The Core of the Case against Electoral Reform

Why the concerns of those who want electoral reform do not move me

When I wrote about the constitutionality of electoral reform, I did not want to discuss its merits, beyond saying that I did not believe it had many, or the process by which it should be determine upon, beyond saying I favoured a referendum. While I thought it important to mention my positions in order to avoid my constitutional opinion being interpreted as self-serving, I did not mean to argue for them, not least because I did not think I had any arguments to make that would be very interesting or original. Prompted by some of the comments I received, I have thought about these arguments again, and come to the conclusion that one of them may be of some interest, because it is seldom if ever made.

The two main problems that electoral reform is usually said to address are those of “disproportionality” and “wasted votes.” Disproportionality refers to the discrepancy between the percentage of the votes received by a party and its percentage of seats in Parliament, any such discrepancy being, in the view of those who make this argument, undemocratic. Wasted votes are those that apparently do not serve to elect anyone ― that is, under the first-past-the-post system that we now use, those cast for candidates who do not win the riding in which the votes are cast. Proposed reforms ― ranked ballot and mixed-member proportional representation are the main options, if I understand correctly ― address these issues in different ways and to different degrees, but I take it that those are who support reform are usually motivated by these concerns. (Or at least, those who support reform on grounds of principle rather than partisan interest.) There are other arguments for electoral reform, of course, such as that ranked ballot is supposed to make for kinder, gentler politics (like in Australia, I guess), or increased voter turnout (like in Switzerland, I suppose) but they strike me as speculative at best.

Here’s why concerns about disproportionality and wasted votes do not move me. Imagine a simple election between two candidates ― like the run-off stage in a French presidential election. Say the winner gets 55% of the vote, and the loser gets 45%. But the winner gets the prize, the French presidency for example, 100% of it, and the people who voted for the loser go home and their votes have no apparent effect at all. On the account of our would-be electoral reformers, this election results in substantial disproportionality, and a large fraction of the votes cast in it is wasted. Its democratic character should, therefore, be regarded as very questionable. Except that, of course, nobody actually thinks that. Similarly, nobody thinks it undemocratic that a party with, say, 55% of the seats in Parliament gets to govern 100% of the time while that Parliament exists, and nobody seems to say that the votes of the opposition parties are “wasted.”  The disproportion between 55% of the seats and 100% of the power is actually more significant, both in sheer numbers and, more importantly, in effect, than, say, that between getting 40% of the vote and 55% of Parliamentary seats. Yet it is only the latter that is said to be somehow undemocratic. I just don’t see how that is the case. The complaints of the proponents of electoral reform sound in principle, but they strike me as selective and inconsistent with what they are happy to accept in other situations.

For my part, I am no more bothered by the disproportionality or wasted votes in the elections for Parliament than by the same “problems” that arise within Parliament itself. What concerns me is how to limit the ability of a Parliamentary majority, however constituted, to harm both the opposition in Parliament and the citizenry at large ― including its supporters of course ― while it is in office, and how to prevent that majority from entrenching itself so as to become impossible to remove from office at the next election. Electoral reform is not a solution to these concerns. (Indeed some version of it may ― though this too is a speculative argument ― make the entrenchment problem worse.) It is therefore, in my view, an unnecessary disruption of our politics, and a distraction from the issues on which we should be focusing.

NOTE: Feel free to comment, but I doubt I will respond unless I think your observations respond directly to the point I’m making.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

19 thoughts on “The Core of the Case against Electoral Reform”

  1. I largely agree with what you’ve stated here. I just wanted to note that the article you link to re: politics in Australia has nothing to do with that country’s voting system. The leadership spills are a result of how party leaders in that country are chosen (and dumped) by their respective parties.

