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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Coalition government gains traction

The UK House of Lords Constitution Committee has launched a new inquiry into the constitutional implications of coalition government.

The reason for this inquiry is “the increase in the general election vote share for parties other than Conservative and Labour means that government by coalition may become more common in future as single parties are unable to secure an absolute Commons majority.”

The Committee’s inquiry is focusing on three key questions:

  • The impact of coalition government on the principle of collective ministerial responsibility.  Examples of disagreements within the current coalition that have raised questions in this area include those announced at the onset of the coalition, such as on the renewal of Trident, and some which have emerged during the course of the Parliament—for example the amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 which delayed the constituency boundary review.
  • How democratic legitimacy is secured under coalition governments.  The classic model of a majority government implementing its manifesto as endorsed by the electorate does not necessarily translate to a hung Parliament. This raises questions about the practices and procedures that should be adopted to secure democratic legitimacy, including the status of coalition agreements drawn up following a general election and whether manifestos should be changed to reflect the possibility of a hung parliament.
  • The organisation of the executive under coalition government.  The Committee will explore what is the most effective and accountable way to run a coalition government, including areas such as the appointment of ministers and the structure of the Cabinet and its committees.

(Side note: you don’t have to be a UK citizen or resident to contribute to this inquiry. If you are interested in the topic and want to contribute your thoughts on the above, download the call for evidence guidelines (PDF). The deadline is 30 August 2013.)

The next general election, in 2015, will more than likely again result in a hung parliament. And unlike in Canada, there is growing acceptance in the UK that the proper response to a hung parliament is coalition government, not single party minority government. This inquiry is just one example of that acceptance. Another is the news that the UK Conservative backbench have set out certain “red lines” for their party leadership – policy areas on which they will not compromise in any future coalition negotiations. The same article mentions that the Liberal Democrats will likely do the same – spell out their own red lines for joining a coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives.

Of course, the next election is still more than a year away, and polls can – and most certainly will – change between now and then. Combined with the vagaries of First-Past-the-Post, one of the major parties could very well eek out a majority mandate on its own. But what is encouraging is that the idea of coalition government, despite the ups and downs of the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, has gained acceptance and parties are preparing for that possibility.

Now if only Canadian political parties could start thinking more boldly as well…

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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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The real problem is MP irrelevancy

Recently, Canada’s federal Official Opposition proposed measures for improving decorum in the House of Commons. These measures would require changes to the Standing Orders in order to increase the Speaker’s authority to discipline unruly MPs:

who use harassment, threats, personal attacks, or extreme misrepresentation of facts or position in the House, particularly regarding Statements by Members and Oral Questions, including:

i.  Revoking questions during Oral Questions from parties whose Members have been disruptive
ii. Issuing a warning to Members for a first offense
iii. Suspending Members from the service of the House for one sitting day for a second offense; five days for a third offense; and twenty days for a fourth offense
iv. Suspending Members’ sessional allowance for the duration of their suspension from the service of the House

Reaction has been varied. Sun Media’s David Akin pointed out that new rules aren’t required – if MPs want to stop this sort of behaviour, they can simply stop it. He also suggests that if the rules governing broadcasting of House proceedings were relaxed to allow reaction shots, that too might lead MPs to think twice about behaving boorishly:

The rules require that whenever the Speaker stands, the cameras may only show him. When he is not standing, the cameras may only show the MP who is speaking.

If TV networks – Sun News Network, CPAC, CTV, CBC, etc. – were able to control the cameras, we would certainly zoom in on sleeping MPs, on MPs giving others the finger, and so on.

Knowing that their hijinks would be beamed into the nation’s living rooms would surely be the best corrective.

I am not convinced that reaction shots would change much. The cameras in UK House of Commons do not stay focused on the Member who has the floor, and this does not stop other MPs from gesturing, making faces at, or heckling their counterparts on the opposite side. Akin is closer to the mark when he ends his column with:

But more unworkable and impossible-to-enforce rules?

Newsflash: They won’t work.

