Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An alternative to proportional representation: IRV?

Liberal blogger and Guelph Mercury Community Editorial Board member David Graham writes in the Guelph Mercury today in favour of Instant Run-off Voting (or IRV).

This site officially endorses moving toward some form of proportional representation in Canada. While Canadian voters have rejected mixed member systems in Ontario and Prince Edward Island in recent referenda, voters in British Columbia endorsed a system called Single Transferable Vote (or STV) with 58% support in a 2005 vote. That support wasn't sufficient to change systems in B.C. because the government set approval for the change at 60%. But the government of Gordon Campbell has set a repeat vote on STV in B.C. for May 2009.

Few jurisdictions in the world exclusively use an Instant Run-Off voting system as Graham proposes. Australia does use IRV to elect members to its lower house, while using a form of proportional representation to elect its upper house (thus balancing off the tendency of IRV, like First Past the Post, to shut out representation for voters who back smaller parties.)

As Canadians don't seem to want to change to a mixed member system, this site continues to endorse Single Transferable Vote as the best alternative to our existing Winner-Take-All, or First Past The Post system in Canada. If voters in British Columbia give STV enough support next May, it will be a huge win for proportional representation in Canada and might promote the cause across the country.

If STV fails in B.C. this May, it might be a fatal blow to the PR dream in Canada. If that happens, alternatives like IRV as proposed by Graham might be the only type of electoral change possible in this country.

19 comments:

Chrystal Ocean said...

Am glad to learn that your site supports STV.

David Graham's article in the Guelph Mercury, in which he proposes IRV or AV over proportional representation, makes it clear that he has confused proportional representation with a particular model of proportional representation, that of a version (and there are several) of mixed member proportional or MMP. I say this because of his decrying that under PR, parties rather than voters select the candidates. What he should have said was that under MMP models, this is the case to varying degrees and according to the version of MMP used.

With the single transferable vote or STV, which was favoured by 58% of British Columbians in 2005, voters choose the winners, not the parties.

Chrystal Ocean said...

Would also suggest changing the title of your post. It comes across as though you're endorsing IRV, which clearly you're not.

Matt Guerin said...

Thanks for commenting, Chrystal. The headline is designed to get attention and encourage people to read the article. It was also borrowed from the Guelph Mercury headline. Plus IRV is an alternative to proportional representation, just not one some electoral reformers are yet prepared to support.

Mark Greenan said...

I think it also bears noting that there is no evidence to back up the majority of assertions that Graham makes about PR.

There is no evidence that PR legislatures are more executive-dominated than those elected by majoritarian voting systems (like FPTP and IRV/AV).

In fact, most of the literature I've read appears to indicate that PR legislatures are LESS executive dominated as the difficulty of achieving single-party majority government means that parties are required to work together in the legislature, which increases the power and influence of parliamentary committees and average legislators. That certainly was the case in New Zealand when it moved to MMP.

I would argue that IRV/AV would do nothing to limit the power that leaders have over their parliamentary caucuses. The concentration of power in leader's offices is a function of members wanting to curry favour with the leader, who ultimately controls the distribution of party and government positions. I can't see how IRV/AV would change this dynamic.

However, I can see how PR might give dissident MPs more influence, as members who become alienated from their party's leadership can form their own political formations and have a reasonable chance of still getting elected.

Finally, I get the sense that Graham is pining for an idealized past that existed before the party system. In my opinion, despite its sometime excesses, the party system is here to stay and, overall, improves voter accountability. The main problem is that the power of parties has no connection to the level of support that they have in the population - and never will under FPTP or IRV/AV.

Mark Greenan said...

And Matt, hope you're well. Do you think that any members of Liberals for Electoral Reform might be interested in doing anything during the leadership race?

Chrystal Ocean said...

I'd never support a change to IRV/AV, as it's no better - and, in some cases, can be even worse - than FPTP.