  2. But there is a particularly critical dimension to “disproportionality” that you leave out of the equation, and that is the “wrong winner” track. At its most serious: it can happen (has happened in provincial elections in recent years) that the “party with the most votes” and the “party with the most seats” are not the same party; and then ratchet it up to the point where the “party with the most seats” actually has a majority of the seats in the legislature, and therefore becomes a majority government. This can sometimes be contrived (drawing the electoral boundaries so as to over-represent certain areas where the party in power is strong), and sometimes accidental (it just happens that the party with the most votes “packed” them into an identifiable subset of the total ridings) — for example, in Quebec, where the Liberal party’s great strength in Montreal actually has the effect of meaning that they need a total vote share lead of several percentage point to have a real chance of tying or winning on the seat count. Notice that I am leaving to one side, at least for now, the “in 2011 both Liberal voters and NDP voters wanted Harper to lose, and although together those voters outnumbered the Conservative voters, the Conservatives won a majority government anyway” argument. Let’s just stay with the “wrong winner” track as an argument against the current system.

    1. All electoral systems generate questionable winners. The plurality winner is not necessarily the winner under a ranked ballot system ― which is fine if you accept its premise that second and subsequent choices deserve as much consideration as the first, but not otherwise. A proportional system makes for fractured legislatures where again the plurality winner won’t necessarily hold power, and what a considerable number of our fellow-citizens seem to accept are “coalitions of losers” can rule. Again, not a problem if you accept the premises of the system, but a big problem if you don’t. Similarly, if you accept the geographic premise of first-past-the-post, the PQ’s win in 1998 is not a problem. (And by the way, I’m a PQ-hating Quebecker. I’m as mad as anyone at that outcome. I just don’t think it’s illegitimate.)

      1. AV is little used in parliamentary elections.But experience in Australia shows that the the results are the same as FPTP 90 % of the time. There they have full preferential. Here it is likely to be optional. So de facto FPTP much of time.

        This was the experience of western provinces.

        Click to access TheAlternativeVoteBriefingPaper.pdf

        Your suggestion of “coalition of losers” indicates a deep bias that discredits whatever else you say.

      2. Leonid, with respect, you are moving the goalposts here. Under the clearly established and widely understood FPTP system, it is of course legitimate for a party to win the most seats (including a majority of seats) with the second-most votes; as students of electoral systems, we just rack that up as one of the curious side-effects of a system that did not have the designed purpose of making sure that “most votes always win”. But you were asking a different question, you were saying “I don’t care about disproportionate results, somebody tell me why I should” and I was suggesting a particular kind of disproportion (“most votes places second, and therefore at your zero point for actual power after the election”) that seems at variance with the fuzzy notion of “majority rule” that we usually think has something to do with democracy — not a “legitimacy shattering” principle by any means, but still a problem worth thinking about. And therefore a reason (not necessarily a preemptive one) for thinking that maybe, hundreds of years into the practice of democratic elections, we might think about whether there is a way to address this. (And I am not suggesting for a second that transferable votes in single-member ridings are a panacea in this regard; indeed, there may not be a workable solution — some questions don’t have answers — but that is no reason not to recognize the problem.)

        Now let me suggest a different kind of distortion that is generated by this disproportion: within regions (lets just say provinces) FPTP tends to favor dominant parties to the extent often of virtually obliterating all the alternatives. Repeated over an extended number of elections (and why wouldn’t it be repeated? even reinforced?), this distorts the public perception of parties, and therefore distorts their incentives for designing electoral campaigns. Will an Alberta Liberal be the next leader of the Liberal Party? The question is almost silly, because only in the most favourable of circumstances can a Liberal ever be elected in the province even by narrow margins (like 2015), and only with difficulty can he or she be re-elected (think Anne McLellan). Normally, 25% or even 30% of the vote means utter oblivion for the party, event though that is a LOT of votes. In the meantime, the party conducts its policy debates and its caucus deliberations without the voices at the table that those votes could have provided. The distortion generated by disproportionate results includes distortions to both the voting reality of party support (lots of Alberta Liberals have no direct voice) and the public perceptions of parties (the west uniformly hates the Liberals) and the political incentives of parties (“reinforce strength not weakness” as Gordon Churchill famously advised Diefenbaker in 1957).