The problem isn’t really not enough rules, but that over the years (decades) the rules have been changed in ways that increasingly weaken the opposition and empower the government side – essentially rendering backbenchers – and the legislature – largely irrelevant. And I refer not only to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, but also Canada’s Elections Act, as Aaron Wherry of Macleans explains in this post. The real problem in the Canadian House of Commons is that backbenchers are not free to ask questions of interest to them, they are given scripted questions by their party Whips. Ditto for most of the highly partisan Members’ Statements – I am certain most MPs would prefer to use their Member’s Statement as intended – to speak of something of interest to them and their constituents. Instead, they are given prepared, highly partisan statements by their party leadership.

What would be needed, more than new penalties the Speaker could impose on disruptive Members, would be rule changes to strengthen the Opposition, and to ease the control party leaders have over their MPs. A lot, maybe most, of the heckling and boorishness occurs because MPs other than those on the front bench are frustrated.

While the clip from the UK’s Prime Minister’s Questions in the above link might not show it, overall, the UK House of Commons is far more respectful and decorous than its Canadian counterpart. And the  main reason for that, I believe, is because backbenchers in the UK have far more freedom than do their Canadian counterparts. Part of that is due to sheer numbers – there are 650 MPs in the UK House of Commons – the Conservative party alone has almost as many MPs as does the entire Canadian House of Commons – and so it is simply impossible for the whips to exert the same level of control over backbenchers that Canadian party whips do. As well, MPs have more control over their party leader. For example, in the UK Conservative Party, a vote of confidence in the party leader can be triggered by 15% of the party’s MPs. This means that if 46 sitting Conservative MPs write letters indicating they are unhappy with Prime Minister David Cameron as their party leader, a confidence vote is held. If Cameron were to lose that vote, he would have to resign as party leader. He would not be permitted to run again for the post of party leader either. The Liberal Democrats require that a majority of sitting MPs pass a motion of no confidence in the leader to trigger a leadership contest, but the defeated leader is allowed to stand again. Labour has no such non-confidence provisions.

The UK House of Commons has also embarked on a series of reforms in recent years which have served to strengthen the House vis à vis the executive. I have blogged extensively about many of these (see, for example, my “Fixing Ottawa” series, first post here). Governing parties in the UK do not expect that bills that they put forward will go through un-amended – or that they will even pass, which is not the case here in Canada. Because the opposition parties in the UK know that they will most likely be able to amend any government bill, there is less need to resort to tactics to try to stymie Government business in the House.

I know some will argue that if a party “wins” an election, then it has a mandate to govern and to get its legislation through the House. This argument would have more weight if our electoral system actually reflected how people voted. I don’t know how anyone can argue that a party elected to majority government with less than 40% of the popular vote (and often dismal voter turnout) has a real “mandate” to push through any piece of legislation virtually unopposed. And no piece of legislation is ever perfect – amendments should be welcomed, not defeated at every turn.

The problems in the Canadian House of Commons are mostly due to the excessive control parties have over their Members, and to years of changes to the Standing Orders which have only served to strengthen the Executive at the expense of the legislature. Fining an MP for being disruptive during Question Period won’t change anything. The problems go much deeper than that.

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Electoral reform – not hot with Canadians but still worth pursuing

Canada’s federal Liberal Party is currently in the midst of a leadership race. During a debate held on 19 January 2012, the issue of electoral reform was raised a few times. The party has adopted an official position endorsing preferential voting (or the Alternative Vote), and most of the candidates stated that they backed that option.

On Twitter, respected Canadian pollster Nik Nanos tweeted:

#LPCldr electoral reform – not likely hot with Canadians – Cdns want to hear about jobs and healthcare.

This comment reinforced two points for me.

