Conservative Albertans tasting their own vote-splitting medicine

This just in: the CBC projects an NDP victory in Alberta – Canada’s most small-c conservative province – home to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and governed provincially by the Progressive Conservatives (PC) for the last 44 years. And it’s an NDP majority (projected), not a minority.

So what happened? Is this a sign that a new progressive Alberta has emerged? Gary Mason of The Globe and Mail thinks so; and with the NDP gaining 30% of the vote since the last election, that could definitely be part of the story.

But the NDP’s vote was also efficient. At the time I’m writing this, the vote shares are about 40% for the NDP, 28% for the PCs, 25% for the Wildrose, 4% for the Liberals, and 3% for others. The projected seat count is 53 NDP, 21 Wildrose, 11 PC, 1 Liberal, and 1 Alberta Party. That translates to 1.52% of the seats/% of the vote for the NDP, compared to 0.97 for the Wildrose, 0.45 for the PCs, and 0.29 for the Liberals. Sound familiar? It should. In the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives won a 166-seat majority with just under 40% of the vote (1.36%seats/%vote), compared to 1.09%seats/%vote for the NDP, 0.58 for the Liberals, and 0.21 for the Bloc Québecois.

As happy as I am for the Alberta NDP – in particular Rachel Notley (who gave one of the most gracious victory speeches I’ve seen) – I wonder if now might be a good time to have that electoral reform conversation again – at a time when voters on both the right (in Alberta) and left (federally) are feeling the sting of vote-splitting.

Now, I know some people might respond by saying that PC-Wildrose in Alberta and NDP-Liberal federally aren’t really vote splits, because those pairs of parties are actually quite different from one another. A few have even argued that the federal Liberals have more in common with the Conservatives than the NDP. I don’t completely agree – I think the federal Liberals have much more in common with the NDP than the Conservatives, and the Alberta PCs have more in common with Wildrose than the NDP – but if it was in fact a fluid spectrum, that would only make the rationale for electoral reform more compelling.

In addition to sometimes producing governments that were the third choice (or worse) of a majority of voters (as I suspect was the case tonight in Alberta and in 2011 federally), first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral systems also promote two-party dominance (political scientists call this Duverger’s Law). In fact, these two symptoms of FPTP are linked: two-party systems emerge because vote-splitting motivates parties on the same side of the political spectrum to merge to avoid third-choice governments (e.g., Harper and Peter MacKay’s ‘Unite the Right’ merger of the federal PCs and Canadian Alliance in 2003).

What are the alternatives to FPTP?

Two of the most common are proportional representation (PR) and single-transferable vote (STV) (also called ‘preferential ballot’). Under PR, everyone votes for a party instead of a candidate, and then seats in the legislature are allocated to each party in proportion to their popular vote share. Each party’s seats are then allocated to representatives based on an internal ranked list. In practice, PR is usually hybridized with FPTP to form mixed-member PR, whereby voters vote for both a local representative – chosen based on FPTP – and a party – forming the basis for proportional allocation of remaining at-large seats from party lists. Under STV, voters rank all of the parties instead of just voting for one. As candidates either reach winning thresholds (when more than one seat is being decided simultaneously) or are eliminated, their votes are re-allocated to other candidates based on voters’ ranked preferences. The exact counting methods vary slightly across jurisdictions, but the basic idea behind STV is to combine the stability of FPTP (which more easily produces stable majority governments) with the fairness of PR.

As a simple example, suppose we had STV in Canada, such that in each riding, first place votes were counted and the party with the least eliminated – re-allocating their votes according to the voters’ second choices – and so-on, until a candidate reached a majority of votes and was elected. Under this system, a riding with 40% Conservative, 30% Liberal, and 25% NDP first-place votes (a fairly common split in the GTA in 2011) – where NDP and Liberal voters preferred each other to the Conservatives – would end up with a Liberal MP (as opposed to a Conservative MP under FPTP).

In short, STV (relative to other systems) favours parties that are disliked by few (i.e. are many voters’ second choice) – like the federal Liberals; PR (relative to other systems) favours parties that have small and geographically spread-out bases – like the federal NDP (and Green Party); and FPTP (relative to other systems) favours polarizing parties with more concentrated bases – like the federal Conservatives (and Bloc Québecois). Not surprisingly, each of these parties has called for the electoral system that benefits them most.

