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On why preferential ballot isnt the answer for electoral reform in Ontario.

In recent days, a few of the “No to MMP” bloggers have put out there that they think preferential ballot (or Alternate Vote, or “AV” for short, basically the same thing) would be something they could support as electoral reform, which is where you basically pick the candidates in order of preferred choice on your ballot, and then add up the 1st and 2nd choice votes etc. to come up with a winner. I applaud them for at least saying they don’t wish the status quo of FPTP to remain, but I know many of those preaching electoral reform are almost as dead-set against that system as they are against the current one. I’ve been told by Mark Greenan of Fair Vote Canada that his organization probably would have recommended to Ontarions to reject it if the Citizens Assembly had by chance picked it.

I’ve not been as vehement against it as some, so I thought I’d ask one of my fellow bloggers and one of those very involved in the fight for electoral reform, Greg Morrow of , what he thought of the preferential ballot/Alternate Vote option that was being bandied about, and he agreed to let me post my “interview” of him on here.

It turns out Greg is in the camp of those who believe AV would be a worse system to put in place then what we currently have now. His exact quote was that “Preferential ballots are dreadful ways of electing governments.”. He believes that preferential balloting simply formalizes people’s second choices, and that the first choice is basically chosen because they are the lesser of the evils as choices facing the voters, and Greg doesn’t believe that’s a very good way for voters to be electing our representatives.

He then pointed to the Citizen’s Assembly statement of principles they laid out when they were looking to pick a new electoral system and then said to compare Preferential ballot against that list of principles they put down. His assessment of AV against those principles is as follows:

Fairness of Representation? Not even close. Voter Choice? No, since you know that one party/person has to get to 50%, it still means you can’t vote for a small party or independent. Effective Parties? Yes, but it tends towards a 2-party system, so its leads to 2 effective parties and a lot of ineffective ones. Effective Government? – it leads to even more distorted majorities, meaning opposition is ineffective. Does it encourage more women and minorities? On the contrary, it makes it worse.

Greg made the point that the CA members obviously felt the same way about AV, because when the 103 members came to vote on what electoral system to endorse, only 2.1% of them supported the AV model.

In conclusion, Greg believes many of those who are pushing preferential ballot are doing so because they know it will entrench power in the hands of the big established parties without addressing the problems FPTP faces.

I’d also make the point to those in the No camp who say that MMP somehow will make MPP’s even more beholden to the Party apparatus then it already it is, but then come out and say they support preferential ballot; that seems to me to be no solution at all to the “parties have too much power” argument. It doesn’t appear to me that Preferential Ballot/Alternate Vote does anything to alleviate the power parties have over their members or in picking and choosing and appointing candidates, which is what we have now (and what some claim would get worse under MMP, without basis).

So, it makes no sense to me why they’d pick AV as the panacea for what ails our electoral system when it entrenches exactly what they claim is wrong with MMP, and certainly with what is wrong with the FPTP system. The bottom line is: Preferential balloting (or “Alternate Vote, AV”) isn’t on the ballot, so its a moot point. We’re voting whether to keep FPTP or change to MMP. A vote by Ontarions to change to MMP is in my view an improvment over what we have now. A vote to retain FPTP (depending on what the vote percentage is) means that any reforms to the system are probably put off for at least a decade, if not more – and there won’t be discussions on any change – MMP, AV, STV or otherwise.

I suspect that some members of the NO to MMP are secretly hoping that turns out to be the case.

UPDATE: Greg posts additional thoughts on the battle brewing in Ontario here.


18 comments to On why preferential ballot isnt the answer for electoral reform in Ontario.

  • Doug — I think you are focusing on one aspect of MMP without looking at how it impacts the overall political dynamic. Yes, MMP does mean that parties get what the people think they deserve, no more, no less. But, most importantly, MMP finally allows voters a real choice — it allows you to vote for your preferred government (and whether you like one party or not, governments are made up of one or more parties) <b>and</b> your preferred local candidate. What this does is free local candidates from simply toeing the party line, because suddenly, local candidates cannot count on being carried by the party vote. Local candidates will have to be more accountable to their local constituency if they want to be elected. Being free to choose your preferred party and local candidate separately also finally gives independents a chance to win local seats because people can vote for a strong independent local voice, without fearing their vote will go to waste (because people still get to endorse their most preferred governing party). List MPPs are indeed elected based on their party vote, but even here, list MPPs must set up local bases because they are not guaranteed of getting elected as a list candidate the next time (for example, if their party does better in the next election, their party will win less list seats) — this means that almost all list MPPs will try to get nominated as local candidates next time. This makes list MPPs accountable to their particular regions. So, far from creating more party drones, MMP creates MPPs who are more accountable to their local communities than to their party and greatly improves the chances of finally electing local independents (and it does so while giving the people the legislature that they asked for — made up entirely of their first-choice preferences, not merely their least bad choices).

