Monday, May 25, 2015

The Best Voting Method for Canadians - STV

Since Éric Grenier posted his somewhat controversial "308PR" post last week, I've spent some time looking at differing electoral systems and really trying to nail down what I liked and did not like about the various options on the table. I've come up with the one that I think I like the most, and would love to see implemented here in Canada - and I've even done a little example below.

Just to review: currently, Canada's federal, provincial, and municipal elections use a plurality vote system, whereby the candidate with the most votes in a district wins the election. That candidate could win any number of votes, it doesn't matter so long as it is more than any other single candidate has - hence why we can get situations where a district is won with under 30% of votes cast.

This system probably made a lot more sense when it was just two parties fighting it out, though you can still end up with tremendously lopsided results. Most liberal democracies have moved on from the plurality method, opting to either fully embrace proportional representation, use a hybrid system, or simply modify the existing system to ensure a candidate can reach 50% support in a riding.

Proportional representation (or just PR) generally refers to voting methods that aim to give parties and candidates a more equitable chance of actually winning seats relative to their share of the vote.

There are two types of PR - a party-list system, whereby representatives do not run individually in districts but instead are ordered on a list created by a party, and however many seats that party is entitled to after the election is how far down the list goes. For example, if the Liberals were entitled to 50 seats in an election result, you'd start with the first person on the list - lets say Trudeau - and continue on down until you hit the fiftieth candidate listed. It sounds simple, but there are different ways of getting to how many seats a party is entitled to -  I'd suggest taking a look at the voting method of Israel, the d'Hondt method, the Sainte-Laguë method, or the largest remainder method, as they are the ones you'd hear about more often.

The second type of PR is the single transferable vote (STV) in multi-member districts. This is the one that British Columbians were asked to vote on twice a few years back. The idea behind it is kind of complex at first glace, but really its very simple: a voter ranks candidates based on preference (I like Jim Bob most, and Mary Sue second most, etc.), and we start from "first preference" results. If Jim Bob is last in the first preference ballots, then the voters who picked him as their first choice do not have their votes wasted, as is the case with the plurality method; instead, those voters' second choice, in this case Mary Sue, are transferred to her in the second count. On and on it goes, until a candidate reaches a quota for votes, whereby they've collected enough ballots to represent one seat in the district.

Hybrid systems are exactly what the name states. The best known is Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP), where there is a mix of plurality voting methods and a proportional party-list method that is supposed to offset a disproportional result among the plurality vote districts, thereby balancing everything out. This is more complicated than straight PR or STV, as it can require people to vote on two ballots and generally hard to understand or predict. This method was also voted on and defeated in Canada.

There are also plurality vote methods that aim to keep the general principle while giving a more equitable result. These come in a few shapes and sizes, but the one we'll know most here is the preferential ballot, alternative vote or instant-runoff voting (IRV), the method that the Liberal Party endorses for its electoral reform platform. I did a post awhile back when this was an issue during the Liberal leadership race that compares the plurality vote, MMP, and AV, as well as some calculations even longer back that showed a couple of examples of an AV vote in Canada. The short of it is that you rank your candidates much like in STV, but instead of electing multiple members and hitting electoral quotas, you elect one member per district and try to hit 50% of the vote. It is key to remember that it is not proportional, but it does ensure a majority of the riding voted for their representative.

Éric's "308PR" system is a strange mixture of party-list PR with plurality voting, whereby MPs are elected based on the performance of their party across a province, but they are ranked by their level of support within whatever riding they're choosing to run. Its a way to gain proportional representation without losing local representatives, but there are quite a few flaws and unanswered questions with it.

Main Concerns Over Changing Canada's Electoral System

As mentioned, there have been recent referendums of changing the electoral voting methods in three provinces. In Ontario  and Prince Edward Island, reformers proposed bringing in the MMP system, and was soundly defeated in both elections. In BC, the STV method was voted on twice; once in 2005, where it earned 58% support but failed to reach a level that bound the government to implementing it (60%). Then in a follow-up referendum in 2009, it went down in flames.

There has been no Canada-wide referendum on changing the electoral system, but the general consensus is that it would likely go down in defeat. Similar referendums held in the UK and New Zealand have not given reformers any hope. The question then is, why?