Putting political stripes aside, if what we are looking for in an electoral system is fairness and stability, we should be able to rule out FPTP, because STV arguably both matches (or perhaps bests) FPTP’s propensity to produce majority governments and is more fair. PR systems seem to be the most fair (at least on the surface), but tend to produce minority or coalition governments. One could argue that PR therefore promotes bipartisanship, though one could also argue that PR makes it easier for fringe parties to extort targeted concessions in exchange for supporting the government.

Personally, I think single-transferable vote (STV) is the way to go because it encourages parties to move to the center and build bigger tents, rather than playing wedge politics. In Canada and the U.S. – two of the last bastions of pure FPTP in the western world – we could certainly use a catalyst for less political division.

Advertisements

18 thoughts on “Conservative Albertans tasting their own vote-splitting medicine

  1. Well written article Matt. I do agree that STV is a more ‘fair’ electoral method than the current FPTP method. I’d argue reforming the electoral system to STV would actually increase voter participation, especially among youth aged 18-24. However, I’d like some more clarification on some points. First, how do you believe such a method should be implemented? Do you think it is worth investing in such a change, given current tough economic times (explain why)? Also, would it be possible to give an example of how the US would benefit (you only talk about Canada in your article)?

    Like

  2. Good questions Mark. I don’t think it would be too hard to implement. It basically requires printing different ballots (where people rank) and maybe funding a few PSAs to explain it to people. I don’t think it would cost that much (certainly much less than Harper is spending on advertising his budget.

    The U.S. benefit question is very interesting actually. In the short term, it would probably do nothing because there are only two parties. With two parties, ranked voting and FPTP are identical. But over time, I think it would encourage the emergence of more parties, which would then make existing parties want to move to the center and be less divisive.

    Like

  3. I completely agree with your arguments. Changing the electoral system, in my opinion, would actually encourage more fairness in the electoral system, as the STV system reduces the number of ‘wasted’ votes, and hence, might potentially increase voter turnout (http://www.cbc.ca/bcvotes2005/features/stv.html). The only problem is very few across Canada seem interested in wanting to change the electoral process. I will describe my argument by using British Columbia as a case study.

    CASE STUDY: BRITISH COLUMBIA

    In 2005 and 2009, British Columbia held two referendums on changing the electoral system from first-past-the-post (FPTP) to single transferable vote (STV). The first time, in 2005, a significant majority voted for the change (57.69%) and 77 out of 79 ridings voted ‘yes’ by more than 50%. However, the thresholds imposed by the BC government at the time were as follows: 60% needed to vote yes, at least 48 out of 79 electoral districts, more than 50% of valid votes cast had to vote ‘yes’. Thus, the change did not pass, and BC kept on with the FPTP (http://www.elections.bc.ca/docs/rpt/SOV-2005-ReferendumOnElectoralReform.pdf).

    The second time, in 2009, another referendum was held. This time, the desire for change was less pronounced. A minority voted for the change (39.09%) and only 8 electoral districts voted ‘yes’ by more than 50%. The thresholds were as follows: 60% needed to vote yes, at least 51 out of 85 electoral districts needed to vote ‘yes’ by more than 50%. Thus, even though change was proposed, in both cases citizens preferred to remain with the status quo (http://www.elections.bc.ca/docs/rpt/2009Ref/2009-Ref-SOV.pdf).

    WHY QUEBEC WOULD BENEFIT

    One place where I believe such a change would work is in Quebec. It would be nice if the 2018 election included this question. It would be nice if the Quebec government considers this option, especially that a significant portion of the population is currently demanding change (as witnessed with the 2011 NDP vote, and 2012 and 2015 student strikes). Thresholds that would ‘work’ in a Quebec context would be to approve the change from FPTP to STV if more than 50% of the population votes ‘yes’ to change. This would help make election results more ‘fair’ and people, especially young, will feel their vote will count and that their voice matters (which is not the case with the FPTP). People will feel they have the power to make a change!