The first is my strong opposition to trying to implement electoral reform via a referendum. Mr. Nanos is entirely correct – the majority of Canadians don’t care about electoral reform. Even among political geeks, electoral reform tends to be a bit of a fringe issue. This is one (certainly not the only) reason why a referendum on electoral reform is such a bad idea if you seriously want said reform to pass. Most people will not follow the debate, and so won’t really know what they’re being asked to vote on. And even those who will be more aware will be asked to choose between a system they know well, even if they’re not entirely happy with it, and one they’ve most likely never experienced. I like to use this analogy:

Electoral Reformer: What’s your favourite soft drink?
Average voter: 7-Up.
Electoral Reformer: 7-Up, yes, that’s pretty good, but you know what? I’ve got this drink that is way better than 7-Up. Do you want to have that instead?
Average Voter: Can I try it first before deciding?
Electoral Reformer: No, you just have to trust me. It’s way better than 7-Up. And if you vote for this new one, we’ll get rid of 7-Up forever. Trust me – it’s better.

How do you expect someone to vote when asked to choose between something they know and something totally new and foreign to them? Of course most people will stick with what they know. Three provinces in Canada have held referendums on electoral reform (one province has held two) and the reform was defeated each time. The Canadian media seems to be largely opposed to electoral reform, and the press was dominated by columns and opinion pieces warning of the chaos that would ensue if we dropped FPTP.

The second thing is, while electoral reform is not a priority issue for most Canadians, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be pursued. Just because something doesn’t crack the average voter’s Top 10 List of Important Things doesn’t mean it’s not important or necessary. Improving our democracy shouldn’t be contingent on whether or not it’s a popular issue. It should be pursued because it is necessary and the right thing to do.

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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

Manitoba

Alberta

British Columbia

Year

% Plumped

Year

% Plumped

Year

% Plumped

1927

40.7

1926

42.8

1952

33.5

1932

53.9

1930

43.5

1953

27.9

1936

57.6

1935

47.0

1941

Data n/a

1940

38.0

1945

68.1

1944

63.7

1949

65.9

1948

63.7

1953

51.4

1952

52.3

1955

29.8

(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.

Related Posts:

Keyword Post: Answers to Questions on Election Outcomes

Following the recent election in the Canadian province of Ontario, I can see that there are a lot of people searching for very basic information about how our system of government works. While I have detailed posts answering most of these questions on this blog, I will provide shorter, basic answers to some of the most common questions to which people want answers.

1. What happens in a minority government / what does a minority government mean / how does a minority government happen?

A minority government simply means that the party or parties forming the government do not have a majority of the seats in the legislature. In the case of Ontario, there are 107 seats in the provincial assembly, therefore to have a majority government, a party (or parties) needs to have at least 54 seat. If the party, or parties, which forms the government have fewer than 54, we call this a minority government – it could be a single party minority government, or a coalition minority government. The Liberal Party won 53 seats in the 6 October election, more than any one of the other two parties (PC 37, NDP 17), but less than the two other parties combined, who have a majority between them (54 seats), therefore Ontario now has a single party minority government.

As for what happens during a minority government, the party forming the government must work more closely with the other parties in order to ensure that the government survives.  Therefore, it will tailor legislation to appeal to at least one of the other parties, in order to get that party to vote to support the legislation in the House. Minority governments can be very effective if they work closely with the other parties, but if there is little cooperation, then the government can be unstable, constantly at risk of being defeated on a confidence matter or vote. The more cooperation there is between the parties, the better the chances are that the government will last more than a few months and the more productive the legislature will be. For more detailed information about government formation and various forms of government, please read this post and this post.

2. How many votes does a third party need to get?

It isn’t a question of how many votes a party needs, it is a matter of how many seats a party wins. In the Ontario legislature, a party must win at least 8 seats to be recognized as a party. If fewer than 8 MPPs are elected from a certain party, they will be considered “Independent Members”. This has consequences because additional funds are available to political parties represented in the House, but not Independents. Committee chairs are allocated to recognized parties, but not to Independents. Political parties are allocated a certain amount of debate time and questions during Oral Questions, but Independents can only participate in debates and in Oral Questions if the Speaker chooses to recognize them.

Therefore, a party needs to win at least 8 seats to be a recognized party in the legislative assembly. However, party representation in the Legislature is not limited to only three parties. For many many years now, there have been only three parties represented in the Legislative Assembly, but there used to be more than three, and in the future, if the Greens (or some other party) become more popular and get members elected, there will be more than three parties again.