  • Australia use the single-member preferential ballot voting method for electing the members of their federal lower  house in Canberra. I think it is also used in all states except Tasmania.

    The result is a rigid two-party system.
    The stifling effect of this on political life generally is only mitigated by the Australian federal Senate being proportionally elected (STV: 6 members / state and 2(?) from the Northern Territory and the ACT in Canberra) 
    PLUS the Aussie
    Senate has the power to kill legislation from the Lower House stone dead.
    If Ontario went to AV without a safety valve like the Aussie Senate in place, I;d hate to think of what poliics in Ontario would be like 50 years later………..stifling.

  • doug newton

    Thanks Scott and Mark
    I don't think the two reforms are mutually exclusive but rather that electoral reform is about improved party representation which I don't automatically equate to improved personal representation.  Is there anything implied by adopting MMP that would improve my chances of seeing the type of parliamentary reform I am seeking? I really am sick and tired of party bullshit and spin and only vote now because it is my civic duty to try to make an informed choice. BTW I don't think it is a dead issue if it doesn't succeed in Ontario this time. I have this idea that Mr. Harper will  try to  introduce some form of PR federally at some point whether he ever gets a majority or not.

  • I addressed the issue of parliamentary vs. electoral reform in this post on my blog:

    In my view it's quite misleading to say that parliamentary reform and electoral reform are mutually exclusive. Also, there's no reason we couldn't have parliamentary reform today if our MPPs wanted it. Electoral reform, on the other hand, will likely be dead with a majority for the status quo on October 10.

  • Doug: I've no issue with you over reforming party politics. If Ihad a reform I'd like to see, I'd love to see it possible to institute in place the British Tories  ability to have a majority of MP's vote to replace their leader or at least to trigger a leadership convention if they're dissatisfied wit their leadership. A number of their leaders have been replaced in that manner, and it would give the MP's more power and not allow the leadership of the party to run roughshod over them.

    I think however there is a perception among some that  if you do one reform, you can't do reform to the other.  I disagree with that.. mainly because I don't see parties willing to change their rules to allow more freedom amongst their members.

  • doug newton

    Thanks for your reply
    I guess I didn't explain myself very well.
    PR is seen as a means to increase the representation of some parties in the legislature so it is seen by those that vote for parties that are often under represented based on popular vote as a good thing. People who vote for parties that are often over represented based on popular vote are not so keen on the idea.
    My point is that I really don't care about party politics and would rather see democratic reform efforts directed at minimizing what I see as the downside of the party system as it has developed.
    There is no one party that represents all of my views but I am forced to choose one party over an other to represent me. It may be seen to be an improvement that someone on a list will now represent the party I voted for but I don't usually find it a given that my interests will be well served even if the party I voted for wins a majority.
    I would prefer if it were possible for all of us to represent ourselves on all issues. I understand that this would be a cumbersome way to run a country  so as an alternative I would like to elect an individual from my riding to represent the wishes of the majority of my neighbours on an issue by issue basis.  I want that individual to answer to us and not to their party line/dogma. I want them to be beholden to us not the leader of a party.
    So PR as I understand it seems to me to be an exercise in improving party representation but not necessarily personal representation.
    I am not even sure that greater party representation will result in better legislation –  maybe but the old saw that a camel is a horse designed by a committee came to mind.

  • Then allow me to clarify in order to spare your feelings. People who say that AV is no better than the current system or that it will entrench the problems of the current system are wrong. 

  • Nice ad hominem attack Aaron.. but I dont expect anything better out of you.. so I can't say I'm surprised.

  • We know two things about AV. The use of rank-order candidates does increase the legitimacy of those that are elected. If you think that AV doesn't help out small parties, then you need to look at the 1952 British Columbia election.

    Second, parties eventually adapt to AV. In Alberta and Manitoba, voters eventually revert to old forms by plumping their ballot – marking only a single preference instead of rank ordering their choices. No good, right? Except that in Alberta, the anti-Socred parties adapted to AV by giving each other their second preferences, damn near knocking off the government in the process. Given that Scott has sometimes rhapsodized on how awful it is to have Liberals and NDs fighting one another, the AV ballot would allow those two parties to give one another their second preferences.