    Federally, I doubt this issue would be brought up come the fall. Especially that changing the electoral system will not benefit the Tories (http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/electoral-reform-which-party-would-benefit-most-1.2857321). The only way I see this change happening at a federal level is that the Liberals and/or NDP get sworn into office in the fall. Because I do not see the Tories wanting change, they currently benefit from the FPTP!

    Like

  4. I would also like to see STV. I think it is better than PR (which I might not prefer to FPTP). Although the one plus of PR is that it would kill the bloc Quebecois.

    One lesson I do hope is taken from this election is that now that the NDP is being taken as a serious party by the public, they need to start running serious candidates in all their ridings. I both this win and the Orange Crush in Quebec last year, there were way too many joke candidates (i.e. Minimal qualifications, no effort made to campaign) getting seats in our legislature. I hope the NDP can find 400 decently qualified people to run in their ridings in the next federal election. If not, why field anyone in that riding and risk splitting the ABC vote?

    As someone who is the quintessential swing voter in this next election, for whom all the parties (except the Greens) still probably have a chance to win me over, the NDP can start by picking candidates in all ridings more carefully. I also think that what they do in Alberta, one way or the other, in the next 6 months will make a huge difference in how well or badly the federal NDP will do at winning over voters like me.

    Like

  5. To play devil’s advocate, what do you say to this criticism of STV? One effect of STV is that it will quickly decimate third parties. So for example, if you have 40% Conservative support, 35% Liberal support and 25% NDP support, in a FPTP system, all three parties will get reasonable numbers of seats and will remain going concerns. If you buy the argument that the Liberals would be the second choice for all the NDP voters, then under STV, you would get a Liberal majority government with little to no NDP representation in Parliament. A few cycles of this would completely destroy the NDP’s ability to fundraise or get any decent candidates and before long you would get a two party system.

    All that is good if you start from the assumption that the reason people don’t vote “strategically” is because they’re too stupid to do so. But what if there is another explanation. What if NDP voters understand perfectly well that they could vote Liberal and defeat the Conservatives, but are choosing between Option A — which is to replace the Conservatives with the Liberals who they only slightly prefer to the Conservatives while hurting the NDP’s ability to advocate for more radical change (and eliminating the remote possibility of their ideal: an NDP government) — and Option B — which is to let the Conservatives win, but also keep the NDP alive as a voice of radical critique and pressure the Liberals to move leftwards. It might be that the choice between these two options is a tough one, and that the choice depends on how fed up NDP voters get with the Conservatives.

    The point is that there’s already a breaker built into the FPTP system. Uniting the right or left under a single party has the benefit of getting your side in power but has the drawback of killing radical voices on your side of the spectrum (look at how radical Conservative voices get muzzled under the current government as compared to under the Reform party, and look at how Tea Partiers want to get out from under the Yoke of the establishment Republicans, even though the net effect of this is likely to be victory for the Democrats). FPTP allows people to make either choice. STV forces them to make the “smart choice” of getting marginally more favourable policies (which, if they are radicals, they may find indistinguishable) in exchange for abdicating the ability to have radical voices in Parliament. Since STV is reducing the number of choices that people can make, it’s only good if the availability of choice (ie. the choice to either vote strategically or not) was itself a bad thing, which is only true if you accept that people are too stupid to make choices.

    Like

    • Very interesting argument, Andrew. Not one I’ve heard before. There actually might be an argument for PR in here – it’s hard to argue that PR doesn’t give constituencies more equal voices than FPTP or STV. And maybe the need (and eventual normalization) of coalitions under PR leads to more bipartisanship and governing from the center – which is ultimately good for society. I’m happy to not have Tea Partiers (or their far-left equivalents) in power.

      On the other hand, I don’t think vote-splitting is always conscious and rational. I think it is easy for people to make strategic voting errors (e.g., ABC voters in Ontario in 2011 switching from Liberal to NDP at the last minute after seeing their spike in the polls – not realizing that the surge was almost entirely in Quebec and the smarter ABC vote in Ontario was still in many cases Liberal). I also think that party leaderships choose not to merge to a significant extent to protect their own ambitions, aside from calculations about losing their fringe or their centrist swing voters.

      Anyway, I’d take either STV or PR over the status quo.

