Australia's Ranked Ballot Headaches Need Not Be Imported By Canada

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OTTAWA — Australia's deadlocked election last winter has been held up as a grim example of the chaos that could be unleashed in Canada were this country to adopt a system of ranked ballots — as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at one time openly preferred.

Instability. A plethora of tiny, extremist or vanity parties. Unholy alliances among the micro-parties that wind up holding the governing party to ransom.

malcolm turnbull

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy cast their votes in the federal election at the Double Bay public school in Sydney, Australia, on July 2, 2016. (Photo: Rob Griffith/AP)

There's just one problem with the warnings: neither Trudeau nor anyone else thus far has suggested that Canada adopt the Australian model.

In fact, Australia has two different voting models — a simple ranked ballot system for its House of Representatives (equivalent to Canada's House of Commons) and a single transferable vote system (STV) for its elected Senate (Canada's Senate is appointed).

STV is actually a complex form of proportional representation, which includes a ranked ballot. Yet some of the purported dire consequences of adopting a simple ranked balloting system here have been based on the worst features of Australia's Senate elections.

Single transferable vote system explained

"The ranked ballot in the Senate in Australia is a proportional system and that's why typically you have quite a few independents and small parties, like the Green party, represented in the Senate," says Arend Lijphart, professor emeritus at the University of California San Diego and a world-renowned expert on voting systems.

"The (simple) ranked choice ballot for ... the House of Representatives, that has worked in Australia for a long time."

Under a simple ranked ballot system, voters indicate their first, second and subsequent choices. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, the contender with the fewest votes is dropped from the ballot and his or her supporters' second choices are counted. That continues until one candidate emerges with a majority.

Mandatory ranking causes woes

Australia has added a couple of unique wrinkles.

For both its lower and upper houses, voters are required to sequentially number every candidate on the ballot, from first to last choice. Failure to number each of them results in a spoiled ballot.

Conservative democratic institutions critic Scott Reid has accused Trudeau of planning to impose the same requirement in Canada, aimed at rigging elections to the Liberals' perpetual advantage and, thus, "destroying our democracy."

In fact, Trudeau has never suggested mandatory ranking of all candidates, nor have any of the experts who have testified before the Commons committee on electoral reform.

Lijphart, who is scheduled to testify later this month, calls Australia's mandatory ranking requirement "silly."

"It's not necessary and I think it's undesirable," he says, adding that it's easy for voters to make mistakes.

Other jurisdictions allow voters to rank however many preferences they want, including just their first choice. Lijphart notes that Ireland has successfully used that kind of ranked ballot system for its presidential elections for almost a century.

For Senate elections which can entail dozens of candidates on the ballot, Australia has instituted an alternative to numbering every single contender, allowing voters to rank their choice of parties — or even just indicate their first choice party — instead. That's called "above the line" voting.

What about "above the line" voting?

Above the line voters effectively allow the parties to determine their preferences for them. If someone, for example, marks the Purple party as the first choice but Purple's candidate gets few votes and is dropped off the ballot, that voter's second and subsequent choices are allocated automatically according to Purple's predetermined voting preferences.

This has resulted in deals being cooked up between parties to support each other as second choices and has led to some surprise wins by minor contenders who had little support on their own.

"I think these problems are basically unnecessary. You don't need to introduce those if you want reform in Canada," says Lijphart.

Again, neither Trudeau nor anyone else has advocated adoption of above the line voting here.

Political parties are in "such bad odour," Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist Brian Tanguay says any reform that smacked of party manipulation of the system — including above the line voting — would be "a non-starter" in Canada.

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