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Would a More Fair Voting System Have Changed Alberta's Election?

Monday's election results in Alberta demonstrate once again the strange outcomes that our First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system can create. A difference in vote percentage between 43 per cent and 34 per cent leads to 61 v.s. 17 seats for the PCs. How many distorted election results of this kind do we need to see before we admit we need a change to our voting system?

Monday's election results in Alberta demonstrate once again the strange outcomes that our First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system can create. A difference in vote percentage between 43 per cent and 34 per cent leads to 61 v.s. 17 seats for the PCs.

Meanwhile, the remaining parties which received about 10 per cent of the vote each get only four out of 86 seats, or four per cent of the power in the legislature each. How many distorted election results of this kind do we need to see before we admit we need a change to our voting system? Wilf Day has run the number and gets a very different account of what the Alberta election might have looked like under a fairer voting system. If you searched for FPTP or "strategic voting" last night on Twitter you'd have seen a huge outpouring of anger and discussion. So what's the answer?

I don't know if this is the answer, but at least it's constructive discussion; Stéphane Dion published an article this weekend proposing a new voting system for Canadian federal elections which he calls P3 (Proportional-Preferential-Personalized Vote). Rather than make any comments on his proposal immediately, I'll just summarize some of the important details from my first read of his article and the longer, full proposal which can be found here.

P3 has some similarities to existing proportional voting systems such as Mixed-Member Porportional (MMP) and Single Transferable Vote (STV) but it merges them in some different ways. Dion hopes that P3 will be a simpler and more appropriate system for Canada than other generic systems. The system is partially proportional in that the outcome of the election, the number of seats a party gets in parliament, will be strongly related to the proportion of votes that party received but not fully proportional.

Just the facts:

  • Most ridings would be increased in size to include three to five MPs rather than one.
  • Within a riding, voters would select a party they wish to vote for and a candidate from that party they would like to have as MP. Since there would be multiple MPs for the riding, each party would put forward multiple candidates, only some of whom might be elected.
  • Seats would be allotted to parties in each riding based on the proportion of votes the party receives. If one party does not have enough votes to warrant a single seat in the riding they are dropped from contention during counting.
  • Optional: If voters so choose, they may also select a second (and third and fourth) choice of party they would like to have seats in their riding if their first choice party is eliminated. The idea is that voters could avoid worrying about voting strategically and simply vote for their favourite party while ranking the next best parties on the ballot. However, these voters apparently do not get the choice of selecting candidates from their second choice party.
  • For each party, the candidate who actually wins the seat is selected according to whoever got the most votes from voters who chose that party as their first option. So if the Liberal party drops out of a riding and some of their votes shift to the NDP, then these shifted votes influence how many seats the NDP gets, but only NDP voters get to pick which NDP candidate goes to parliament.
The full proposal document is long but it's actually a very easy to read and a thorough analysis of the flaws of our existing FPTP voting system and the benefits of most modern proportional voting systems. Here's are some other interesting parts from the full document if you don't have time to read it.

On the strengths of the current system:

This isn't usually how proposals for new voting systems begin, but Dion starts by pointing out that Canadians are proud of their country and for many this transfers to being proud of our electoral system. He lists the strengths of our current system as stability, accountability and territoriality. FPTP is stable in the sense that the system is rigged towards majority governments.The past five years notwithstanding, FPTP is the only way to get a majority with less than 40 per cent of the vote. However, it can also brutally punish parties as the Progressive Conservatives and now the Bloc and the Liberals have found out. Territoriality simply refers to the fact that voters elect local representatives which is why no one ever suggests using pure proportional systems in Canada since they cannot allow for this important feature.

On why the voting system matters:

"A voting system is more than just a way of tallying votes. It sets the ground rules that have a profound influence, for better or worse, on voters' choices, the behaviours of politicians and political parties, parliamentary proceedings and government operations."

On strategic voting:

"In fact, the proportional-preferential-personalized voting system will make the job of voters easier, since they would then be able to vote their true preferences instead of juggling random strategic calculations. They would no longer have to wonder whether they should abandon voting for Party A and instead vote for Party B in order to block Party C. They would simply rank these parties according to their preferences."

On minority parliaments:

Dion admits that "the probability that the government would be formed by a single party would be lower." He argues that other elements of his system such as multi-member ridings and preferential voting for parties would encourage more cooperation between parties and thus "encourage the parties to prepare for the possibility of governing together."

On regionalism:

He points out several times that the current voting system makes Alberta look more Conservative than it really is, Toronto and Montreal look more Liberal than they really are and makes Quebec look like the Bloc has more support than it really does. This is because when it's winner-take-all everyone forgets who the losers were, even if they collectively had more votes than the winner. All that matters is how many seats you get. How many seats you get can range from all the seats with just 50 per cent of the votes in a province v.s. no seats at all with as much as 20 per cent of the votes.

In regard to Quebec in particular Dion says:

"I no longer want a voting system that gives the impression that certain parties have given up on Quebec. On the contrary, the entire spectrum of parties, from the Green Party to the Conservative Party, need to be able to take root, compete and win seats, so that they all take on a Quebec dimension."

On the advantages of multiple member riding:

"Today, voters are helpless when they are stuck for four years with a lazy, incompetent or absent MP. In the new system, constituents would be able to deal with another elected official. Competition among the five MPs in a single riding would provide Canadians with better territorial representation."

On voter turnout:

Dion argues that low voter turnout is partially caused by voters feeling the election outcome is predetermined in uncompetitive ridings. A more proportional system would make every vote count towards the makeup of parliament. Multi-member ridings make it much more likely that more than one party will win seats in each riding, this should get out some of the voter's who are currently staying home.

On the Alternative Voting system accepted at the Liberal convention:

The Liberal convention in January 2012 adopted a non-binding motion to switch to a voting system called Alternative Vote (AV). AV is a simple form of instant runoff voting where voters rank all candidates and while counting votes the lowest candidates are dropped off successively until some candidate have more than 50 per cent of the vote. It's not proportional but it is somewhat more representative than FPTP Dion says:

"Preferential voting is a step in the right direction. However, it does nothing to correct the distortion between votes and seats and the under-representation of national parties compared to regional ones. Other changes are needed to find a voting system that best fits the Canadian context."

On why past attempts to reform voting have failed (failed provincial referenda in PEI, Ontario and twice in B.C.):

Dion argues that proponents of voting reform are too harsh in their attacks of the current FPTP voting system and this makes voter defensive about the change.

Voters see the proposed systems as too academic and not tailored to Canada's specific challenges. He argues that division amongst proponents about which system is best doesn't help the cause either.

In a separate article I'll comment on Dion's proposal and maybe summarize some of the reaction from the democratic reform community once people digest this. I think it will stir lots of interesting discussion.

But I will just say that anytime a sitting MP stands up and talks intelligently and sincerely about fixing our flawed voting process they are to be commended. Especially when they are outside the Green Party or NDP which are usually the only parties which even mention such reforms seriously.

So, what do you think of Dion's proposal? Is he on to something or not?
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