Given the headline, I can't vote up the post on ProgBlog, as it makes it appear that votes for the post are votes supporting IRV.

Re Mark's question, it would be great to see PR become an issue in the Liberal leadership race/contest/crowning. (Didn't know which to pick; as an interested non-partisan, am disappointed there aren't more running.)

Matt Guerin said...

Thanks, Mark. I am well. Liberals for Electoral Reform/MMP have kind of disbursed since last year. It would be great to try to pinpoint the leadership candidates on this issue, but I don't imagine 99.9% of Liberals (incl myself) would base their vote squarely on the candidates' view on electoral reform. Rae has supported MMP in the past, but personally I can't support Rae for many other reasons. I don't think either Ignatieff or LeBlanc would make electoral reform a priority, but it wouldn't hurt to ask. This site might contact all the candidates for their views on this subject and see how they respond.

Once a headline is posted, it doesn't change on ProgBloggers or on Liblogs even if the original poster changes it on the original site.

I understand why PR folks dislike IRV as no better than FPTP. For most PR folks, the only priority is giving representation to those currently underrepresented in Canada, namely smaller parties and usually progressive causes. PR is about giving more power to those outside the centrist mainstream in Canada.

One argument against PR that I've now come to appreciate is how negotiations must take place after every PR election to determine a coalition government. Parties decide on a possible governing program and frequently water down their own election platforms in order to form a coalition. If the public doesn't like the coalition, there is nothing they can do about it until the next election. For example, one might've voted Green because of that party's position against nuclear power - only to see the Greens enter a coalition and ditch their anti-nuclear stance in favour of the coalition, etc.

The problem with PR is it takes approval for any coalitions out of the hands of voters and into the hands of parties after the election is held.

I do believe that IRV is an improvement over FPTP in that IRV would allow local candidates and parties to form coalitions before the votes are cast. A green candidate could urge their supporters to cast their second choice for another candidate based on assurances and could get that other candidate to commit to specific things if elected. Then it's the voters who decide on the alliance by casting their ballots. IRV would likely lead to these kinds of alliances both locally and nationally.

Obviously this doesn't lead to direct representation for those voters' first choice, but it would change the winner take all dynamic considerably.

In addition, IRV would allow voters the freedom to vote their first choice without fear of splitting the vote as their second and third choices would eventually be counted as well. No Tory would slip up the middle again.

Personally I don't see much difference between a left-wing voter casting a ballot in an IRV or a PR election. Under IRV, that voter would see their second choice go to a candidate who formed an alliance with their first choice. If the winner ignores those pre-election commitments, they'll have a tough time winning their support the next time. The strength of this is the voter gets the last say on the coalition with the vote, not the party after the election.

Under PR, a voter could vote for a party based on a platform, and then see the party abandon that platform in favour of some other new coalition platform negotiated behind closed doors long after the election. So their first choice has been watered down too in favour of a coalition system that takes place well away from voter scrutiny. Under this scenario, the voter still has to wait until the next election to cast judgment on the coalition.

My views on this issue today have been coloured greatly by the experience of seeing PR crushed in Ontario in 2007. Voters don't seem to like the idea of never-ending minority governments and coalitions negotiated after the election. Sure PR gives direct representation to some voters not currently represented. But there are downsides too, particularly the lists.

If STV passes in BC, it'll save the PR movement in Canada. Under STV, all MLAs are elected directly by voters at least. However, it would still be difficult to implement STV in other jurisdictions without greatly increasing the size of legislatures due to the multi-member districts, something voters don't seem to want to do.

I still think STV is the best option, although adopting it seems extremely difficult unless BC votes for it next year. But I don't agree with my PR friends that IRV is just as bad as FPTP.

If PR isn't possible in Canada, I'd favour IRV over FPTP.

Chrystal Ocean said...

Re title changing, my apologies. I made the suggestion b/c it's possible to change a title to a post on my blog and then the change eventually turn up on ProgBlog. I've done it two or three times. It may take changing the timestamp by a minute or two to ensure the change takes.