        Granted, I am just giving you problems, not solutions — but you asked for reasons why you should give a darn about the disproportion between voting share and seat share, and that is the narrow target to which my comments are addressed.

      3. I take the point about the “perception distortion” ― but it is one of those empirical things that I didn’t want to argue about, because it seems to me that they are contingent and can be made to cut both ways. For example, it’s pretty good bet that, on any given day in Québec, you’ll find news stories about the CAQ as well as the PQ and the Liberals, even though the CAQ is only a newish third party and has never consistently polled above 30%, if I remember correctly. And then, other systems can generate distortions of this sort too ― say the German FDP being in government almost permanently from 1949 until 1998, despite never getting more than 12.8% of the vote during that period. These things are, to a large extent, flukes that any system produces if the circumstances are right, and I’m not sure they tell us much about the legitimacy or even the desirability of one system over another.

  3. I agree with everything you write here and I will take it to another level. In Canada, comparing the national vote is completely useless and there is no national election what-so-ever. As I am sure you know, in Canada a general election is really three hundred and thirty eight elections across this vast country. So taking anything at the national level is dishonest because it is a misrepresentation of the election entirely.

    I think that the term “wasted vote” is rhetorical and unhelpful to the debate. It is a term used specifically by those people who advocate electoral reform because it sounds bad. We can show real examples of wasted votes around the world, votes that go completely uncounted in rigged elections. Canada is not close to being there. When debating the merits of electoral reform, I denounce the use of the term wasted votes because it in inaccurate and charged for one side of the debate only.

    1. As an example of just how haywire FPTP results can be, look at the 1996 and 2001 British Columbia elections. In 1996 vote splits between the BC Liberals and the various remnants of the old Social Credit Party allowed trhe NDP to gain a majority in the Legislature with a smaller proportion of the popular vote (39.5%) to the BC Liberals 41.8%). It is hard to argue that that was an appropriate result, if was more an example of the way plurality voting systems can exaggerate seat counts.

      But that was nothing compared to the 2001 election, where the BC Liberals won 57.6% of the popular vote but won all but two seats in the 79 seat assembly, despite the NDP still retaining over 21% popular aupport. The BC Liberals, using overwhelming parliamentary superiority, refused to recognize the two NDP MLAs as the official opposition, and BC was left without a formal parliamentary opposition for four years.

      As Leonid so often reminds us, democracy is not the only consideration in government, but it is a consideration, and a rather important one. Going to another electoral system won’t rectify all the problems, and will doubtless create new ones, but I don’t think it should be rejected out of hand simply because the alternatives are not perfect.

      Part of the reason that Parliament functions as it does is because of FPTP’s propensity to create stable majorities with little more than a third of the popular vote, and not just at the national level, but even at the riding level, where vote splits can see candidates elected who cannot claim anything close to the support of a majority of voters in that district. Even ranked voting systems will at least be able to produce a victory who can claim some large degree of popular support.

      So flawed is plurality voting that few if any political parties in the industrialized world use such systems. Most use some variation on run off voting, where the ultimate victor can claim he or she was elected by an actual majority of those voting in the race. If we want to an instant runoff system we would simply being enjoy a similar system that political parties use (my preference being STV).

  4. I know nothing about the constitution and your arguments about ‘wasted votes’ may have some merit.

    But the crux of the problem is, as you say, “the ability of a Parliamentary majority, however constituted, to harm both the opposition in Parliament and the citizenry at large ― including its supporters of course ― while it is in office, and how to prevent that majority from entrenching itself so as to become impossible to remove from office at the next election.”

    If fixing these problems under FPTP were possible, the solution would have been found by now. Most countries abandoned FPTP ages ago. Secondly, one must change the incentives generated by the system. Politics is all about gaining and wielding power. If the means by which this is done changes, so does the consequential behaviour .

