Electoral reform: here's the evidence, Mr. Trudeau: the alternative vote is not a significant improvement over what we have now.

Author:Pilon, Dennis
Position:CANADIAN POLITICS
 
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As the Liberals gear up for October's federal election, there is much talk of reconnecting with Canadians and remaking the party's policy profile. One of the party's big ideas is democratic reform. Justin Trudeau ran for the leadership on democratic renewal, including a specific commitment to champion a new voting system: the alternative vote (AV). In a leadership debate in Vancouver in 2013 he declared that AV would "change the tone of politics completely" because politicians would need to reach out to voters of other parties. Since then, other senior Liberals have echoed his views. In August 2014 Deputy Leader Ralph Goodale asserted that AV "requires you to focus on what pulls people together, not just how much you can vilify your opponent. It would have a very interesting impact on the tone of the political debate." (1)

In fact, evidence of broad Liberal support for AV preceded Trudeau's ascension to the leadership. In 2012, AV was overwhelmingly endorsed at the party's national policy convention. Former Liberal MP Omar Alghabra captured the sentiments of the delegates in a commentary entitled "The Voting System Canada Needs (and Deserves)" in which he argued that AV would prevent MPs from winning their seats with less than a majority of the support in their ridings. He noted that in the 2011 election the Conservatives turned 39.6 per cent of the popular vote into 53.9 per cent of the seats and that "such disproportionality creates a sense that our system is unfair." (2) Alghabra argued that AV was a "practical proposal" that would retain the good features of the existing single-member plurality (SMP) voting system, namely a directly elected local member, while avoiding the problems he and other Liberals associated with more radical proposals like proportional representation (PR), specifically too much party influence and a potential increase in single-issue politics.

It was thus surprising to see more than half the Liberal caucus vote in December 2014 for NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott's motion to adopt PR for federal elections. It would appear that Liberals are not entirely united behind AV as their electoral reform option, with much depending on how they understand the electoral dilemmas facing the party. Those confident that the party can vault past the NDP back into government or at the very least official opposition tend to favour AV. Those worried that vote splitting among Liberal, NDP and Green voters could perpetually place the Conservatives in power are inclined to opt for PR. The latter group, which includes former leader Stephane Dion, flexed their muscle at the federal Liberal policy convention in February 2014, forcing an expansion of the electoral reform platform to include considering PR in addition to AV. Party leader Justin Trudeau has vowed to take an "evidence-based approach to electoral reform rather than an ideological one" (3)--presumably meaning that a Liberal government would judge proposed voting systems by how closely they measure up in practice to the claims made about their workings in theory rather than how well they serve the interests of the party introducing them.

I propose to take him at his word, assessing claims made by Liberals about the potential impact of AV, including that it will limit strategic voting and wasted votes, encourage cross-party cooperation electorally and legislatively, increase public engagement with politics and lead to better representation for Canadian voters. I do so by evaluating the experience of states comparable to Canada that have used AV. Good examples include Australia, which has used AV for its lower house elections since 1919, and three Canadian provinces that used it in the early to mid-20th century. (4) By examining Australia's near century of experience with AV and the 17 elections using it in Alberta (1926-55), Manitoba (1927-53) and British Columbia (1952-53), we can assess how well this voting system facilitates strategic coordination among parties and their voters, empowers voters to make choices and represents what they choose with their votes.

The alternative vote and strategic coordination

The alternative vote is considered a majoritarian voting system because it works to assure that the winning candidate in any given district has gained a majority of the votes cast. Voters rank-order their preferences among the candidates to influence the selection of single winner. After the votes are cast, returning officers add up all the first choices indicated on the ballots; if any candidate has gained a majority of those votes, that candidate is declared the winner. But if no candidate gains a majority on the first count, then the candidate with the lowest number of first choices is eliminated from the count and their votes are redistributed on the basis of the second preferences indicated on the ballot. This process continues until a single candidate has secured more than 50 per cent of the votes. (AV can be and has been used in multimember districts as well, but it is the single-member version that is under consideration here.)

At a glance, the appeal of AV to today's Liberal Party is obvious. Anticipating a vote pool that stretches from the centre-right to the centre-left, the party is best located to benefit from vote transfers from nearly all other parties, while having significant first-choice support...

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