Sunday, May 23, 2010

The practical case against the Instant Run-off Vote (the Alternative Vote)

Fair Vote Canada has produced a carefully documented explanation of why the Alternative Vote, used in Australian lower house elections, is no solution for Canada’s democratic deficit.

I won’t attempt to summarize it, since its four pages are concise already.

But I’ll sound a practical note on why IRV, or AV, doesn’t suit our situation. Three points.

One: Fair Vote Canada asks:

“Would AV fix the problem of single party domination in particular regions?

“No. Under the current system, large parties and parties with support concentrated in particular regions of the country win many more seats than their popular support warrants while supporters of other parties gain little or no representation. For example, Liberals in the West and Conservatives in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are almost always underrepresented in Parliament.

These distortions in representation exacerbate regional tensions in Canada, but AV could make them even worse. A study looking at the possible effects of a wide variety of voting systems on federal election results in 1980 and 2000 found “for almost all parties regional imbalances would have been worsened if we adopted AV even (though slightly) more than under SMP [single-member plurality, or first-past-the-post].”

In the 2008 election, 144,646 Alberta Liberal voters got no representation in Parliament. They deserved three or four of those 28 MPs.

IRV would have done nothing for those voters. Conservative voters would still have elected 27 of those MPs, when they deserved only 18 or 19.

Similarly, in the BC Interior, the Conservatives would still have elected seven of the nine MPs when they deserved five, unless perhaps the “anyone but Conservative“ vote elected an NDP member in Kamloops. Moreover, I doubt the Conservative bonus of seven MPs in Saskatchewan and Manitoba would have been dented much, if at all.

And in the 32 Quebec ridings east of Greater Montreal, IRV might have elected a couple of Liberal MPs if they were lucky, but not the five or six those voters deserved. Actually, predicting how IRV would work in four-party races in Quebec is a roll of the dice. As the Jenkins Commission in the UK concluded "its effects are disturbingly unpredictable." See the discussion at the end of this blog post: the Bloc would pick up more than another 11% of the vote on second choices, putting them just over 50%.

Two: Fair Vote Canada also asks:

“Would AV help small parties get established and win seats?

“Not at all. AV would make it easy for voters to give smaller parties their first choice vote and their second choice to a larger party with a better chance of winning a seat. It is formalized strategic voting. But actual AV election results show that supporters of small parties are no more likely to gain representation with AV than with the current system. AV exaggerates the tendency of the current system to direct all voters into a choice between two big-tent political parties.

The Jenkins Commission, a blue ribbon panel on electoral reform in the UK, set up by the Labour government in 1997, concluded that AV outcomes would be even less proportional than first-past-the-post.”

Why should Liberals care about this? Because Liberals need to get NDP and Green voters to vote “anyone but Conservative” in swing ridings. But you can’t attract those votes by promising a phoney voting reform that does nothing for them.

In fact, there are enough Blue Liberal voters in Ontario and elsewhere that half a dozen NDP seats would have gone Conservative under IRV. (Maybe more. In strong NDP seats, centre-left Liberal voters will often be voting NDP already. The remaining diehard Liberals don't like the NDP, and would mostly give their second choice to the Conservatives.)

Three: Fair Vote Canada notes:

“Neither the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, nor any of the recent federal and provincial commissions examining voting system alternatives in Canada, have recommended AV for parliamentary elections.”

Now, that Ontario case is interesting.

In 2001 Dalton McGuinty put forward a Democratic Charter promising “A referendum on how we vote.“ He said “There is a lot of discontent with our first-past-the-post system. It often elects people to the Legislature, even though more than half the people in that riding wanted someone else. It gives one party all of the power, when that party failed to capture a majority of the votes.”

He noted “the two alternatives that would be on the table would be on the table would be preferential balloting, which requires only modest changes to the system that we have in place, and proportional representation, which has various forms found throughout the world.” One suspects he preferred the first option, IRV.

However, when the newly elected government set up the Democratic Renewal Secretariat, they said “Many have lost faith in a system that, for too long, has been cynically manipulated to promote the interests of the government in power.” The Liberals were experts in elections. They knew that, in 2003, IRV would likely have meant the Liberals were everyone’s second choice. The result would likely have been both the NDP and PCs electing so few MPPs as to lose official party status.

They must have been tempted to stack the Citizens’ Assembly’s staff with IRV advocates. However, that would have been “cynical manipulation to promote the interests of the government in power.” They didn’t do it.

After an honest process, the result was clear: of 103 Citizens’ Assembly members, only three made IRV their first choice.

Honest Liberals will still think twice before promoting a partisan-advantage system. Electoral reform will never succeed if it's a partisan project.

Instead of IRV, let's consider what Liberals really need.

With a proportional voting system, the Liberal caucus would not be just the GTA plus the Montreal area and the Atlantic Provinces. Currently only 15 of the 77 Liberal MPs are outside those regions. On the votes cast in 2008, Liberal voters would have elected 26 more MPs from regions where they are now unrepresented or under-represented: nine more from the West, ten more from Ontario outside the GTA, and seven more from Quebec outside Montreal.

Pierre Trudeau decided this in 1980. With proportional representation, he would have had sixteen more western MPs.

Alberta was the worst. Trudeau's Alberta problem actually began back in 1972, when Alberta Liberal voters deserved to elect five MPs but got none. Even in his 1974 comeback, Alberta Liberal voters again deserved five MPs but got none.

The 1979 election was a "wrong-winner" election. Pierre Trudeau's Liberals got 40.1% of the vote, but only 114 MPs. Joe Clark's PCs got only 35.9% of the vote, yet elected 136 MPs and formed the government with support from six Créditiste MPs, giving them a one-seat majority. As in 1980, Trudeau’s big problem was the West.

Liberal voters in Alberta in 1979 again deserved to elect five MPs but got none. In 1980 Liberal voters in Alberta again deserved five and got none.

In its 1980 Speech from the Throne, Trudeau’s newly re-elected government promised to appoint a committee to study the electoral system; you can see why. And in every election since, large numbers of Albertans again voted Liberal but only a handful of Liberals were elected. Which IRV would not help.

As detailed here, the Law Commission proposed a regional open list system for MMP. You have two votes. With your local vote, you elect a local MP as today. With your regional vote, you also choose one specific candidate from the regional candidates on the list nominated in a medium-sized region. That vote would count for the party first. If a party's voters were not fairly represented by the local MPs, those voters would then elect the top vote getting regional candidates for each party as regional "top-up" MPs. Result: each party would receive a proportional share of the seats in the region. See MMP made easy.