Alternative Vote aka “preferential ballot” or IRV

Why Fair Vote Canada does not support “Alternative Vote”
~ “preferential ballot” in single member ridings,
also known as “IRV­” (Instant Run­Off Voting)

guest post by Anita Nickerson,
Fair Vote Canada

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There are two major “families” of voting systems in the world:­ winner-­take-­all and Proportional Representation (PR).   What we call “winner-­take-­all” is called “majoritiarian/plurality” by political scientists, and that is the system we currently use in Canada.

Alternative Vote (AV) is a close cousin of First Past the Post in the winner­-take-­all family.  It is a ranked (preferential) ballot system in single member ridings.

If a candidate has 50% of the vote, he/she is elected — and the other 49%  — or whatever percentage chose someone other than the “winner” — are wasted.

If no candidate has 50%, the candidate with the lowest percentage is dropped, and the second choices of voters for the least popular candidate are redistributed. This process is repeated until one of the front runners has achieved 50%.

AV can be a good system when the point is to elect a single person like a party leader. As a method of electing a representative body, it just a slight variation of First Past the Post.

AV is used at the national level in two countries in the world (formerly 3 countries, until Fiji replaced AV with PR).

Fair Vote Canada doesn’t endorse AV because even though it may sound a bit better that each individual MP would have to have 50% of the vote, studies over 90 years in Australia shows it changes the outcome less than 5% of the time. The overall results in Parliament when you look at how people voted and how many seats a party gets compared to the popular vote would be just as distorted as what we have now. The Independent Commission on the Voting System in the UK has actually shown that the results could be more distorted than First Past the Post.

Studies looking at second choices of voters and election results in hindsight have shown that historically AV would have handed the Liberal Party bigger phony majorities, as the second choice of left and right voters.

A 2011 study of AV in Ontario by researchers from McGill, Western and University of Montreal showed that with AV, the Liberals would get 4% fewer first choice votes than they do now, but the result would be they would win 1/3 more seats, for a big phony majority instead of a minority government.  There are still many AV fans in the Liberal Party ­ but thanks to the hard work of Liberal PR activists and some key Liberal MPs such as Stephane Dion and Joyce Murray, the good news is the federal Liberals have replaced their AV policy with endorsement of an evidence­-based process to look at all options, including PR, after 2015.

We had AV in Canada in the Western provinces for 30 years. It was brought in not for reasons of better democracy (or out of any evidence­-based process or citizen consultation)  but for the partisan advantage of one party who enacted it to keep another party out.  What happened was that it backfired. Eventually they got first­-past­-the-­post back.

There have been 10 government sponsored commissions or assemblies in Canada now which have all looked at our voting system problems and electoral reform options objectively, bringing together citizens and experts. Every single one of them recommended adding some element of proportionality as necessary to fix the problems with first-­past-­the­-post.

Your Vote Goes Here garbage Can

Nor is AV a stepping stone to PR.  It tends to channel votes into the baskets of the big parties, bringing us closer to a two-­party, left/right system (that is effectively what they have in Australia ­ this year the conservative coalition in Australia won a majority of seats with 45% of the popular vote and is undoing the policies of the previous government). The Ontario study showed that although people vote differently (more honestly) with a AV, the seat result was that AV would actually reduce the number of effective parties in the legislature.

Sometimes people say that AV is better because it is “simpler to explain” to voters ­ AV is so close to what we have now, whereas PR is “too complicated”. The UK ­ the mother of First Past the Post ­ had a referendum on AV in 2011. It failed miserably ­ 32%. The major political parties (equivalent to our Liberals and Conservatives) refused to give voters a PR option on the ballot, despite the recommendations of their own Independent Commission for PR ­ it was AV or nothing. AV was described as the “miserable little compromise.”

PR is a bit more complicated than either First Past the Post or Alternative Vote. But over 80 countries use PR, including about 85% of the other OECD (rich) countries. Canadian voters can figure it out. For example, with this proportional ballot, a voter checks two boxes. Voters learn quickly with practice.

Decades of research comparing winner­take­all to proportional systems shows that PR systems outperform winner-­take-­all systems on every measure of democracy, as well as a host of other things, such as lower income equality, better environmental outcomes, and even higher economic growth.