In the Canadian House of Commons, a party must win 12 seats to be recognized as a party. That is why Elizabeth May, leader of and the only member of the Green party in the House of Commons is considered an Independent. The Bloc Quebecois won only 4 seats in the 2011 election, and thus is no longer a recognized party. Its four members are considered Independents. Some jurisdictions don’t have any minimum seat requirements for a  party to be recognized in the House.

3. Could the Progressive Conservatives and NDP form a coalition?

Yes. It’s probably not very likely given that ideologically, they aren’t very close, but there is certainly nothing stopping the two parties from working together, even forming a coalition. However, even if they announced that they had formed a coalition, which would command a majority of the seats in the legislature, they would not automatically become the government. As the incumbent party, the Liberals have the right form the government first. If they Liberal minority government were defeated on a confidence vote, then the Lieutenant Governor could ask a PC-NDP coalition to form a new government. Again, see this post on government formation for more information.

4. How many votes are needed to win a seat in the provincial (or federal) election?

One more than the candidate who finishes second.

Because Ontario (and every other jurisdiction in Canada) uses Single Member Plurality (more commonly known as First-Past-the-Post) to elect members, a candidate only has to receive a simple majority of the votes cast, which could be as few as one single vote more than the person in second place. They don’t need to get 50% of the votes cast, just more than the next person.

For example, in the 6 October 2011 Ontario election, in the riding of St. Paul’s, the final results were:

Hoskins, Liberal – 25,052 votes, or 58.4%
McGirr, PC – 8971 votes, or 20.9%
Hynes, NDP -  7121 votes, or 16.6%

In this case, the Liberal candidate won decisively, receiving a majority of the votes cast (58.4%), well ahead of the candidate in 2nd place. However, in other ridings, the results were much closer, for example, in Kitchener Centre:

Milloy, Liberal – 15,392 votes, or 39.2%
MacDonald, PC – 15,069 votes, or 38.4%
Dearlove, NDP – 7382 votes, or 18.8%

In this case, the winner did not get over 50% of the votes cast, but that doesn’t matter. He did get more votes than the candidate who finished second (323), and that is all that is required. Even if the margin of victory had been only one vote, he still would have won the seat. Please see this post for more information on how FPTP works (or doesn’t work).

5. How many votes does it take for a majority government in Canada/in a province?

Again, it isn’t a question of votes, but how many seats a party wins. That will vary by legislature. In the federal House of Commons, there are currently 308 seats, therefore a party (or coalition of parties) needs 155 seats for a majority (308 / 2 + 1). The numbers will be different for each provincial legislature since they all have different numbers of seats. Simply take the total number of seats in the legislature, divide by two and add one. That is how many seats are required for a majority in that province. (If you don’t know how many seats there are in the legislature in question, simply Google for that legislature – i.e. “legislative assembly of Saskatchewan”. The information will be available on the Assembly’s website.)

6. What happens when less then 50% of the population vote in a Canadian election?

Nothing. In the first place, not everyone is eligible to vote in an election. There are certain conditions which must be met to be eligible to vote (for example, you must be at least 18 years old, you must be a Canadian citizen, etc.), therefore the number of eligible voters will always be lower than the total population of the country or province (in the case of a provincial election). However, voting is not mandatory and there is no minimum turnout required to validate elections in Canada, therefore as long as some people turn out to vote and Members get elected, the election will be valid. Of course, ideally, every one who is eligible to vote should do so.

7. What happens if a party wins but their leader doesn’t win a seat?

If a party wins sufficient seats in an election to allow it to form the government, but the party leader doesn’t win his or her seat, that party still forms the government. The party will name an interim leader from among its elected members, and the actual leader will attempt to get elected to the House as quickly as possible. This will usually happen via a by-election. The party may convince one of its members from a very safe riding to resign their seat. A by-election will be called to fill the vacancy, and the party leader will run in that by-election. Usually they will win, but if they were to lose, then it would be expected that they would probably resign as party leader. The party would then hold a leadership convention to choose a new leader. All of this would have no impact on the party’s right to form the government, however. You might want to read this post on how the Prime Minister is chosen for more information.