      Like

  6. From what I just read (a.k.a. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/rachel-notleys-victory-shows-the-system-does-work/article24386991/), I’d argue FPTP should stay in Alberta. Same goes for British Columbia (http://www.elections.bc.ca/docs/rpt/SOV-2005-ReferendumOnElectoralReform.pdf, http://www.elections.bc.ca/docs/rpt/2009Ref/2009-Ref-SOV.pdf). So no need to debate on that for these two areas. However, for Quebec, I still believe a change to STV is needed. I personally disapprove MMPR (considered by Directeur Général des Élections du Québec) (http://www.electionsquebec.qc.ca/english/provincial/media/reform-of-the-voting-system.php) because implementing this method will yield continual minority governments, continual elections, budgets that will never pass, no adopted legislation, and thus, ‘wasted’ money. As well Quebec does not deserve to be run under some form of coalition government (especially NOT a Liberal-Parti Québécois coalition or Liberal-Québec Solidaire coalition). I believe these problems will not occur if STV is put in place as election results will be more fair and representative of Quebecers’ desires.

    Like

  7. I do not agree with this system. What I dislike is the fact minority governments would be repeatedly elected and that there is always a possibility of coalition governments forming. I personally would not like a Conservative-Liberal coalition, that would be awful! Or even worse, a Conservative-Liberal-Bloc coalition!

    Like

    • I don’t see what’s so bad about coalition governments. Aside from the fact that their cohesion can fail, triggering elections (which tends to happen less in countries with PR and many coalitions – like Germany), coalition governments need to be consensus driven, which is normally a good thing (unless you have a coalition propped up by extremists, like in Israel). I think a Liberal-Conservative coalition would be much much better than the Conservative majority we have now, for example (it would probably look a lot like the current government, except with no Fair Elections Act, no scrapping of the census or long-gun registry, less evisceration of government science and environmental legislation, to name a few – all huge improvements). It’s true that a coalition propped up by the Bloc would be a less than ideal situation, but with the current state of the Bloc, I don’t see that happening. The most likely coalition under current voting blocks is either Cons-Lib, or (more likely) Lib-NDP-Green. I would love to see a Lib-NDP-Green coalition personally. In fact, I might even go so far as to say I think such a coalition would probably be better than any of the parties individually with a majority. What are your concerns about coalitions (other than the idea of one needing Bloc support, which I agree is less than ideal)?

      Like

  8. Matt, I completely disagree with your views. First of all, I strongly believe a Liberal-Conservative coalition would be detrimental in every sense of the word. There would be no agreement on any issue whatsoever! Parliament would never work, no budgets would be passed. It would be sheer chaos.

    And do you really believe a Liberal-Conservative coalition would be better than what is currently happening? I really don’t think so. I think it would be worse, no new laws would be adopted, there would be huge argument on basic issues (e.g. how much humanitarian aid must be given to Nepal following the massive earthquake, for example). I’m not convinced with your argument that the economy would be better if there was no Fair Elections Act, no scrapping of the census or long-gun registry, less evisceration of government science & environmental legislation. If these motions were not passed, Canada would have worse issues, such as a massive deficit, and the have-not provinces (e.g. Quebec, Newfoundland & Labrador) would be broke and possibly declare bankruptcy because they cannot receive their equalization payments. Hence, I do not buy your argument on the merits of a Liberal-Conservative coalition.

    As for the possibility of a Liberal-NDP-Green coalition, I really don’t buy into it. I don’t think a motion like this will ever happen in the history of Canada. The Liberal, NDP and Green parties all have different platforms and different visions on various issues (e.g. environment, society, economy, etc.). Their ideologies are different as well. I don’t think such a merge is appropriate.

    I personally hate coalitions and think this is a very bad idea for Canadian politics. Governments would not last long and Parliament would be ineffective. I prefer the FPTP or STV system because the results are more fair and there is a winner. I proposed earlier switching to STV as results would be more fair and representative of the populations desires. But I am OK with FPTP for the time being, and hope STV gets implemented, especially in Quebec, where the desire for change is large, during the 2018 election.

    p.s. On a side note, if you are really for a Lib-NDP-Green coalition, I found this petition you can sign http://you.leadnow.ca/petitions/canada-wants-a-coalition-of-the-ndp-liberals-and-greens-to-stop-harper-being-re-elected. I personally will not sign it, but strongly believe you should sign it!

