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The Year 2018 in Electoral Reform

2018 has been a good year for electoral reform, with many jurisdictions deciding to leave First Past the Post behind. It has not, however, been a good year for Proportional Representation. And a clear pattern has emerged of when electoral reform was successful and when it failed.

British Columbia held its third referendum on Proportional Representation. This one had several unusual features, designed to give PR every advantage. The government was contractually obliged, as a condition for the support of the 3-member Green Party caucus, to actively campaign for PR during the referendum. It was a mail-in ballot, not held with regular elections, which should have reduced turnout among those less committed to the issue. It was two questions, one essentially yes or no and the other ranked, with four different electoral systems, a complexity which should have deterred those who were less familiar with the topic, particularly since two of the proposed systems were unknown outside PR activist circles, and required a large investment of time for research on the part of voters. Of the four systems, only FPTP had the additional burden of requiring 50% on the first round, while subsequent rounds used preferential voting. Of course, preferential voting itself was not one of the options. The structure of the questions reduced the risk that someone might vote for FPTP because of an objection to a specific proposed system, since several alternative systems were proposed. Despite all of these advantages, voters rejected PR by an even larger margin than they had in the two previous referenda.

Preferential or ranked voting, on the other hand, made great strides in Canada and elsewhere this year. On October 22, the date of Ontario municipal elections, the first first ranked elections took place without a hitch in London. On the same day two municipalities allowed referenda to be held on electoral systems and in both cases preferential voting won. Kingston voters said yes by a margin of 63%, and Cambridge voters said yes by 56%. Neither referendum is binding, but Kingston council has already decided to act on the result and will implement ranked voting at the next municipal elections.

The New Brunswick Liberals had promised a 2020 electoral reform referendum on preferential voting, but that government lost a confidence vote, and apparently the new government does not intend to hold this referendum. In total, three wins in Canada and one setback.

In the US, ranked voting had several major wins, despite strong resistance from politicians. In April, Maine’s legislature had passed a measure to block the implementation of ranked voting that a 2016 referendum had approved. By June, Maine voters had forced a new referendum and then passed a “people’s veto” to overturn this implementation delay. As a result, this year’s primaries as well the federal congressional elections in November were held under the ranked voting system in Maine for the first time. Incumbent politicians fought this in the courts repeatedly and were repeatedly rebuffed.

Several more municipalities in the US switched to ranked voting this year, and more decided to switch. The New Mexico Local Elections Act made it easier for cities to adopt ranked choice voting. Santa Fe had its first ranked municipal election in 2019, and Las Cruces decided to switch in 2019. In mid November, Utah allowed municipalities to experiment with other election methods, and so far four cities have announced their intention to use ranked voting. During the November election, Fargo North Dakota approved a referendum to change to Approval voting, and Memphis voters reconfirmed instant runoff voting in a second referendum, which incumbent politicians were trying to repeal. In June, San Francisco held a special election for mayor using ranked voting, which was won in the 9th round by London Breed, the first black woman to hold the office. This is one more data point in the emerging trend that jurisdictions using ranked ballots elect more women of colour and other minorities.

In West and North Africa, several countries are introducing or returning to two-round elections at the insistence of grassroots movements, including Gabon and Togo, and with the movement continuing but not yet successful in places like Tunisia.

What the successful electoral reform campaigns had in common was that they were not initiated or supported by political parties. Most were citizen-initiated referenda passed without any support or help from parties, and over the objections of incumbents. Smaller and urban parties benefit from PR voting and therefore propose it in their platform. Voters reject it because they don’t like party-initiated changes to voting that will benefit that party. Ranked voting, on the other hand, benefits voters at the expense of parties. Most parties wouldn’t benefit, and the parties that think they might benefit are mistaken.

The solution to electoral reform is to reject the changes that parties are pushing and instead have voter-led initiatives to introduce electoral systems that parties do not like.

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