Ranked Ballots for Canada

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Principle C: Accessibility and Inclusiveness

On May 10, the government released its principles for electoral reform. In this series we are looking at those principles one by one.

(c) Accessibility and inclusiveness: that the proposed measure would avoid undue complexity in the voting process, while respecting the other principles, and that it would support access by all eligible voters regardless of physical or social condition;

Complexity in the voting process is silent disenfranchisement. When voters are uncertain how their vote will be counted, their vote is not an effective one, one that achieves what they wish to achieve without undesired side-effects. In some cases, political parties can exploit the misunderstanding caused by the complexity of the system to obtain more than voters intended to give. This alienates voters from the selection of their representatives. Education is one of the biggest predictors of voter turnout, those with a university degree are 30% more likely to vote than those with high school; among voters 25-34 those with a degree are twice as likely. Increasing complexity is not the way to let in the eligible voters currently being left behind.

One well-known example is an election in Scotland under a system that had two ballots, the first to elect a local MP and the second to elect the government. One small political party, let’s call them the “Costume Party”, had a slogan “Vote Costume Second”. It was widely misunderstood to mean “second choice”. The Costume Party vote doubled from 3.5% to 7% of total votes. In the next election, the electoral commission changed the numbering of the two ballot papers, the first became the second and vice-versa. In the next election the slogan “Vote Costume First” was far less successful and their vote share went back down to 4%.

Electoral complexity has two forms: one is the ability for all voters to understand how to vote, and the other is the ability to understand how the vote is counted. The standard for the second should be that an average voter can be put in a room with the filled ballots and with one minute of instructions can count the results. If voters don’t understand how votes translate into MPs, do they truly have a vote?

The simplest system of all is FPTP, the current system. It has one simple ballot, and a simple counting system. Second in terms of simplicity is the two-round system, which is simply FPTP done twice with fewer candidates the second time. Tied for third are the simple ranked ballot and the pure party-list PR with a single district and no minimum threshold. It too has a single ballot and a relatively simple counting system.  Its complexity comes in through the seat allocation calculations, which are hard for the average voter to understand other than in their broad principles. Pure party-list PR definitely does not respect principle D, while the related systems that attempt to respect principle D are all quite complex, requiring either more complex voting or more complex counting or both.

Preferential Voting

Simple ranked ballots for single-member districts are nearly as simple to count as their close relative the two-round system. This is why the two are often called run-off and instant-run-off systems. The ballot is identical to FPTP, but instead of a single choice, the voter is asked to rank the candidates with the digits 1,2,3. Some countries add complexity to ranked ballots by forcing the voter to exhaustively rank all candidates, or by allowing the selection of pre-ranked lists of candidates, complexity that we can easily do without. Not requiring ranking and allowing single marks as valid first choice votes means those who want to vote like in FPTP can do so and their vote will be counted. Having single-member districts also does a great deal to reduce complexity.

Counting is on average slightly more complex than FPTP. If a candidate has sufficient first-choice votes, the count is identical to FPTP.  If not, additional counting is required for the second choices of those who picked less popular candidates, and if need be the third choices. Counting can be done using either the “alternative vote” method, which eliminates one candidate each counting round or “contigent vote” or “supplementary vote”, which eliminates all but the top two. Two-round voting is also an acceptable alternative.

This lack of complexity does not come at the expense of expressiveness. It is more expressive than most other systems by asking for more than the first choice, and it allows voters to vote for a person, or for a party, or against a person or party, making each of those types of votes more effective.

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