Pros and cons of the alternative vote to electoral reform

Second in our series on revising and reviving democracy in Canada


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This is the second in our [popup url=”http://marketplace.troymedia.com/series/electoral-reform-explained/” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]series[/popup] describing electoral reform possibilities. The series is being written by Dr. Doreen Barrie, an adjunct assistant professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary. Today, she focuses on the merits of the alternative vote system.

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CALGARY, Alta. March 17, 2016/ Troy Media/ – The alternative vote system is definitely on the federal electoral reform table. But would it be a good choice for Canada?

Alternative vote (AV) is used in lower house elections in Australia and Nauru, a former Australian territory. But it was rejected in a 2011 British referendum as a replacement for the first-past-the-post electoral system.

AV (or preferential vote) and our single-member plurality elect one member in each riding. The difference is that AV requires winning candidates to obtain a majority of the votes instead of only a plurality. AV and the runoff vote are examples of a single-member majority system.

In an AV system, voters rank candidates on ballots from first to last choice. If no one has more than 50 per cent of votes after first preferences are counted, the individual with the fewest votes is eliminated. The second preferences on that candidate’s ballots are then redistributed among the other candidates. The process continues until an absolute majority is secured by someone, perhaps after several rounds.

The runoff vote also ensures the winner receives a majority. It is used in presidential elections in France, among other countries. If no candidate receives an absolute majority after the first election, all but the top two candidates are eliminated and a second vote takes place a few weeks later.

An obvious advantage of AV is that the winner receives a majority of votes cast, albeit sometimes on second, third or more preferences. There is no need for strategic voting, so first preferences are a true reflection of voter intentions. No votes are wasted. AV also preserves the cherished link between a member of Parliament and his or her constituents.

However, AV is more complicated and the vote count takes much longer. It is also believed to promote a two-party system to the detriment of minor parties. Voters who are too lazy to rank every candidate resort to “donkey voting,” where candidates are simply ranked in the order they appear on the ballot. AV isn’t proportional representation and consequently, the results can still be skewed.

Australia pioneered AV (which they call the preferential vote) in 1919. It provides an interesting laboratory because Australia is a federal-cum-parliamentary system and shares other characteristics with Canada. A major difference is that voting is compulsory for Australians.

Undoubtedly, the first preferences of Australian voters provide an accurate picture of their loyalties. However, it is in the assignment of second preferences and beyond where the action arises and Machiavellian calculations take place. Second preferences are like currency for political parties. At this stage, voters must decide where to throw their support and they get a little help from political parties via how-to-vote cards. Parties hand these out at polling stations and voters take them into the booth. The cards list the order in which a party recommends its supporters direct their subsequent preferences.

The Green Party, for example, can gain influence by helping a major party win seats on the basis of Green second preferences. Parties make strategic choices about the use of their electoral support and have reciprocal arrangements with other parties for their mutual benefit. This typically takes place with like-minded rivals, but sometimes preferences are directed to ideologically-opposed parties for tactical reasons. Of course, voters are free to ignore advice from parties — but most don’t.

Since 1919, Australia has been governed by the Labor Party or a coalition of the two conservative parties, currently the Liberal Party and National Party (previously the Australian Country Party). The latter two parties routinely exchange preferences and this has ensured that they invariably govern in coalition when the Labor Party loses an election.

So would AV benefit Canada’s Liberals as critics claim? Certainly, AV favours centrist parties, which the Liberals are. However, prior to the victory of the Harper Conservatives, the Progressive Conservative Party was also a centrist party. The two major parties used to be referred to as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, so unless the next leader of the Conservatives is in the Stephen Harper mould, both major parties would continue to dominate the political stage.

The alternative vote is an improvement on our current system. It eliminates the need for strategic voting and gives an accurate picture of support for parties.

However, like the current system, it doesn’t make it easier for small parties to break into the charmed circle of elected office.

If representation is a high priority, some form of proportional representation is necessary.

Doreen Barrie is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary.

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