"IRV would allow local candidates and parties to form coalitions before the votes are cast. A green candidate could urge their supporters to cast their second choice for another candidate based on assurances and could get that other candidate to commit to specific things if elected."

So strategic voting, again. No thanks!

"IRV would allow voters the freedom to vote their first choice without fear of splitting the vote as their second and third choices would eventually be counted as well."

With FPTP, voters end up with their 2nd, 3rd, or nth choice already. IRV is no different in this regard.

Matt Guerin said...

It's not strategic voting if you vote 1 for your first choice and then 2 for your second choice, etc. Strategic voting is voting for somebody you don't want to stop somebody you want even less. You rarely cast a vote for your first choice. How PR advocates can't see this as an improvement is beyond me.

IRV allows voters to cast judgment on the coalition before it gets implemented, not four years after it's implemented under PR. Voters get a veto over the coalition and a better political dynamic in elections where candidates need to rely on other voters in order to win, not just their own.

If you're first choice is one party and that party goes on to water down its policies under PR (to the point you don't even recognize it anymore) in order to enter into a coalition and you don't have any say about it for another four years, I really don't see how the voter is any better off or better represented. They voted for something and it gets watered down behind closed doors. The only thing that is different is we have many more non-mainstream politicians with a lot more power.

I have yet to read a truly compelling and well thought out critique of IRV by PR advocates that convinces me this isn't just about transferring power from mainstream parties to smaller parties. I look forward to reading such an argument in future. Feel free to provide more than simplistic, knee-jerk responses to well-thought out arguments.

Mark Greenan said...

Matt, it's good to hear you're well. I hope you don't mind if I break up my response to your comments into a bunch of posts, as there's lots to say!

First, on putting electoral reform on the Liberal leadership agenda. I think it would be great if this were the case. I don't think I could bring myself to taking out a party membership personally, but I would hope some Liberals want to see the candidates at least state on position on reform, and PR more generally.

I would think that Fair Vote would help support any such initiative, if necessary.

Matt Guerin said...

I do want to stress that I don't want to move to IRV over STV (or even a better form of MMP with open regional lists). I do see IRV as better than First Past the Post in many ways. I'd rather see STV over IRV or FPTP. If STV/MMP is not an option in Canada because voters just plain don't want PR, then I'd consider supporting IRV over FPTP for the reasons I've explained.

Chrystal Ocean said...

"Feel free to provide more than simplistic, knee-jerk responses to well-thought out arguments."

Your request for more thorough responses is well taken, but...

Wow. Insults - and we're on the same side.

Bye.

Mark Greenan said...

Matt said:

"One argument against PR that I've now come to appreciate is how negotiations must take place after every PR election to determine a coalition government. Parties decide on a possible governing program and frequently water down their own election platforms in order to form a coalition. If the public doesn't like the coalition, there is nothing they can do about it until the next election."

I think you fail to recognize that, in a PR election, the shape of post-election coalitions becomes a big part of the electoral debate. During the election period, parties and voters know who they might work with and often discuss what policies they might be able to work together on. Finally, I think it's completely false to assert in any way that voters in PR countries are dissatisfied with coalition governments. Cross-national research shows that voters in PR countries, both those who vote for winning (parties in governing coalitions) and losing parties, are more satisfied with government and more likely to say that the government represents their views (from Lijphart's Patterns of Democracy).

"The problem with PR is it takes approval for any coalitions out of the hands of voters and into the hands of parties after the election is held."

But as I've noted, voters know the likely coalitions before the vote.

"I do believe that IRV is an improvement over FPTP in that IRV would allow local candidates and parties to form coalitions before the votes are cast. A green candidate could urge their supporters to cast their second choice for another candidate based on assurances and could get that other candidate to commit to specific things if elected."