8. What happens if a minority government is defeated?

If a government is defeated because it has lost the confidence of the House (and this could happen to a majority government as well, though it isn’t very likely), normally the defeated Prime Minister or Premier will suggest to the Governor General (or Lieutenant Governor in a province) one of two things: to ask the leader of another party if they can form a government that might command the confidence of the House, or to dissolve parliament and call a new election. What the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor will decide to do might depend on when in the life of the parliament the government loses the confidence of the House. If the government’s defeat occurs very early on in the life of the new parliament (i.e. very soon after a general election), the GG or LG might be more inclined to see if another party or group of parties can form a new government. If this is possible, than that party (or group of parties if they have formed a coalition or reached some sort of agreement) will form the government without an election being necessary. However, if no other party or group of parties is able to form a government which will command the confidence of the House, then the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor will dissolve parliament and call for a new election. The greater the distance between the last election and the defeat of the government, however, the more likely it is that the GG or LG will dissolve parliament and call for a new election.

Related Posts:

Majority Government, Minority Support

(Note: You may also be interested in this post comparing various types of government. Also, for people wondering “how many seats do you need to have a majority government”, the answer is simply, one more than all of the other parties put together. Take the total number of seats there are in the legislature in question, divide that by 2 and add one. That is how many seats you need. So, if the legislature in question has a total of 120 seats, divide by 2, which gives you 60, add one, 61 – a party (or coalition of parties) would need at least 61 seats  to form a majority government. In the case of an uneven number of total seats, say 107, divide by 2 and round up, so 107/2=53.5, round up to 54 – a party or coalition of parties would need at least 54 seats to form a majority government. If you don’t know how many seats there are in the legislature, go to the official website – that information is normally available there. You can also look up the assembly on Wikipedia [although remember that Wikipedia is not always 100% accurate - always best to stick with official sources for confirmation].)

A reader contacted me asking how a party can win a majority of seats, and thus form the government, but not have a majority of the popular vote.

This is due to the voting system used in Canada and a few other jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom, the single member plurality system which is more commonly referred to as First-Past-The-Post (FPTP).

FPTP is a very simple voting system. When an election occurs, in each constituency (riding), the candidate who wins the highest number of votes within that constituency wins that seat. They don’t have to win over 50% of the vote in their riding, they only have to win at least one more vote than the candidate in second place.

For example, in a riding, we have candidates from the three most prominent parties and a couple of fringe party candidates. The result is as follows :

Candidate A (Modern Party): 12,000 votes
Candidate B (Traditional Party): 10,000 votes
Candidate C (Freedom Party): 9,000 votes
Candidate D (Granola Party): 800 votes
Candidate E (Angry Party): 200 votes

In this example, the winner is candidate A with a majority over Candidate B of 2,000. However, you will note that more people (20,000) voted for candidates other than candidate A. Candidate A did not have the support of a majority of voters.

The big problem with FPTP is that it is designed for a two-party system. If there are only two parties competing (or two very strong parties and maybe a couple of very weak fringe parties), then FPTP works reasonably well. If there are only two parties to choose from, Candidate A from the Modern Party and Candidate B from the Traditional Party, then one of them will receive over 50% of the vote.

However, when a country has a multi-party system, meaning that there are more than two strong parties competing for people’s votes (and many smaller parties), then FPTP starts to break down and can produce very distorted results. The greater the number of parties, the more the vote is potentially split between them. This leads to candidates winning seats with smaller and smaller percentages of the vote.

In the May 2011 Canadian general election, for example, 163 of the total 308 seats, that is 53% of the seats in the House of Commons, were won by a candidate who received less than 50% of the vote in his or her riding. In some ridings, the vote was split very closely between three or more different candidates. This means that a majority of MPs were not elected with a majority of the vote in their own constituency. More voters in their ridings voted against them than voted for them. For example, in the Quebec riding of Ahuntsic, the vote split very closely between three parties: Bloc Quebecois – 14,908 or 31.8%, NDP – 14,200 or 30.3%, Liberal – 13,087 or 27.9%. The BQ candidate won the seat backed by only 31.8% of voters in that constituency. The 67% of voters who supported federalist parties (NDP, Liberal, Conservative and Greens), ended up with a pro-Quebec independence MP.

