Friday, January 27, 2017

Proportional Representation: Myths and Misconceptions

The following is an expanded version of a speech I gave before the New Brunswick Commission on Electoral Reform, on Jan. 20, 2017.

We often hear that there are two types of electoral systems: Majoritarian and Proportional, and that our current system, First Past the Post, is a Majoritarian system.

In fact, there are three types of electoral systems: Plurality, Majoritarian and Proportional. In a plurality system, the candidate need only win more votes than every other candidate. If more than two candidates are running, that percentage will be well less than 50%. For example, if four candidates are running, a candidate could win with a little over 20% of the vote.

In a Majoritarian system, a candidate must win at least 50% of the votes in order to win the election. This is accomplished either with a second, run-off election, as in France, or with a ranked ballot, as in Alternative Vote. More on that later. Majoritarian systems work best in elections that only one person can win, such as presidential elections, or mayoral elections. When used to elect many candidates in many ridings, such as it is in Australia, the results can be even more distorted than they are under First Past the Post, and smaller parties suffer as a consequence.

In a Proportional system, votes are counted in such a way as to reward seats to candidates in proportion to the percentage of votes that they won. This is usually done according to party membership, although one fascinating system, Single Transferable Vote, accomplishes it without considering parties at all. Theoretically, a whole nation of independents could run in an election using this system, and the results would be fair and proportional, although it might be hard to know that.[1]

As you may have realized by now, vote counting is considerably more complex under a proportional system than it is under a Plurality system. We proponents of Proportional Representation think the results are worth it.

The habit, so common to journalists, politicians and other people who should know better, of incorrectly referring to First Past the Post as a Majoritarian system, probably contributes to the common misconception that a candidate must win most of the votes in a riding to win the seat. In fact, the candidate need only win a larger portion than all other candidates—a plurality. His portion of the vote may be well short of 50%. This makes First Past The Post not a Majoritarian system but a Plurality system.

The Majoritarian system Alternative Vote is often called ranked voting or preferential voting. This is the system that the New Brunswick Commission on Electoral Reform chose for some reason to recommend in its paper: Strengthening New Brunswick's Democracy. As the Commission's own report points out, it can produce results that are even more disproportional than First Past The Post[2]. It doesn't tend to improve voter turnout, and won't increase diversity in the legislature.

I want to point out here that Alternative Vote is not the only system that uses a ranked ballot. Single Transferable Vote is a system of proportional representation that also uses a ranked ballot. So if the New Brunswick government really wants to introduce a ranked ballot, I would suggest implementing Single Transferable Vote.

Myth number two: the false majorities caused by First Past The Post are desirable because they lead to strong leadership. What they really lead to is a phenomenon called "policy lurch." This is when one party with a majority rams through a lot of unpopular legislation until an election comes along. The new party in power sets about undoing everything the previous government put in place. At the next election, the whole process can begin again. This is a massive waste of time and energy and it is the reason why our governments are less effective than proportional governments and take so much longer to progress.[3]

We've seen this most dramatically at the federal level since the Harper government, but here in New Brunswick, we teeter-totter between the Liberal and Conservative parties in a similarly unproductive way.

Myth number three states that governments elected via proportional representation are unstable. Studies show no correlation between stability and electoral systems. One of the most stable governments in the world, the Swiss government, is elected by List Proportional Representation. One of the most unstable governments in the world, the Italian government, is also elected by List Proportional Representation. Government stability is determined by factors other than electoral system. [4]

In any case, if we value stability above all else, we should throw out elections and switch to an oligarchy. In this system, citizens have to wait for the people on top to die before they can have a new government. Barring assassination, it's the most stable system in the world.

Myth number four: "Simple is better." A whole web site has been set up to promote this rather insulting notion: keepvotingsimple.ca. I think the perfect rejoinder comes from David M. Farrell, the author of Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction. He writes that the ballot we're accustomed to, on which one makes a single 'x' next to one preferred candidate, is, "of obvious advantage in highly illiterate societies."[5]

I know that New Brunswick's literacy rates are not what might be desired, but I don't think we qualify as so "highly illiterate" that we can only manage an 'x.' In that case, it would be necessary for each candidate to have an icon printed next to their names. I haven't seen that on a Canadian ballot yet.

Myth number five is one that particularly concerns me. I fear it is preventing Proportional Representation from being accepted at both the provincial and federal levels. It is the idea that First Past The Post is advantageous for the party in power. Stephen Harper endorsed this idea when he told Elizabeth May, "No group of elected representatives is likely to fundamentally change the system by which they were elected".[6]

This notion needs a rethink. The current system is not advantageous to the party in power. It was advantageous to that party—in the last election. How a party did in a past election tells us nothing about how it will do in a future election. If we look at past New Brunswick elections, the government has switched between Liberal and PC majorities since 1999.[7] So if you're really in a gambling mood, bet on the Conservatives winning the next election under our current system. If the current Liberal government is interested in protecting their seats, their best bet is to bring in Proportional Representation. Of course, they won't win back all their current seats under Proportional Representation. But chances are, they won't anyway.

If you want to think of elections as a game, then the best move is Proportional Representation. Ideally though, we would like our representatives to remember that this is not a game. It's our province and our lives they're playing with. We'd like their priority to be what is best for the province. From that point of view, the best choice is still Proportional Representation.


1. For a good summary of the main types of electoral systems, see The Government of Canada's Electoral Systems Factsheet. Back

2. Select Committee on Electoral Reform, Strengthening New Brunswick's Democracy (Fredericton: Government of New Brunswick, 2016), 17. Back

3. Salomen Orellana, Electoral Systems and Governance: How Diversity Can Improve Policy-Making (London: Routledge, 2014), 71. Accessed Jan. 12, 2017 on books.google.ca. He writes, "...over the roughly 25-year period considered here, tolerance of homosexuality increased by 0.41 points in proportional multiparty systems and 0.20 points in SMD/two-party systems. Another way to think about this outcome is that if support for homosexuality were to start at zero in a country, it would take approximately 30 years for a majority of the population in a fully proportional/multiparty system to show support for that issue, while it would take over 70 years to reach a majority in an SMD/two-party system.” Back

4. Farrell, p. 195, table 9.1. Back

5. Farrell, p. 64. Back

6. Elizabeth May, Losing Confidence: Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009), 204. Accessed Jan. 12, 2017 on books.google.ca. Back

7. http://www.electionsnb.ca/content/enb/en/resources/publications/election-results.html. Accessed Jan. 12, 2017. Back