But wouldn't it be better for Green-minded voters to be able to cast a vote for the Greens, know that vote elects a Green representative who can then represent their policy ideas in parliament, rather than hope an MP from another party does?

Finally, under AV, it has been argued (pretty convincingly IMHO) that coalition governments would be even LESS likely.

"In addition, IRV would allow voters the freedom to vote their first choice without fear of splitting the vote ... Personally I don't see much difference between a left-wing voter casting a ballot in an IRV or a PR election."

Respectfully Matt, I think there is HUGE difference for a left-wing voter (or a right-wing voter, or a Green voter, or a Liberal in Alberta) getting a have a first-choice vote that isn't reflected in parliament (as under IRV) and having a vote that is (if the party meets the threshold) guaranteed to be represented in parliament.

"Voters don't seem to like the idea of never-ending minority governments and coalitions negotiated after the election."

Considering that most of the survey research I've seen shows that voters support the principle of proportional representation and prefer minority governments, I think you're just wrong on this one.

I think the main problem is that entrenched elite (political and media) interests will try their darnedest to confuse voters about new electoral systems. But I don't think this means that democracy activists should just give up!

"If PR isn't possible in Canada, I'd favour IRV over FPTP."

If the only choices were IRV and FPTP, I supposed I'd have to go with the former, but it wouldn't stop me from agitating for PR, because IRV doesn't radically improve Canadian democracy, as I think that evidence from other countries suggests that PR would.

Mark Greenan said...

"IRV allows voters to cast judgment on the coalition before it gets implemented, not four years after it's implemented under PR."

But as I noted, IRV is not likely to produce a consensus/coalition dynamic in the legislature as IRV does not support multi-party democracy in the same as any form of PR.

"Voters get ... a better political dynamic in elections where candidates need to rely on other voters in order to win, not just their own."

But this same dynamic occurs under PR, with the bonus of fairly representing voters' preferences in the legislature.

"If you're first choice is one party and that party goes on to water down its policies under PR (to the point you don't even recognize it anymore) in order to enter into a coalition and you don't have any say about it for another four years, I really don't see how the voter is any better off or better represented."

But is it better to see your first choice not be represented at all?

Also, see my earlier comment about how coalitions and potential policy agreements/compromises ARE discussed before and during elections.

And also, under PR, and not under IRV, if a voter is unhappy with the parliamentary behaviour of the party they voted for, they can then vote for another party and know that vote is likely to be represented in parliament.

"The only thing that is different is we have many more non-mainstream politicians with a lot more power."

The NDP and the Greens aren't mainstream? Really Matt?!

And in my view of democracy, it's not exactly democratic to classify some viewpoint as "mainstream" and worthy of parliamentary representation and others as unworthy.

"I have yet to read a truly compelling and well thought out critique of IRV by PR advocates that convinces me this isn't just about transferring power from mainstream parties to smaller parties."

I'll repeat it again, because I think you're unfairly representing why most PR supporters want to see PR.

It's because they want to ensure that legislative power reflects what voters voted for. If voters want to see more voices and more parties in parliament, PR will give it to them. PR supporters just want to have a vote that counts.

"Feel free to provide more than simplistic, knee-jerk responses to well-thought out arguments."

And I've got to agree with Chrystal this comment was a little uncalled for. I'm biased, but I think our arguments have been as strong and as well thought out as yours ;)

Matt Guerin said...

Thanks, Mark, for your well-thought out responses. Your points are well taken. I was referring to the earlier responses from Chrystal dismissing IRV with quick one liners that didn't quite address my points. They reminded me of similar responses I frequently get from other PR advocates which have seemed overly dismissive of IRV, when the improvements over FPTP are obvious.

Ultimately, I want STV or a different form of MMP (with regional open lists) over FPTP. We both know clearly how difficult it is to get there. Of course I don't advocate that supporters of PR give up simply because it is difficult to achieve it.

I have always been more against FPTP than for PR. Hence why I'm more open to IRV perhaps.