    AV is a generally sucky choice for electoral reform. But it's better than the current system. People who say it's no better than the current system or will entrench the problems of the current system are uninformed, over-hyped MMP cultists.

  • Scott, what do you think of the BC-STV system that will be voted on in B.C.  with the coming provincial election?

  • mushroom

    “I think all that a preferential ballot would do would be to allow people to vote for their favourite party first, but the same people would end up being elected”

    What is the purpose of the Alternate Vote when it does not produce a second choice?  It doesn't.  In a Liberal-Conservative race, the Liberal voter would seek not only to vote for the party candidate BUT to punish the Conservative candidate by voting him/her last.  The Conservative voter would aim to punish the Liberal candidate at the same time when he/she casts the vote.  The result is that fringe candidates representing the Family Coalition Party, Marxist-Leninist Party would get votes due to this form of "punishment voting".</p>

    For a preferential ballot to be sustained, proportional representation is the way to go. Under STV you can rank all your party’s candidates first then support the coalition partner afterwards without punishing your candidate's main rival.  Same thing with MMP.  MMP supports second choices by allowing parties the right NOT to run candidates in constituencies in which the coalition partner is running a star candidate.  This legitimizes coalition building through an open process rather than creating an impression that it is done behind closed doors.

  • Doug:  putting a list of candidates up for the "list vote" means that if people see that list and dont like it.. they won't vote for that party.  I would guess if MMP passes, it's a pretty good bet no party will dare try to stuff it with party cronies – they will probably put forth a similar procedure to the nominating process we have now for nominating a candidate.  So, your claim that they arent "trying out for the position" is false.

    As for your 2nd point, you seem to have not read any of my blogpost, or of Greg Morrow's concerns. How exactly is AV/preferential ballot going to get candidates "more accountable" then what we have now or to elect a non-partisan representative?  You're throwing out a claim without any supporting evidence.

    Based on what I've read and seen, it will only entrench the current problems with FPTP. 

  • doug newton

    To my way of thinking the way to improve voter turnout and increase democratic accountability is to reduce the negative aspects of the party system. There has never been a party that represented me completely and I usually find myself voting for the least obnoxious.
    If I understand MMP correctly we would just be adding some more bodies to stand up and sit down in accordance with their party line and they would not even have to try out for the position.
    Some parties will be better represented but I suspect this will increase the probability that camels will be designed when horses are required.
    Why not put all this effort into increasing direct representation or at least making elected representatives more accountable to their constituents rather than their party? AV would be a great way to elect a non partisan representative.

  • I think all that a preferential ballot would do would be to allow people to vote for their favourite party first, but the same people would end up being elected.  ie. if I lived in a NDP vs. Conservative riding, then I would be able to vote Liberal as my #1, but then be able to put the NDP next to at least get them elected ahead of the cons, but other than that, i don't see a big point to those systems.

  • Your recent posts about this issue have been excellent, Scott–careful and informed.  Keep up the good work!

  • There seems to be a lot of support on the PG for MMP but this is not going to do us any good if we spend all our time blogging with or against those who are already set in their decision.  Yes someone needs to fight Jason and the forces of evil and expose their misinformation but I'm hoping everyone is also making an effort of explaining to your friends and family the issue so they do not fall victim lies or apathy on the issue.

    This is going to be won on the streets and in local editorial pages not in blogdom, we already taken sides! Talk to people, push your MPP or candidate to support it, go to party meetings and discuss it.

    I'm sure fair vote, would also appreciate a few bucks too if you're really for this.

    Scott, I got that link fixed, thanks

  • Matt

    An excellent post, Scott.  It clearly illustrates what's wrong with preferential voting from an objective perspective.  It's unfortunate that some other Liberal bloggers are taking the obviously self-serving position that preferential balloting is the way to go – as it would only serve to help the Liberal Party most blatantly, and set back democracy even further. 

  • I don't want to speak for Fair Vote, but we are an organization based on two principles – a) a strict focus on electoral reform and b) support for proportional representation systems as an alternative to our current outdated system.

    So, as AV is definitely not a proportional system, it would have surprised me to see the electoral reform movement get behind AV.

    But AV was never really an option that the Citizens' Assembly. And I think any observer studying the issue of electoral change from a non-partisan perspective would reject AV in favour or proportional alternatives – MMP, STV or list PR.

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