Experts: Liberals don’t have a true advantage in ranked ballot system

According to political scientists it’s hard to say which party would benefit if the system was adopted nationally

Rogerio Barbosa/AFP/Getty Images

Rogerio Barbosa/AFP/Getty Images

OTTAWA — If Justin Trudeau gets his way on electoral reform, will the Liberals “steal” every federal election in perpetuity?

As hearings on a new voting regime resume next Monday, the Conservatives contend that’s what would be in store if Canada adopts a system of ranked ballots, which the prime minister has in the past touted as his preference for replacing the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

Pollsters, pundits and proponents of proportional representation are only slightly less apocalyptic, predicting that a ranked ballot system — also known as preferential ballot or alternative vote (AV) — would certainly give the centrist Liberals an unfair advantage.

Hogwash, say political scientists who specialize in the study of voting systems.

“Would the Liberals automatically benefit? No,” says Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brian Tanguay.

“You can’t say anything would automatically occur once a change in the electoral system happens … The moment you change the rules of the game, the calculations of both the parties and the voters themselves will change.”

Assuming a Liberal advantage is “very much wrong-headed” and “far too simplistic,” agrees York University’s Dennis Pilon.

Under AV, voters mark their first, second and subsequent choices. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, the contender with the fewest votes is dropped from the ballot and his or her supporters’ second choices are counted. That continues until one candidate emerges with a majority.

Had that system been in place in last fall’s election, polls have suggested Trudeau’s Liberals — who won 55 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons with just 39 per cent of the popular vote — would have won an even bigger “false majority” since they were the most popular second choice among supporters of other parties.

Trouble is, those analyses superimpose second choice preferences onto voting behaviour that was driven by FPTP — which compelled plenty of New Democrat and Green supporters last October to back the Liberals to defeat the Conservatives, rather than risk “wasting” their votes on the smaller parties.

If those strategic voters had been able to support their first choices, marking the Liberals second as surety against Conservative victory, the result could have been much different, experts say. For one thing, NDP support likely wouldn’t have utterly collapsed.

“My best guess, without doing a close riding-by-riding assessment, is that a preferential ballot would likely have produced a hung Parliament rather than a Liberal majority,” says University of British Columbia professor emeritus Ken Carty.

But it’s not just voter behaviour that would have changed. The parties themselves would have been forced to broaden their appeal if they’d been competing for second — and not just first — choice votes.

If AV did wind up benefiting primarily the Liberals, Pilon says the Conservatives would have only themselves to blame.

“The Conservatives have pushed themselves into a corner that’s just too extreme for Canadians,” he says.

“One of the arguments for AV could be that maybe we’d end up with a less extreme Conservative party. First-past-the-post allows the Conservative party to be more extreme because they don’t have to win 50 per cent or near 50 per cent to win ridings.”

So, which party would benefit most under ranked balloting? Hard to say.

It would likely be an advantage for smaller parties that tend to get squeezed by strategic voting under FPTP, says Arend Lijphart, professor emeritus at the University of California San Diego and widely considered the world’s leading expert on voting systems.

Like other experts interviewed by The Canadian Press, Lijphart is a fan of proportional representation, a voting system in which a party’s share of seats in the legislature reflects its share of the popular vote. But, while ranked balloting would not produce a proportional distribution of seats, he says it would still be better than FPTP.

“I think you get a more accurate choice with ranked choice balloting and you’re really also making it easier and more straight-forward for the voter because the voter doesn’t have to calculate how is my vote going to work. They can vote the way they feel.”

The beneficiary of such voter liberation would likely vary from region to region of the country, says Pilon. In some places, like the Greater Toronto Area where voters tend to switch between the Liberals and Conservatives, the two main parties would benefit. In places like B.C., where voters are more likely to switch between NDP and Conservative, those two parties would benefit.

In the handful of countries that use ranked ballots, like Australia, Pilon says the system was introduced deliberately to allow two main parties to work together to shut out other parties — and it’s largely worked out that way. But that hasn’t been the experience in Canada, where the system was used provincially years ago.

Back in the early 1950s, when B.C. was governed by a Liberal-Conservative coalition, Tanguay says those two parties brought in ranked ballots to “keep the socialist hordes out.”

They assumed “Conservatives’ second choice would be Liberal and Liberals’ second choice would be Conservative and one of them would get into power and keep the CCF (forerunner to the NDP) at bay.”

But those assumptions were “shattered” when Social Credit “came out of nowhere” to score the most second-choice votes and win the election.

And that, says Tanguay, underscores the unpredictability of what could happen if ranked balloting were adopted nationally.


