Friday, November 30, 2012

A simple, effective approach to electoral reform

After recent federal byelections in Canada there is fresh talk about electoral reform to prevent vote-splitting and strategic voting.

Vote-splitting happens when the majority of voters are forced to choose one of several similar candidates, resulting in none of those candidates getting enough votes to be elected even though their policies are the most popular.

Strategic voting happens when voters, trying avoid vote-splitting, vote for the strongest acceptable candidate instead of the candidate they prefer.

Both vote-splitting and strategic voting arise from our 'first past the post' electoral system which imposes the illogical restriction that if there is one position to be filled, voters can vote for only one candidate. Clearly, this system can only be democratic when there are just two candidates. When there are several candidates most voters might find more than one candidate acceptable, but the system makes no provision for that.

Other jurisdictions address this issue using various complex schemes, such as proportional representation, transferable votes, ranking candidates, and runoff elections. A much simpler solution is what's sometimes called consensus voting (also known as approval voting), where everything is exactly the same as our present system except that voters can make as many Xs on their ballot as they wish. Ideally, they vote for all the candidates they find acceptable.

For example, one voter might vote for the Conservative, Liberal, and Family Values parties while their neighbour might vote for the Democratic, Green, and Socialist parties. The candidate with the most votes would still win, but there would be no more vote-splitting or strategic voting, and the winner would almost always have the support of more than 50% of the voters.

Under this system, smaller parties would get several times more votes than they do now, and therefore would wield influence even without getting elected. Imagine that you have just been elected because 64% of the voters voted for you. If you see that 51% of the voters voted for the Family Values party and 55% voted for the Green Party, you will certainly take those views into account when crafting your positions on families and the environment.

Consensus voting is more democratic because it brings more of the voters' opinions to bear on the outcome of the election. And it has one major advantage over complex schemes: everybody will understand it. That's an important consideration in a country where one province has rejected (twice) a proportional representation system that few voters felt they fully understood.