Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Politics: Rank Order Voting

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Last Sunday on CBC Radio One's "Cross Country Checkup", Liberal leader Stéphane Dion made a case for the Rank-Order Voting System [about 35 minutes into the program]. While noting that it was his personal view and not an official position of the Liberal party, Dion's stated support of the "Rank-Order System" (also known as "Instant Run-Off Voting") meant that the system may have a future in Canadian politics, as at least three parties (the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens) have had one or more of their leaders speak favorably about the system.

Most agree that Canada's electoral system needs some reform. The "First-Past-the-Post" system means that in most ridings, with three or more major parties running, the elected Member of Parliament gets less than 50% of the vote, winning a seat with just a plurality of the vote. In some sense, more than half of the voters feel that their wishes are ignored. At the national scale, the picture looks even worse. Despite polling at 10% or higher across the country, it is entirely possible that the Green Party will not have a single seat and hence no voice in parliament, as that 10% is approximately evenly distributed across the country, meaning they are nowhere near a plurality in most ridings.

One way to solve this problem would be a "Proportional Representation" system, used in other parliamentary systems including the European Parliament and most of the individual countries of northern Europe, that would have the parties put up national or provincial lists of candidates, divide the number of seats based on the national votes, and then the list from each party is seated down to the number of seats that they gained. Personally, I have few issues with such a system, but as a pragmatic observer, I don't see how it would ever be implemented in Canada with opposition from the major parties and a tradition of strong identification of representatives with their local riding (though the latter would be addressed by a German-style mixed member proportional system, which would likely be the proposal in Canada and is favored by the NDP).

Dion has now stated his support for another system that would represent a significant improvement, "Rank Order Voting". Voters would rank the candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate achieved a majority on the basis of each voter's first choice, then the candidate who received the fewest votes would be eliminated, and the second choice of that candidate's voters would then receive that candidate's votes. That process would be repeated, down to two candidates if necessary, until one candidate did have a majority of votes.

To contrive an example based on current national polls in Canada, assume that 100,000 votes are counted in a riding. The Conservative receives 35,000 votes, the Liberal receives 25,000 votes, the NDP candidate receives 18,000 votes, the Bloc Quebecois candidate receives 12,000 votes, and the Green Party candidate receives 10,000 votes. In the existing system, the Conservative wins the election with just 35% of the vote and gets the seat.

In an instant run-off system, 50,0001 votes would be required to win the election. No candidate received that in our example, so the candidate with the fewest number of votes, the Green candidate, is eliminated, and the second choices of the people that voted for the Green would then be considered. We don't know those preferences--that's a problem with the polls--so let's guess that 4,000 chose the Conservative as a second choice, 3,000 chose the Liberal, 2,000 chose the NDP, and 1,000 chose the Bloc. The totals then become: Conservative, 39,000; Liberal, 28,000; NDP, 20,000; Bloc, 13,000. It doesn't appear that much had changed. But, still no candidate has gotten a majority, so the last-place candidate (the Bloc candidate) is eliminated, and the second choices of those voters are considered (the third choice in the case of the 1,000 voters that had originally preferred the Green).

Perhaps that results in 6,000 more Conservative votes, 5,000 more NDP votes, and 2,000 more Liberal votes. That places the Conservatives with 45,000 votes, the Liberals with 30,000 votes, and the NDP with 25,000 votes. Still, no candidate has a majority, so another candidate (in this case the NDP candidate) is dropped. The next choice on each NDP voter's list is considered; let's say that's 21,000 votes for the Liberals and 4,000 for the Conservatives. In that scenario, the Liberals win with 51,000 votes.

Most readers will probably object that in this specific example, it is not likely that the NDP vote would go so strongly for the Liberals and that the Conservatives would likely win anyway. Perhaps, but if that were the case, at least it would be known that Conservatives were really preferred by the voters over the Liberals in a two-way race, which is what it would have become.

Furthermore, that's where the other point raised by Dion about the "rank order system" comes into play. It's less about changing the result of the election than it is about changing the style of the election. If the second and third choice (and in this example, even the fourth choice) of voters matters, then candidates will seek to show how they share values and policies with other parties to attract a higher ranking from voters that prefer rivals. Playing to the broader electorate becomes more important than playing to smaller interest groups for all candidates. The smaller parties (read: the NDP and the Greens) would be more likely to have their interests addressed by the larger parties.

This centrist tendency would seem to favor centrist parties (read, Dion's Liberals), and indeed the 2008 NDP platform calls instead for a mixed-member proportional system. Yet, it strikes me that the NDP will out-poll the Liberals in many ridings in the 2008, meaning that the Liberal candidate would be eliminated before the NDP candidate in an instant run-off system. I have a hard timing believing that the NDP would actually vote against a "Rank Order," "Instant Run-Off" proposal if it came to vote in parliament.

In fact, voters would likely feel more free to vote for the NDP or the Greens or other smaller parties if the argument often made by the Liberals that voters needed to vote Liberal "to stop the Conservatives" was taken away. Conceivably, Liberals might suddenly become a second or third choice to many voters, instead of their singular choice.

It would seem that parties representing a majority of Canadians seem to view the system favorably, and that's why I feel that the "Rank Order System" may be the best chance at immediate electoral reform in Canada.


Wilfred Day said...

Dion ended his answer by saying "I will need as a Prime Minister to start a debate with Canadians about the way to improve our electoral system." On this, we can all agree.

Dion stated two years ago "What I dislike in (the current system) though is the over-exaggeration of regional concentrations of the vote. With 50 per cent of the vote in Ontario we have been able in the past to have almost 100 per cent of the seats, and with 1/3 of the votes in the West we were unable to have a significant number of seats. It gives the sense we’re a party for Ontario and a party unable to have support in the West, when it’s not really the case.

One day, assume that you have a government elected where it is Quebec that is out of the government because of this electoral system, with 25 per cent of the vote, and the government has no or few seats on Quebec, and you have a separatist leader trying to have a referendum at the same time. This would be very dangerous for the country.

Because of that, I’m open to consider (electoral reform), and to be frank with all of you I wrote a piece … that will be published soon advocating for consideration for a system that would be very close to the German one, that means you would have a threshold of five per cent to receive compensatory seats, and the compensatory seats would be given on a PR system."


This would be his real view. His new suggestion of instant runoff voting (IRV) is easier to raise during an election campaign.

It is used for the Australian lower house, but otherwise used only for elections to single positions like Mayor, not for parliamentary elections.

It would not help with the problem of regional concentrations of the vote that Dion worries about. In regions where the Liberals run third (most of Quebec, parts of BC, most of Saskatchewan, and so on) it would make the problem worse.

IRV suits a two-party system, where minor parties are lucky to elect anyone at all. However, Canada has had a multi-party system since 1921. IRV would help the NDP in some parts of Canada, yes, but overall it would be bad for small parties and bad for national unity.

But at least Dion has helped the debate about the way to improve our electoral system.

Wayne Smith said...

The system you describe would be a phony reform. It creates the illusion of more choice, but the same people get elected. It stops vote splitting, but this is a trivial problem. In fact, without vote splitting, minor parties have even less chance of getting elected, and diversity is even more stifled than under first-past-the-post. It would be a step backward.

For a fair voting system, you need every vote to count and every vote to actually elect someone. This is the essence of proportional representation.

Wayne Smith said...

In the current election, about half of us will vote for losing candidates, leaving us unrepresented, or at least "represented" by people and parties we voted against.

Fair Vote Canada has created a home for these "orphan voters—with cash prizes!