♣ Preferential vs Proportional

ELECTORAL SYSTEMS ~ CC0 by laurelrusswurm

by Anita Nickerson, FairVote, Waterloo Region

“Preferential Ballot” – also called “preferential voting,” “ranked voting,” “instant run off voting” or “IRV,” “priority voting,” “alternative vote” or  “alternate vote” or “AV,” and now sometimes even just “ranked ballot”– is another “winner take all” system, very similar to our current system of First Past the Post.

Proponents of Alternative Vote like to claim that it is more democratic than our present system because the riding winner would have to achieve “more than 50% support”. It gives voters the illusion of having more say, because now we get to “rank the list of candidates” or “rank our preferences.”

Well, I like to rank things. I like to be asked what I think, especially about important issues. So do many Canadians. Marketing companies know this: that’s why consumer surveys and polls are so popular.

In reality, in exchange for making more marks on a piece of paper, research on how Alternative Vote would work in Canada shows that with AV we get will get:
The Alternative Vote

  • a) Exactly the same winner as we get now with First Past the Post in most ridings.


  • b) An even more distorted overall result, in which the number of seats a party wins is even further out of alignment with the percentage of the popular vote they earned. In the ridings where second choice rankings do influence the winner, this system would only help the Liberal Party pick up even more seats compared to their percentage of the popular vote, and form even phonier “majorities” in future.

AV does nothing to help smaller parties win any seats to reflect their percentage of the popular vote. Votes for smaller national parties are eliminated early on with AV. It would hurt the NDP. As with our current system, most voters in a riding will still be left represented by someone they don’t want.

How can this be? Didn’t all those check marks and X’s somehow influence the outcome for the better? Well, no.

Let’s take a hypothetical example scenario. Suppose my current riding is held by a Liberal candidate who won the race last time with 39% of the vote and has been entrenched for years. I rate my preferences #1: Green, #2: NDP, #3 Independent, #4, Liberal, #5 Conservative. (You could change the order of my higher preferences and it wouldn’t matter).

Imagine piles on a table – each candidate has a pile of votes. First step in an Alternative Vote system is to eliminate the candidate with the lowest percentage of the popular vote from the race entirely. Bye, bye, Independent. Those votes are then transferred to the piles of the candidates representing the second choices of those voters. Now we repeat the process. Bye, bye, Greens. Those votes are then transferred to the piles of the candidates representing the second choices of those voters.

The process continues and continues until one candidate accumulates more than 50% of the pieces of paper in his pile and is declared the winner. Surprise, surprise! It’s the Liberal. And now, instead of taking the riding with 39% of the vote, he can publicly claim to have “more than 50% public support.”

“Preferential voting” is a wee stretch of the meaning of the word “preference.” In the scenario above, my fourth or fifth choice, which I would characterize as “bad” or “very bad”, is hardly “preferred”. But I am now being told I somehow had more say in the outcome.

Again, Alternative Vote delivers us up largely the same results, with most voters in a riding being represented by someone they don’t want. It entrenches strategic voting, as voters try to place their “lesser evil” choice somewhere prominent in the mix to avoid a worse outcome.

In Australia, parties coach their supporters who can’t figure it out how to strategically rank the choices by giving them cards with ranked lists to take to the polling station.

AV simply reinforces a two party system, giving undeserved bonuses to the Liberal party, as they would be the second and strategic choice of many more voters than the others. Of course, the Liberals know this, and that’s why they are pushing it.

There have been many independent commissions and non-partisan citizen’s assemblies which have studied Canada’s democracy in depth and recommended reform. The most notable of these was the Law Commission of Canada’s Report, “Voting Counts, Electoral Reform for Canada”, which recommended a mixed member proportional system with open lists. Not a single commission or citizen’s assembly has recommended AV. Of the 103 members of the impartial Citizen’s Assembly in Ontario, an honest process where ordinary citizens spent months learning about electoral systems, only 3 citizens chose Alternative Vote.

In trying to explain to voters what AV really means, we are up against a marketing machine with more cash and a big audience. We must tell our friends and neighbours:

Don’t be fooled by convincing sound bites. For the sake of Canada’s democracy, we can do better.

Even more important today, this is a reprint of the 2011 guest post published here with a new title, absent the introduction, and an edited first paragraph to reflect the new pseudonyms this winner-take-all electoral system is sold under under.