This is pure speculation on my part, mostly taken from various articles I've found online, as well as looking at the results in other countries, but this is what I've come up with. The biggest issues are: an electorate that is ignorant of the other options; support for the status quo by both governments and parties who benefit, as well as voters; and worries about losing representation.

The first two issues are ones that simply have to be overcome through the sheer force of will that a campaign brings to bear - it is up to people to educate voters and explain to them why a new system would be better, enough to either convince parties to jump on board or for their opinion to not really even matter.

The third is a trickier concern to answer, especially for PR advocates. Its the one that Éric tries to address with his 308PR. Essentially, the concern is that with a PR system, voters in particular districts won't have access to local MPs, who will instead focus on areas where votes are, or simply not be accountable to a local community since they'll be chosen by a party, not the electorate. It is a valid concern, especially for people living in more rural parts of the country or, let's be honest, in areas where more poverty exists and where turnout tends to be lower. In a country as widespread and diverse as ours, this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Preferential Balloting

But, there is a pressing need to reform the way we elect people to higher office. Plurality voting simply does not work - it can give disproportionate power to parties that don't represent the will or intent of a majority of the electorate, as we see federally or more recently in Alberta, PEI, and Ontario -actually lets be honest, in almost every province and major city.

The Liberal Party and Justin Trudeau propose changing our electoral system to a preferential ballot or IRV method, whereby candidates in all 338-districts must be elected by 50% of its constituents. This addresses a key problem at the riding level - candidates can win without getting the support of even a majority of their constituents, thus possibly setting up a situation where over two-thirds of voters can choose to back another candidate. The most stark example of this recently was in Red Deer-North in Alberta, or in the 2013 Montreal mayoralty race.

I will admit that I initially was in complete favour of this system... but I've come to believe that it actually is not the best system for our country. It does address riding-level concerns, and it certainly can lead to a more representative result nationally, but it still doesn't reflect the will of all voters, not even in local districts. A candidate can win with 51% of the vote, leaving the other 49% without their chosen representative - that right there seems to me to be just as unacceptable as what we have right now.

Single-Transferable Vote

Now we get into the meat of this post - the system I think is probably the best choice for Canada.

The STV method is used in several familiar places to us, such as Australia's Senate elections and the Republic of Ireland. As I explained above, while the system can seem complex, it is in fact not that hard to understand once you clear away the nonsense and confabulations.

The key thing with STV is that it is not based on party lists, it is actually based on constituencies and district representation. The voting method is more or less the same as preferential balloting, but the key difference is that the balloting is done in multi-member districts, instead of one single district. The best example is the electoral system and district apportionment of the Dáil Éireann (lower house) of Ireland.

The Dáil has 166 members who are elected from 43 constituencies across the Irish Free State. The number of members elected from each district can range from three to five, and the candidates are local to the districts, and can also campaign by community - for example, a candidate can campaign exclusively in one community to build up his voter base, and work for transfers from other candidates and from other parts of the wider constituency.

Thus a candidate can remain a local member and accountable to his or her community, while also becoming part of a larger regional delegation, and crucially, better representing the will of voters.

While there is no way to ensure that "every vote counts," even under pure PR, we jump from a possible 70% of votes not counting under our current system, to 49% of them not counting under preferential ballot, to maybe 10-20%, while retaining a strong constituency member representation.

It also grants parties that might otherwise be locked out in a plurality voting system or in preferential ballot a way a chance to have its members elected. There is no better way to explain this than graphically.

The Example - Saskatchewan

In 2011, the votes of the province of Saskatchewan gave the majority of their support to the Conservative Party of Canada, while the New Democrats came second with nearly a third of votes. However, that was not the representation Saskatchewan received in the House of Commons; instead, 13 of the 14 Saskatchewan MPs elected were Conservatives, while one was a Liberal.

In other words, the Conservatives received 56% of the vote, but 93% of the seats, while a third of voters were left without representation anywhere in the province. This happened because of a quirk in the way Saskatchewan's districts were designed in the 2003 representation order, and while it has been corrected in the new boundaries, it would still only give the NDP two of the province's 14 seats, leaving 11 for the Conservatives. There are a few close races, but because the Conservatives can eek out a percentage or two more of voters, even without hitting 50%, they win.

But what if the 2011 election was held with STV? If it were, you would see much different results - 9 Conservatives, 4 New Democrats, and 1 Liberal.

 How did I get there? Let me show you.