Nobody has ever recommended a “pure” PR system for Canada (think Israel) ­That is a straw man argument often brought up by opponents. Research shows we can obtain the benefits of PR with a moderately proportional, made­-in­-Canada, system that balances proportionality with geography, and in which all MPs are directly elected and accountable to local voters.

For those who like a preferential (ranked) ballot, there are many ways a preferential ballot can be part of a more proportional system ­ they can work together. A few examples are:

  1. STV (Single Transferable Vote): The system 58% of British Columbians voted yes to in the first referendum.
  2. P3 (Proportional-­Preferential­-Personalized): The moderately proportional preferential ballot system designed by Stephane Dion. Stephane has been speaking on this within and outside the Liberal Party for two years ­ at Liberal Party meetings, public town halls, FVC events, even the Green Party convention. His particular system is unlikely to be adopted but it started a crucial conversation within the Liberal Party.
  3. AV+ (Alternative Vote Plus): This is the system recommended by the UK Independent Commission on the Voting system. It is very similar to the Mixed Member Proportional with open lists (the system recommended by our Law Commission of Canada in their extensive 2004 report “Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada) but with a preferential ballot on the constituency side. You can see a sample ballot here.

With the NDP and Greens committing to implement PR if elected, the Liberal Party replacing their AV­ only policy with a resolution endorsed by their whole caucus stating that they will bring together parties, citizens and experts to design a system, considering proportional representation as an option for the first time since 1919, we now have the beginnings of a common ground heading into 2015 and have a real shot at casting a vote that counts in 2019.

For 2015, Fair Vote Canada calls on the federal political parties of Canada to commit to:

  • conducting a citizen-led consultation process immediately following the next federal election, to determine the best model of proportional representation for Canada whereby all MPs are elected by and accountable to voters, and
  • implementing the model in time for the following election.

Winston Churchill on AV

Image Credits:
The flag and the Fair Vote Garbage Can photos are mine, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
and my Winston Churchill is CC0

3 thoughts on “Alternative Vote aka “preferential ballot” or IRV

  1. Agreed that if municipalities would move to multiple-councillors wards, fine opportunities for PR would arise. But as long as we maintain single-councillor wards (and no party system), it seems to me that ranked voting has advantages. In the current election, several wards in Ottawa have about 10 candidates. The winner may get in with 12% of the vote. All the rest will be wasted. Adding in 2nd and 3rd choices would give more people the sense that their voice has been heard and may well — and justifiably — snatch “victory” away from the 12-percenter in favour of a greater consensus result.

    • Proportional Representation doesn’t require a party system. I understand it works a treat in the ranked voting system called Single Transferable Vote (STV).

      There is no appreciable benefit to switching from one winner-take-all system to another winner-take all system. It doesn’t matter if the candidate wins with 12% of the vote, or 22% of the vote, or even 51% of the vote, if the outcome with one candidate winning 100% of the power. This is a superficial change that doesn’t address the reason we need electoral reform: it isn’t representative democracy unless it represents all the citizens.

      Second choices are meaningless in a winner-take-all system. The only time there might be any validity to such a system is if it is an election within a political party where all the candidates are presumably representative of the party, or in an STV situation that allows you to select which candidates you might prefer from within the same party. It’s a whole different kettle of fish when the candidates are from different parties or espouse completely different ideologies.

      But the most egregious inequity in your AV/IRV system is the fiction that a second (or third, or fourth) choice provides voters the same representation as voters whose first choice elects the winner. It doesn’t; it’s a shell game that allow the victor to pretend he or she actually achieved a majority.

      The reality is that the only voices actually heard in a winner-take-all system are the ones belonging to the winners. All the rest of us are losers, just as they are in First Past the Post election. The only way for all voices to be heard is to provide real representation to all voters; and so far, the only way to achieve that is through Proportional Representation.

      • Thanks, I am now convinced that AV would not be progress. However, the reality in Ontario and Ottawa is now that a change to the municipal electoral system is on the table, including a statutory review of Ward boundaries. Here’s hoping that anyone in favour of PR will jump into the debate, use this opportunity to educate the masses about electoral systems and promote an improvement at the municipal level. It’s needed!

        FVC’s 2015 campaign is vital, but a debate (and win) at the municipal level could do wonders for the cause! On the other hand, a decision to try AV would be a setback, both locally and nationally.

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