This distortion at the constituency level plays out at the national and provincial levels as well. Because the overall vote is split between three or more parties, it becomes increasingly difficult for a single party to gain over 50% of the total vote cast. But, just as a candidate doesn’t need over 50% of the vote to win a seat, political parties do not need to win over 50% of the total vote to win an overall majority of the seats.

In the May 2011 federal election, the Conservative Party won a majority of the seats (166) but received only 39.6% of the overall vote. That’s 53% of the seat won with only 39% of the vote. The last majority government in Canada to win a majority of the vote occurred in 1984, when the Progressive Conservative Party won 211 seats with 50.03% of the vote. While better than more recent results in terms of winning a majority of the vote, this is still unbalanced. The PCs won 75% of the seats in the House of Commons with only 50% of the vote.

FPTP has also resulted in even greater distortions. For example, there have been instances of a party finishing second in terms of the overall vote, but still winning more seats, sometimes even a majority of the seats, than the party that did receive the most votes overall. In the 1979 federal election, the Progressive Conservatives won 136 seats while the Liberals won 114, even though the Liberals received 40% of the vote compared to the PCs’ 35%. In the 1998 general election in the province of Quebec, the Parti Québécois won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly (77 of the 124 seats) but had actually finished second to the Quebec Liberal Party in terms of votes. The Quebec Liberal Party received 1,771,858 votes (43.55%), and the PQ 1,744,240 (42.87%) votes, yet the PQ won 77 seats and the Liberals only 47. In New Brunswick in 2006, the Liberals won 29 seats to the Progressive Conservatives’ 26, but the PCs had received marginally more votes, 177,744 to the Liberals 176,410. In the 1996 provincial election in British Columbia and in the 1986 election in Saskatchewan, parties won a majority of seats even though they placed second in the overall province-wide total of the votes.

It has even happened under FPTP that one party has won every single seat. In the New Brunswick provincial election of 1987, the Liberal party won all 58 seats in the provincial legislature on 60% of the vote. The Progressive Conservatives received 29% of the vote and the NDP 10%, but neither party won a single seat.

FPTP can also exacerbate regional differences between the parties and allow one party to form a national government even though support for that party is largely concentrated in one part of the country. For example, in the 1997 federal election, the Liberals won 101 of the 103 seats in Ontario. However, a bare majority of voters in Ontario had voted for other candidates. It was this massive win in Ontario that allowed the Liberals to form a majority government – they won a total of 155 seats, 101 of them from Ontario. This was repeated in the 2000 general election, with the Liberals  winning 172 seats, 100 of those from Ontario alone. Only 14 of their seats were from Western Canada. In the 2006 federal election, the Conservatives won every seat in Alberta (28), with 65% of the votes cast in that province. Another form of distortion occurs when two parties can receive virtually identical support, yet one wins a large number of seats, while the other wins none or very few. For example, in the 1993 federal election, the Reform Party received 2.6 million votes, mostly in two provinces (BC and Alberta), and won 52 seats, while the Progressive Conservative Party received 2.2 million votes and won only two seats because their support was spread across the country. This is the same reason why it is very difficult for smaller parties such as the Greens in Canada and UKIP in the United Kingdom, to actually win seats in general elections – their support is spread across the country and doesn’t translate into seats.

Adopting a more proportional voting system would address these issues, and would also make it almost impossible for a single party majority government to occur unless it managed to win a majority of the overall popular vote. Elections would regularly result in hung parliaments, and political parties would have to learn to work together more effectively – most likely by forming coalition governments as is the norm in most Western democracies which don’t use FPTP. But as long as Canada and its provinces continue to use FPTP, and as long as we continue to have more than two parties actively competing for votes, we will continue to see majority governments elected with minority support.

Related Posts:

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.

 

Related Posts:

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