    You have to change the foundation on which the system is built. How politicians are elected changes how they behave. Proportional representation, done right, eliminates the possibility of a majority government. Success within a majority coalition demands cooperation and collaboration.

    Many of our current politicians will be unable to function in that realm. They’ll be forced out and replaced by those who can.

    The proof is in the pudding. Studies over long periods of time show countries that have proportional voting systems are more prosperous and have more equitable, stronger societies.

    As the world heads into economic and environmental crisis created by capitalism that is enabled by a winner-take-all mentality at every level,we must change the basics, or we won’t survive.

    1. I’ll say three things:

      1. I wasn’t explicit about it, which perhaps I should have been, but what I meant when I spoke of the means to constrain a parliamentary majority and prevent it from entrenching itself was, first and foremost, the vigorous enforcement by courts of constitutional limits on its power ― whether the federal division of powers or guarantees of individual rights (including, especially, in “law of democracy” cases where entrenchment is a concern). I also meant other things, from Parliamentary procedure (e.g. ensuring that the opposition has sufficient opportunities to question the government) to independent Parliamentary agents (e.g. the Budget Officer) to the civil society. These solutions have all been “found” under our current electoral system, but their implementation can obviously be improved ― without changing the electoral system, which has nothing at all to do with them.

      2. It is simply not the case that “proportional representation … eliminates the possibility of a majority government.” Most governments in polities that use it are majority governments. They are not single-party majority governments of course. But once constituted, a multi-party majority government has the same powers and the same opportunities for abuse as a single-party one. (The UK, 2010-15 is a good example, especially if you don’t like what they did.) Conversely, the parties likely to form government under first-past-the-post are coalitions of various “wings” and groups too. Only, they are coalitions formed in advance of elections and running on a programme announced before the vote happens, not afterwards. Score one for first-past-the-post on transparency.

      3. I suppose you didn’t click on the links, but my references both to Australia and to Switzerland were sarcastic. (If you do click on the Switzerland link, you’ll find out that their turnout rates are, consistently, below 50%.)

  5. Btw, w.rt. Australia, alernative vote (ranked ballots in single member ridings) does nothing to moderate politics there. The elected, proportional Senate often blocks legislation from the AV-majority in the House. Studies show that mandatory voting leads to more socialist policies and favours the largest parties.

    IMHO, AV would be worse than FPTP for Canada because AV results in more majorities. In OZ, AV also squeezed out smaller parties (turning them into feeder votes for the two main parties). Also, OZ replaces its party leaders with great ease and frequency.

    Canada has little protection against 1-party rule. AV would just speed Canada on the destructive course that it is already set on by FPTP.

  6. Your article misses the point completely. In a representative democracy the first requirement of any elected assembly (Federal Parliament, Provincial Assembly, City Council) is that it should be properly representative of those who voted. On that fundamental and essential measure First-Past-The-Post in single-member ridings or wards fails and fails very badly. Elections in Canada over many years, both at Federal and Provincial level, have provided good evidence of that failure. Proper representation of the voters is the issue that should be addressed.

  7. I think your section on % of vote and power is weak. If we must have a system that gives 100% of legislative and executive power to the governing side of the house, we should make sure that government has the support of a majority of the electorate. You really don’t justify why giving a minority party majority power is good for the nation.

    1. But nothing says that we “must” have a system that gives all the power to one side of the legislature. We could have a collective executive involving all parties, like in Switzerland. We could rotate the speakership, like in the EU Parliament. We could give opposition parties control of some committees, as in Québec’s National Assembly. That’s just examples I happen to know. I’m sure that a knowledgeable and creative political scientist could think of other ways to divide power and make it more representative. The point is, no one does that, because no one is bothered by the disproportionality in the exercise of the actual power. Which makes me think that the concerns over the disproportionality in representation are selective and not as compelling as they sound.

