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)
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.
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:
- STV (Single Transferable Vote): The system 58% of British Columbians voted yes to in the first referendum.
- 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.
- 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.
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