What you see above is the results for the 4-member constituency of Regina, as elected by the single transferable vote method. Represented are two Conservative MPs, one New Democrat and one Liberal, with a total first preference count of 47% Conservative, 34% NDP and 16% Liberal.

Essentially what I did here was take the four existing Regina ridings (Lumsden-Lake Centre, Qu'Appelle, Palliser, and Wascana) and throw them together as a single district. From there, I treated each of the four riding's candidates as a single candidate running for one of the four seats in the constituency. To earn a seat representing Regina, candidates have to reach a quota of 27,243 valid votes - or, roughly one-fifth of the valid votes cast in the election. This ensures that each member elected will represent the minimum number of electors in the district needed for one seat, in this case about 20%.

Let me take you step by step, and show you what I've done.

First Preference (Count 1)

There are 17 candidates running in Regina, four from each major party and one independent. On the first preference counts (those that marked candidates with a "1", meaning their main choice, or depending if they voted for the group), Tom Likuwski of the Conservatives won the most votes at 18,076, but he and everyone else still remains far short of the quota of 27,243. Thus no one is elected on the first count.
What the Canadian STV ballot could look like

Candidates that did not make the minimum number of votes to qualify for a deposit (set at 5% in the constituency) were eliminated off the ballot - three Liberals, all four Greens, and the Independent. All eight candidates will have their votes redistributed based on their voters' preferences into the second count. Some may also not choose another preference, thus their ballot will not count.

Count 2

After the preferences have been allocated, Ralph Goodale of the Liberals has the most votes on the second ballot, but everyone is still far short of the quota. Thus to move on to the third count, we have to eliminate the last place candidate, that being Marc Spooner of the NDP. His votes will be redistributed to other candidates, again based on his voter's preferences.

Counts 3, 4, and 5

As we move on throughout the counts, three more candidates are eliminated - Fred Clipsham of the NDP, and Ian Shields and Ray Boughen of the Conservatives. With each eliminated candidate, the vote totals change and we get closer to hitting the electoral quota.

Count 6

On the sixth count, we have two winners who have hit above the electoral quota of 27, 243 - Ralph Goodale of the Liberals and Tom Likuwski of the Conservatives, and are now duly elected. Thus, their surplus of votes above the quota will be redistributed to the remaining three candidates - not the total sum, but only the surplus.

Count 7

We've reached the end of the count, however no one has reached the quota. Nevertheless, both Andrew Scheer of the Conservatives and Noah Evanchuk of the NDP have been elected. Why?

With two seats remaining, and only three candidates, eliminating the last place candidate (in this case Brian Sklar of the NDP) means that the two remaining candidates are going to be elected no matter what. Thus, they're declared as having been elected without reaching the quota. This means the 23,723 voters supporting Sklar can be considered "wasted votes," however the result overall in the constituency is more representative than if Sklar actually won.


After seven counts, Regina has all four of its MPs, but instead now we have a New Democrat joining their ranks, along with Conservatives and a Liberal.

This shows how STV can work to produce a result that benefits parties on both a local and national level. The New Democrats get their Saskatchewan representation, while the Liberals won with a strong local representative who was able to get enough transfers and reach the electoral quota on his own. The Conservatives also have their representation which better reflects the actual level of support they received in the region, and thus no one can truly cry foul at them anymore.

The above results were modelled directly after how its done in Ireland, right down to the fancy chart. Check it out for yourself - here's an example constituency with four seats, Longford-Westmeath, which also had a recent by-election. This particular riding is also interesting; if you look for the name Mary O'Rourke, she was a former minister, deputy party leader and long-time member for the constituency who was soundly defeated as a local candidate, being eliminated on the second count. Local representation matters, can you can still sink or swim based on what the people back home think of you.

Anyway, this has been a long post but I think I've made my case - STV is definitely the way to go. We can have our cake and eat it too, folks... I now feel guilty for not supporting it more, but that shall change.

If you're curious for more, I did the rest of Saskatchewan as well, just to see what it would look like. If you're wondering how I got the transfers, I really just generalized the preferences and made some guesses here and there (for example, I suspected most eliminated Liberal voters in Regina would throw their support behind Goodale, while in other districts they'd be a bit more split).

1 comment:

  1. Of the proposals proposed - in real history here in Canada - this one is the most popular, but was rejected due to the fact that it would still create minorities, and the ridings, especially in the north, would be "too big"