Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Tag: Canadian politics

Proportional Representation: Who Benefits?

In my post on electoral reform and the preferential ballot, I remarked that changing the rules benefits some players more than others. This is true of any change, and I suspect it’s one reason why electoral reform has been so difficult: the sense that the rules are being tweaked for someone else’s benefit.

As the centrist party, the Liberals would probably benefit from ranked or preferential ballots (and modelling appears to bear that out), and, funnily enough, ranked or preferential ballots happen to be Prime Minister Trudeau’s preferred option. So it’s easy to complain that the Liberals are rigging the game in their own favour.

But it’s important to keep in mind that, despite the lofty rhetoric about a “fairer” electoral system in which “every vote counts,” proportional representation also benefits some players more than others. The question is, which players?

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The Preferential Ballot: Who Benefits?

Of the electoral reform proposals on offer, the one I’m most in favour of is the preferential or ranked ballot, also known as the alternative vote, where voters mark their first, second and third (and so on) choices (rather than simply an X). If no candidate wins 50 percent on the first round, the candidate finishing last is dropped and their voters’ second preferences are redistributed, and then the next candidate, and so on and so on until someone gets 50 percent.

It’s a bit more complicated than marking an X, and counting (and calculating!) the votes will almost certainly take longer, but a preferential ballot has a couple of things going for it. For one, it ensures that any member of Parliament will eventually be elected by 50 percent of the vote, once second- and third-place preferences are redistributed—we won’t have close three- or four-way races where the winner ends up with only a handful of votes more than the others, and less than 40 percent support.

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The Unintended Consequences of Proportional Representation

Now that the election is over, many disappointed Canadians are talking about proportional representation, and how much fairer it would have been than our first-past-the-post electoral system.

I have never been a fan of proportional representation, partly because I think its supporters are mostly unhappy with the results of the most recent election and want to re-run it under different rules that they think are more favourable to their side, and partly because I’m a big fan of holding members of Parliament accountable to a constituency. But also because I’ve seen how PR systems operate in other countries. Not in the intricate, technical, here’s-how-it-works terms that PR advocates like geeking over — the real-world effects. And some of those real-world effects are precisely the opposite of what PR advocates want.

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