    Like

    • I don’t agree. I’ll address your concerns one-at-a-time:

      “First of all, I strongly believe a Liberal-Conservative coalition would be detrimental in every sense of the word. There would be no agreement on any issue whatsoever! Parliament would never work, no budgets would be passed. It would be sheer chaos.”

      History suggests otherwise. In fact, the first 5 years of Conservative government were a de-facto Lib-Cons coalition, in the sense that the Libs were supporting the Conservatives on confidence motions. It wasn’t great, but was much better than what we have now, because it moderated the worst instincts in the Conservatives (e.g., the Libs forced there to be a stimulus instead of austerity after the 2008 financial collapse). An actual coalition would undoubtedly be at least as stable as those minority years.

      “I think it would be worse, no new laws would be adopted, there would be huge argument on basic issues (e.g. how much humanitarian aid must be given to Nepal following the massive earthquake, for example). I’m not convinced with your argument that the economy would be better if there was no Fair Elections Act, no scrapping of the census or long-gun registry, less evisceration of government science & environmental legislation. If these motions were not passed, Canada would have worse issues, such as a massive deficit, and the have-not provinces (e.g. Quebec, Newfoundland & Labrador) would be broke and possibly declare bankruptcy because they cannot receive their equalization payments. Hence, I do not buy your argument on the merits of a Liberal-Conservative coalition.”

      I don’t understand what you’re basing these claims on. For example, it seems very unlikely that a Liberal-Conservative coalition run a larger deficit than either the Libs or Cons would run with a majority. If neither party wanted a larger deficit, why would they run one? In fact, I would expect the deficit would generally be smaller (or equal) under coalitions than under each of the parties individually (because both parties would be trying to check the other’s deficit-breeding tendencies (e.g., too much tax-cutting/military spending/prison spending for the Cons; too much social program spending for the Libs) to score political points. The experience of the U.S. under divided governments (e.g. deficit shrinking under Obama/Boehner, Clinton/Gingrich) supports this idea, for example. The bankruptcy scenario you raise seems both far-fetched and far off given the current debt/GDP ratios in the provinces.

      “As for the possibility of a Liberal-NDP-Green coalition, I really don’t buy into it. I don’t think a motion like this will ever happen in the history of Canada. The Liberal, NDP and Green parties all have different platforms and different visions on various issues (e.g. environment, society, economy, etc.). Their ideologies are different as well. I don’t think such a merge is appropriate.”

      We’ll have to see I guess, but if the Conservatives win a weak minority (as they’re currently projected to), I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a Lib-NDP or Lib-NDP-Green coalition. The anti-Harper vote (which is about half the country, if you believe the polls) would strongly support it.

      “I personally hate coalitions and think this is a very bad idea for Canadian politics. Governments would not last long and Parliament would be ineffective.”

      I partly disagree. I think coalitions and minority governments tend to be less stable in countries that don’t have them often (like Canada) than in countries that do (e.g., Germany). I think our minority and coalition governments would become much more stable in Canada if we switched to PR. Part of the reason is that, if minorities are the norm, no one is going to want to rush an election call to try to get a majority. If coalitions are the norm, then they are likely to become more stable too.

      “I prefer the FPTP or STV system because the results are more fair and there is a winner. I proposed earlier switching to STV as results would be more fair and representative of the populations desires. But I am OK with FPTP for the time being, and hope STV gets implemented, especially in Quebec, where the desire for change is large, during the 2018 election.”

      I like STV too; although I must admit that Andrew and ThreeHundredEight make good arguments for PR.

      “p.s. On a side note, if you are really for a Lib-NDP-Green coalition, I found this petition you can sign http://you.leadnow.ca/petitions/canada-wants-a-coalition-of-the-ndp-liberals-and-greens-to-stop-harper-being-re-elected. I personally will not sign it, but strongly believe you should sign it!”

      Thanks! I just signed!

      Like

  9. Pingback: Matt’s shadow platform: Think big. Drop the hyper-partisan BS. | The Tête-à-Tête

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s