How should Canada vote?

—Uhh, Zolltan, I hate to break it to you, but you’re a little late with this one
—No, actually, I’m early

“I notice that this ballot doesn’t really feature a lot of choice…”

So we had an election recently in Canada. The Liberals and Trudeau made a bunch of promises on how, if they won the election, they would change things (they even had a slogan with “Change” in it). And part of what the Liberals promised is a reform in the voting system to get rid of First Past the Post. The promises were made, the election was won, and now we watch the Trudeaumetre. I agree with Trudeau that the first past the post system is bad. But what system is good, and what should replace FPTP in Canada? My thoughts, informed by conversations with Victor, below the fold

Who is Will, does he belong to the voters, and does he show up in a mirror?

It’s often said that a good voting system is one that reflects the will of the voters. But will of the voters with respect to what? Proportional representation answers: with respect to the composition of parliament. Proportional representation is clearly the best in this regard: whatever party people vote for ends up in parliament. To use a phrase, “it’s math.” The problem with this answer is that there is no particular reason why anyone should care about the composition of parliament. What matters is who has the power, and what agenda gets followed. Since to govern, you need a majority, and no party is likely to get a majority of votes, this means that parties have to cooperate. Which sounds nice, but in reality is awful, because it means the votes are not actually connected to the agenda that gets followed. It places extremely large amounts of power in the hands of tiny parties that control the balance of power and as a result can impose aspects of their agenda out of proportion with their vote share.

That said, proportional representation with the current party makeup in Canada may be an OK alternative. But there is no reason to think that that will continue indefinitely. The emergence of the Reform Party and the Bloc Québecois in the 80’s point to the idea that the parties aren’t stable even in FPTP, which should in theory strongly converge to a two-party system. In a proportional system which encourages new parties all the time (why not have a Reform Party and a Progressive Conservative Party and just cooperate?) we will certainly have a proliferation of new minor parties.

So is first past the post good then?

No. Imagine a hypothetical country called “Canada B”. Any similarity with any real country, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Suppose Canada B has only three political parties, called, in Canada B jargon, the Tories, the Grits and the Dippers. Now imagine for some bizarre reason there is an election where the Grits and Dippers have a very similar platform. Of course, you will say, this can never happen in real life – political parties in FPTP have a strong incentive to differentiate themselves ideologically. It’s called Duverger’s Law. It also explains why the real Canada has two parties. But imagine. In every riding, people prefer the Grit-Dipper platform, but they can’t decide between the leaders. Say the Grits are led by a guy who is kind of a lightweight who people distrust, and the Dippers by a guy with a really creepy smile and a beard, which is an unpopular choice in Canada B (see, I told you it was a hypothetical). Such a situation risks either the will of the voters with respect to agenda being very poorly reflected, or people voting against their conscience. Either of those being a common occurrence is bad. There is also the issue of voting for a small party always being a wasted vote. We don’t want small parties to have power out of proportion to their popularity (because not that many people like them) but there is no particular reason why they should have zero power. Since voting for a small party is throwing away your vote, this is another instance of FPTP encouraging voters to vote against their conscience.

They see my riding, they hatin’

One advantage of FPTP over list-based proportional representation is the existence of ridings. It’s not that I care about riding-level races necessarily, it’s that each voter having a representative directly responsible to them is a positive from an accountability standpoint. There’s also a way to make regional issues matter and I think that is positive, although I know many people may disagree. So I think systems that preserve ridings are useful. Fortunately, STV, MMP and other proportional systems can also preserve ridings, so this isn’t a huge constraint.

Why people vote matters

I was talking voting systems on facebook with Victor (as I am wont to do), where he explained his concerns with pure proportional representation. Some of these I have relayed above. But then we got to talking about why people vote at all, and we had very different ideas. I saw voting as a political move: you vote for the party that aligns closest to what you want your country’s government to be doing. Victor saw voting more as self-expression: who would you not be ashamed of supporting?

The reason that I made this post is that I think which voting system is best depends on how you see voting and the reason people vote.

If people vote with goals, as I think, then instant runoff voting is the best system. It preserves the current riding system, it preserves the incentive against creating a bunch of splinter parties, but it lets people vote their conscience for what the government’s agenda should be without damaging the chances of their preferred party or candidate. That way, the agenda of the ruling party should be some approximation of what people want.

If instead the way people vote is as a form of self-expression approval voting – where the voter just chooses all parties they’d be okay with – is better. Unfortunately this system probably has the disadvantage of electing federal Liberal governments in perpetuity. As the sponsorship scandal showed, Liberals in power for too long corrupt absolutely. So while good in theory, it would not be particularly responsive.

Note that both of these systems are a lot easier than STV or MMP – nothing about the structure of ridings or ballots needs to be changed. I don’t think either instant runoff or approval voting will confuse or alienate people, give excessive power to fringe parties, or prevent people from voting their conscience.

In Conclusion

Just institute instant runoff voting already.

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