Experts: Liberals don’t have a true advantage in ranked ballot system

  1. Finally an article that recognizes that had the preferential ballot been in place for the 2015 election:
    a) the Liberals could well have ended up with less MPs not more, and
    b) the number of NDP MPs elected would likely have been greater.

    Given the history of electoral reform in Ontario and BC, I’m of the opinion that the only system that has a chance of broad acceptance by the public is the preferential ballot, which is an evolutionary change from FPTP. All the others are revolutionary changes and would likely be as unpopular as the systems Ontario and BC voted on (FWIW, I did vote for BC-STV both times).

    Regardless of which system the electoral reform committee eventually decides on, a referendum is clearly required to ratify that decision.

    • I’m against changing the system, but if the Liberals simply agree to hold a referendum in which the various options are available for the general public to choose (which MUST include FPTP) then I will support whatever the electorate chooses. I think its the Liberals staunch opposition to a referendum that has people so distrusting of them.

      • And I am dead set against having a referendum. It is complicated to explain the nuances between all the various contortions of different voting systems (although ranked ballot is simple to explain). There are advantages and disadvantages to each system and these have to be explained to the public. but who will the public believe? Think of the Brexit referendum. People cant take the time to educate themselves and some felt hoodlywinked by politicians extolling their own preferred choice. We elect politicians to study these big issues and make decisions for us….so let them. In addition PR scares the hell out of me….. as it opens the door to fringe parties catering to small, local, ethnic issues. Canada is multicultural….so do we want separate parties representing various ethnic groups? Do we want a loudmouth Ford like or Trump like candidate? I say no. It will just bog down parliament.

        • I don’t like full-on PR either, that’s one of the reasons I want a referendum.

          At any rate, below is my standard blurb on why a referendum is required:

          1) A specific voting system was not part of the Liberal platform. So there was no way for people to vote LPC in an informed manner w.r.t. electoral reform.

          2) Electoral reform was not a prominent aspect of the Liberal campaign. Many people could have voted LPC without even realizing electoral reform was part of the platform.

          3) Nobody that votes for a party agrees with every single aspect of the platform, especially a platform with 200+ promises. Indeed, many people could have voted LPC while disagreeing with the need for electoral reform, while agreeing with the vast majority of the rest of the platform.

          4) History has shown that the LPC considers campaign promises to be “fluid” – consider the LPC’s pre-election stance with its post-election governing action on wage and price controls in 1974 election, gas tax in 1980 election, FTA (precursor to NAFTA) in 1993 election, and GST in 1993 election. So, anyone with a memory would know that just because the LPC promises something, it doesn’t mean the LOC will deliver, and that really one should vote LPC because one thinks the LPC will govern intelligently, and not because of any particular promise. (Same can likely also be said for other parties)

          5) Precedents have been set by Ontario, BC, and PEI holding referendums on electoral reform. If referendums were good enough for the largest and 3rd largest province, then a referendum is good enough for the nation.

          6) Winning government does mean a mandate to implement a particular policy unless the election was for all intents and purposes a single issue election – and the only one of those that I can think of was the election of 1984 w.r.t. Free Trade. If there was one prominent issue in the 2015 election, it was the need for a change of government – electoral reform didn’t even register.

          So, yes, I think a referendum is absolutely needed.
          AFAICT, the only people that don’t want a referendum are the ones that don’t think they can make a convincing argument for electoral reform.

          Having said all of that, I think FPTP is a moronic voting system when applied in a more-than-2 party system. My preferred system is the preferential ballot (AKA Alternate Vote). It’s an evolutionary, not revolutionary, change to how we vote. It is easily understood. It eliminates the need for strategic voting. It means votes aren’t “wasted”. And it retains direct representation for ridings with no changes in riding boundaries. STV almost (but not quite) does this, and I did indeed vote for BC-STV (both times). I intensely dislike proportional representation due to the loss of direct representation, and MMP isn’t much better if it retains FPTP for the directly elected members. A potential compromise system is what the UK Jenkins Commission came up with – alternative vote top-up or AV+. Unfortunately, that may be too complicated to win appeal.

          Getting back to the referendum, here’s a compromise approach that I would be perfectly happy with:
          – government implements electoral commission’s recommendation
          – 2019 election is held under the new system
          – 2 or so years later a referendum is held on whether to retain the new system or revert to FPTP. More than 50%+1 is required to revert – exact number TBD (55? 60?).

  2. Also, I think it’s pretty silly to actually suggest that a ranked ballot system won’t benefit the Liberals. While more voters may have been encouraged to vote NDP as their first choice in the last election, their second choice most certainly would have been Liberal, and that’s where they would pick up the advantage. Ranked ballot systems favour the more centrist party and suggesting that all parties should race to the centre to become the most populist party would be a complete disaster.

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