  8. Interesting take and I agree with the broader argument. I take issue only with one point. You write: “The disproportion between 55% of the seats and 100% of the power is actually more significant, both in sheer numbers and, more importantly, in effect, than, say, that between getting 40% of the vote and 55% of Parliamentary seats.”

    But the reality is that getting 40% of the vote and 55% of Parliamentary seats, in our system at least, amounts to pretty much 100% of the power.

    1. If even electoral reform raises the hackles of entrenched interests (in other words the larger parties and the ecosystems of influential interests in which they exist) then suggesting Parliament function on another model, like shared executive seems almost impossible. Why would any party, particularly with our voting system go for it? Such a revolution in the practice of Parliament would require a very differently constituted Parliament where current architectural features like the caucus system has broken down.

  9. If you wish to compare a French presidential runoff election result with a parliamentary outcome in which 40% of the vote gives a party 55% of the seats, the correct equivalent would be a situation in which the candidate with 45% of the votes defeated the candidate with 55% of the votes and becomes president.

    As terrible as such an outcome would be for the candidate who lost with 55% of the vote, the real tragedy isn’t the plight of the candidate, but the plight of 55% of the voters.

    The reason proportionality matters is because citizens whose votes are wasted have no representation in Parliament. A representative democracy that fails to provide representation to a majority of citizens fails to live up to its name (and its mandate).

    It is also important to understand that a ranked ballot is not an electoral system, it is just one element used in many different systems. Ranked ballots can be used in a disproportional winner-take-all system that would produce results very similar to our own FPTP. The only country that has used such a system for aby length of time and in fact still uses this Alternative Vote system (aka Instant Runoff aka Preferential Voting) is Australia.

    Ranked ballots can also be used in proportional electoral systems like Single Transferrable Vote (STV) or incorporated in a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system.

  10. You miss the point about ineffective votes entirely. This is not some dry discussion about wasted votes. It’s about the bread and butter issues of everyday lives ..job opportunities, health care, poverty, housing, climate change, education, social safety nets. It’s about using the collective resources of all citizens to do what they cannot do alone to build a better society for themselves and their families.

    A government high-jacked by special interests that taxes the labour of citizens and then lines the pockets of a few who build up massive reserves offshore is not a government representative of or accountable to the people.

    In a democracy, citizens need equal and effective votes to be able to influence their government to take their share of the common wealth and return it to them with goods and services that they need.

    Winner-take-all voting systems are designed to create silos which make most votes ineffective. They are a fraud on the general public. Not as obvious as gerrymandering, robocalls, ballot-box stuffing. But a fraud nonetheless.

    Most of the world realized that a century ago. But Canada has been lulled into complacency because it prospered from its natural resources and US connection. Canada has not been touched by war within its borders- more by good fortune than design.

    But much darker days are ahead. We have skimmed off the cream and are leaving behind great challenges for our children. We owe them an effective voice in their common governance to assure that they can live as happy and productive lives as resources will provide.

    Our voting system is the foundation of our democracy. It provides the incentives that direct how our representatives will behave. Electoral reform is the foundation and catalyst needed for other badly needed reforms. Without equal and effective votes, Canadians have little hope of peacefully wresting their country away from the handful of vested interests that now control it.

    Proportional voting systems have proven to deliver much more to citizens over the 100 + years that they have been used – now by over 90 countries, including 85% OECD. You cannot discuss the pros and cons of electoral reform without considering what it means to the everyday lives of citizens. The evidence has been at hand for a very long. Study after study supports the superior benefits of PR.

    Thirteen Canadian studies / commissions have recommended a proportional voting system. It has been promised several times to Canadians over the past century. The only reason that Canadians do not yet have it is political. Time and again, the civil rights of Canadians have been denied by vested interests who lie, confuse, evade. Either change comes peacefully or there will be a time when change will be forced . I prefer the former.

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