Fair Voting Part 2: Ballot Ranking

Posted on May 18, 2011


Yesterday, I wrote about how much our voting system sucks. The gist of it: First past the post doesn’t allow us to make any real progress on difficult issues, a minority that is in denial of the problem can take advantage of the proactive majority’s disagreement regarding how the problem should be solved. Our current electoral system gave Stephen Harper a majority mandate with only forty percent of the popular vote. If we don’t want to have to consolidate the Left into a mushy, unsatisfactory mega-party, then we have to change the voting system.

A very unscientific sampling of Canadian popular opinion, conducted by way of casual conversations with friends, coworkers and acquaintances, shows that, among the possible alternative voting systems, mixed-member proportional representation is getting a lot of attention. This is pretty reasonable. For those of you who aren’t political geeks, mixed-member proportional would set aside a certain number of seats in the House of Commons to be allocated to the parties based entirely on the popular vote. If there were fifty proportional seats, then the results of this election would give twenty to the Conservatives, fifteen to the NDP, nine to the Liberals, three to the Bloc Quebecois, and three to the Greens. Within this group, the Conservatives would still get a plurality that reflects their large amount of public support, but they would be denied their false majority.

Mixed-member proportional is not without its problems, however. For one thing, it strongly entrenches the partisan system, and perhaps further encourages caucus whipping due to the fact that elections, and by extension, parliamentary votes, will inevitably be won by narrower margins. It is also not entirely clear to whom a proportionally elected MP would be accountable. I can e-mail my MP, or visit her office if I have a concern, but it gets really unclear where that pressure comes from for an MP who represents an even spread of the country. All in all, however, it is a better system than what we currently have. It forces political parties to try and win votes across the country, rather than focusing their efforts on appeasing small regions, and it serves as a check against unmandated majorities. Its critics, like Ottawa Citizen columnist Paul Tuns, tend to complain that the difficulty of getting a majority in such a system would force the government to be decided by compromise between the political parties. Mr. Tuns apparently doesn’t realize that that’s entirely the point. The ability of a government to ignore all opposition, even if said opposition is comprised of sixty percent of the electorate, is not something to be defended.

There’s another option here, however: ranked voting. Given the concerns that mixed-member proportional MPs would be more accountable to their party than to any constituency, I feel that this is actually the better option. It’s best described by this playful diagram from a recent British referendum on the matter, which they unfortunately lost.

A ranked ballot allows you to choose not just your first place candidate, but also your second, third, fourth, etcetera. In order to win an election, a candidate must get fifty percent of the vote. If nobody can attain this using first place votes alone, then the losing candidate is eliminated and everyone who voted for them gets their second place votes counted. This process continues until somebody has achieved a majority of support. If carried out at the riding level, ranked voting essentially functions to kill vote splitting. In the image above, the beer drinkers would be unlikely to put coffee as their second choice, and so one of the three pubs would win. With first past the post, the small plurality of teetotalers gets to haul everyone off to a coffee shop instead.

This system has a number of advantages. It does not favour established parties. In fact, it gives smaller parties and independent candidates, who would normally lose out due to being perceived as a wasted ballot, a better chance. Voters are free to vote for something rather than against something, because they can always use their second and third picks to protect against the worst case scenario. Ranked voting system forces all candidates to appeal to all voters, rather than being able to simply rally their partisan base. And unlike mixed member proportional, it allows for local representation. Lastly, it would protect against false majorities brought on by vote splitting.

Before we set about fixing our system, we need to decide exactly which fix we are going to apply, lest we split the pro-reform vote between two different systems. Ironic as that is; it remains the hand we were dealt and so we should spend some time discussing the matter and coming to a conclusion on the best alternative before we set about implementing it. Please comment if you have thoughts about this. Next post will be about how we make change happen.