and thought it made more sense than simply blindly transferring all the votes cast for a given party.

After I had eliminated those with no second choice, I then redistributed the remaining votes based on the numbers listed above. So of my remaining Green votes, 11% went to the Conservative candidate, 40% to the NDP candidate, etc. I repeated this process, eliminating one candidate then the next, until someone had a majority of the vote.

These preference transfers are problematic on another front. Just as EKOS poll only hints at how voters might have ranked a second preference, there is no way to know how they might have ranked third or fourth preferences. In this exercise, I am treating transferred votes from one party as votes for that party and further tranferring to the next party based on the second party’s overall preferences. Meaning, If I transfer 400 votes from a Green candidate to an NDP candidate in one riding, and the NDP candidate is the next one to be eliminated, I am treating the transferred Green votes as NDP votes and redistributing them as per the EKOS poll results for the NDP (so most would go to the Liberals, then the Conservatives). I have no way of knowing if this is how most Green voters would have ranked candidates on an actual AV ballot. It probably isn’t, which is why this entire exercise is completely hypothetical and should not be held up as any sort of gospel truth.

With all of these caveats in place, my non-statistician calculations lead me to revise my initial assessment.

Had the 2 May 2011 election occurred under the Alternative Vote, it is possible that the Conservatives would not have won a majority government.

Of the 27 seats that I thought might potentially change under AV, 24 of them did, using my horribly flawed methodology described above. Three seats remained the same. Using my new results, the standings in the House of Commons would look like this:

Conservatives 148 (down 19)
NDP 122 (up 10)
Liberals 48 (up 12)
BQ 1 (down 3)
Greens 1 (no change)

The Conservatives lost five seats to the NDP and 14 to the Liberals (mostly in Ontario where the NDP surge caused a horrible spoiler effect, leading to Liberals being defeated by Conservatives. Michael Ignatieff would still have lost his seat in my scenario, however.). The Liberals lose two seats to the NDP, but gain 14 from the Conservatives, for a net gain of 12. The Bloc loses three seats to the NDP.

More interesting to many, is that the NDP and Liberals together would command a majority of 170 seats.

So there you go. As I’ve stressed, repeatedly, my methodology is very imperfect. But it’s the best I have to go on. Perhaps when Elections Canada makes available its raw data, someone else will take a crack at this exercise and end up with different results. I was mostly just having a bit of fun.


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The 2011 Canadian Federal election – initial thoughts

(Please see this post for an update – the May 2 election redone using AV.)

I will write a more detailed post at some point in the future once final statistics are available. What follows are simply a few quick observations, mostly aimed at UK readers pondering how to vote in the AV referendum.

Canada’s Conservative party emerged with a strong majority mandate following yesterday’s vote, winning 167 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons – 54% of the seats. They won this with only 39.6% of the popular vote.

The New Democratic Party finished second with 102 seats, 33% of the seats in the House of Commons. They received 30.6% of the vote.

The Liberals finished third, winning 11% of the seats (34) but receiving 18.9% of the vote. The Bloc Quebecois won 4 seats (1.2%) with 6% of the vote and the Green Party picked up its first ever seat in the House of Commons, 0.3% of the seats, but received 3.9% of the vote.

Would this outcome have been different under AV? While I don’t have complete riding by riding final breakdowns yet, I would have to say no. AV tends to produce results similar to what would occur under FPTP. If anything, it might have produced an even stronger Conservative majority. However, in some ridings there was a very definitive spoiler effect in play, which undermined parties other than the Conservatives, and in those instances, the outcome might have been different.

It is important for voters to understand that AV is not proportional. It simply ensures that any MP elected will have majority support in his or her constituency.

However, there was a lot of strategic voting taking place, again, in this election. If voters had the option of AV over FPTP, how they voted may well have been quite different. There would have been more freedom to support parties they want to support rather than vote for parties they don’t particularly like in the hopes of blocking a party they dislike even more. Would that have affected the outcome? Possibly somewhat, but without a more proportional voting system, a Conservative majority was probably inevitable.

Once I have a chance to more closely examine riding by riding results, I will probably write up another post.


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