On May 10, the government released its principles for electoral reform. In this series we are looking at those principles one by one.
(b) Engagement: that the proposed measure would encourage voting and participation in the democratic process, foster greater civility and collaboration in politics, enhance social cohesion and offer opportunities for inclusion of underrepresented groups in the political process;
This principle of engagement encompasses several concepts. We will start first with the most simplistic concept, which voting system would change Canada’s low voting turnout rate? Some fans of different electoral systems regularly bring out simple correlations showing their favourite electoral system has higher electoral turnout, a difference in the low single digits. The simplistic correlations are wrong. More serious studies which account for confounding factors show no difference in turnout. The major confounding factor is mandatory voting. Do we say this because ranked ballots can’t make a similar argument? Quite the contrary. Applying the same methodology to ranked ballots would show it has a 30% higher turnout, yet we will not try to argue that the correlation is meaningful. Australia, the only major comparable country with a long history ranked ballots, has 93% voter turnout. The comparison is not valid, because each country has its own unique factors that affect turnout.
We can look at countries that have changed their voting system away from FPTP to see whether their turnout has gone up. It generally goes down, not up, after the change but would it have gone down anyway? We can look at countries that have one voting system for one election and a different one for a different election. In Europe, there are many instance where elections to national parliaments use FPTP or two-round voting, a close relative of ranked voting, and elections to the European parliament use proportional representation. In all cases, the proportional ones have 30-50% lower turnout in the same country. But is because of the electoral system or because voters in those specific countries feel less engaged in European elections? Our position is that in fact voting systems has relatively little effect on voter turnout and answers to that problem must be found elsewhere.
In terms of encouraging participation in the democratic process, beyond voting, ranked ballots add a dimension to the process that is not available in any other system: the campaign for the second and third choices of voters. For those who are turned off from participating as volunteers or candidates by the degree of partisanship and negativity required by current campaigns, ranked ballots attracts a different personality type: those who are more collaborative and willing to reach out to those having different viewpoints.
It is a unique characteristic of ranked ballots that those seeking election should no longer classify community members as either supporters or opponents, they must engage with people whose first choice is another candidate, and convince them that they are a good second choice. Some candidates may even suggest to their supporters which other candidates deserve their second-choice votes. Being overly negative about other candidates and their ideas is counterproductive; it alienates their supporters and loses their second-choice votes. Because of this, the campaign will have greater civility. This civility and willingness to reach out to political adversaries is a source of social cohesion. It is experimentally verified that preferential voting campaigns are less negative
In its usual sense in the research literature, “underrepresented groups” refers to demographic groups like women and ethnic, religious, and racial minorities. The low proportion of women and some minorities in the House of Commons relative to the Canadian population is part of a larger problem that is also found in boardrooms, in science, technology, and engineering, in police forces, and in many other professions.
Once again, proponents of electoral systems sometimes come up with spurious correlations between electoral systems and representation of different groups, but in fact the major predictor is not the electoral system but presence of quotas, plus societal factors. Australia, with preferential voting, does have more women in the elected upper and lower houses than does Canada, but again this correlation is spurious.
Whatever factors are at play in Canada, neither voters nor the electoral system are the issue. In the past few elections in Canada, the percentage of women in each caucus was within a couple of points of the percentage of women who ran under the party’s banner. Party processes in selecting their candidates from the vast pool of available persons resulted in reducing the proportion of women from 50% to 43%, to 31%, or to 19% for major parties. The election itself, in which parties, electoral systems and voters together contribute to selecting among the proposed candidates, reduce it a bit further to 42%, 27%, and 17%. Voters and the electoral system together reduce the proportion of women by 2%, while the decisions and processes of political parties are responsible for the lion’s share of the preferential elimination of women from the process of becoming an MP. The numbers for visible minorities are analogous.
The way to increase the percentage of women and also other minorities in parliament is to convince parties to commit to eliminating the internal obstacles that still disproportionately prevent some groups of competent potential candidates from being presented to the electorate. The electoral system and voter attitudes together only account for 2% of the gap.
There are underrepresented groups of other kinds. We already discussed how preferential voting would change the personality types of people who are successful at becoming MPs. But what about the representation of minority views held by voters whose first choice may be an independent or a candidate from a party that has little chance of being elected at the riding level or being part of the government? This is where preferential voting in single-member constituencies has two unique effects: giving voters having minority views a greater influence, and distinguishing between the minority views that are respected by others and those that are anathema to others.
How do these voters gain more influence? In the current system and more so in proportional systems, elected MPs from those parties have influence if and only if the luck of arithmetic is such that major parties require the votes of small parties to become government. In those infrequent cases, they have influence out of all proportion to the mandate given to them by voters, while in other cases they have no influence. In preferential voting regimes, those who vote for candidates from those small parties have influence in determining which of the candidates of the larger parties will be elected, because their second choice vote will be counted. Whether through agreement between parties prior to the election or through voter targeting, major parties will adapt their policies and campaign to appeal to the voters of small parties. It is not a backroom deal struck after the election but a direct democratic mandate from those voters that will determine who becomes government. This is a reason why Australia’s Green Party, among others, are strong supporters of the ranked voting system which gives them fewer MPs but more influence.
However, racist parties and those who are pariahs among most voters will get no such benefit, quite the contrary. For instance on several occasions the candidates of the Front National in France obtained sufficient first-choice votes to have obtained significant power if the election had been held under a plurality system like Canada’s. However France has a two-round system, a close relative of ranked ballots. Supporters of other parties would not give their second choice to the FN, and in the end it obtained very little parliamentary influence as a result, to the relief of most voters.