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.