My view after the referendum was that the public didn't seem to care much about this issue. We'd argue that 43% should not elect a majority, and people just shrugged unconcerned. It was disappointing.
I do recall seeing polls in recent years showing a majority of Canadians like majority governments (assuming one-party majority governments) from time to time, especially after a period of minority governments. That argument against MMP had great traction last year. I don't deny that voters in other jurisdictions probably favour their system of PR and Canadians would too if PR got implemented here. I guess as always it's an issue of getting Canadians used to the idea.

The fight continues. If BC votes for STV, then it's a different story. It will be far easier to implement it elsewhere in Canada. Here's hoping.

A said...

"PR is about giving more power to those outside the centrist mainstream in Canada."

Actually, I disagree. This is not about small parties, and in fact the majority of electoral reform supporters tend to vote for the two larger parties. This is about enfranchising *voters* (of all stripes). It's about controlling wild swings in national policy that harm our economy and our position on the world stage. PR is about bringing our current disfunctional electoral system back in line with the fundamental principals of democracy: that the majority decides, and that everyone has an equal vote. Right now, try telling Liberal voters in Alberta that they have as equal a vote as everyone else. Or that when 63% of Canadians voted against Harper, that our current system respects the majority decision. It doesn't have to be this way, and this *should* be a priority for leadership candidates, because it effects so many other areas of public policy and our entire civic society.

I'll get off my soapbox now, except to say that voters aren't stupid, and thats why a majority of Liberals support PR over the status quo (just not all Liberal leaders, perhaps). This was abundantly clear at the 2006 Liberal leadership convention in Montreal, when Fair Vote Canada literally saw an overwhelming level of support for electoral reform from delegates. After this last election, I can't see how this support wouldn't have increased by the upcoming convention in Vancouver. Any leadership candidate that makes this a priority will both score points with the delegates and show that they represent a new option for change in a new Liberal party.

A. Blair
Ottawa, Canada

Matt Guerin said...

I do want to apologize, Chrystal and Mark, if I offended you with some of my comments about simplistic and knee-jerk arguments. I do want to continue this discussion and find the best way forward on promoting good change. This is an ongoing debate for me. Just keeping fingers crossed about BC - I would like to see that it's possible in Canada to change to PR.

Bob Richard said...

I apologize for interrupting such a lively discussion, but I want to clarify one misleading statement in the Guelph Mercury editorial.

Graham: FairVote's American counterpart calls for this system to be used in the United States.

Two comments on this from a U.S. perspective:

(1) Unlike Canada, the U.S. has many directly-elected executive branch offices -- President, governors of states, state-level officials like attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, etc., etc. Almost all practical electoral reformers propose IRV for these single-seat offices.

(2) With respect to legislative elections, FairVote in the U.S. advocates PR where that is politically feasible. IRV is a second-choice reform for bodies that are already elected from single-member districts.

The U.S. is a generation or so behind Canada in terms of progress on electoral reform. As a result, IRV can be a step toward eventual adoption of PR here. I think that in Canada, where PR is already on the public agenda, it could be a step backwards. In the U.S. it's not on the agenda yet except for a handful of city and county governments.

Wilf Day said...

I've been trying to write a concise yet comprehensive comment on IRV. Perhaps an impossible task? Here's a concise one:

IRV wouldn't help voters in Quebec, where the Bloc got enough votes for 28 MPs but somehow got 49. More than a third of Quebec voters would have to vote for whichever they disliked least, the Conservatives or the Bloc.

In a multi-party system, Canadians deserve to be able to vote for something, not just against someone. Being represented by my second choice is the problem, not the solution.

The preferential ballot is still a winner-take-all system with unpredictable results, which encourages minority governments to roll the dice and hope for an accidental majority.

A preferential ballot would not help voters in Alberta where, even if Liberal and New Democrat and Green voters all gave each other 100% of preferences, Conservative voters would still elect 26 of the 28 MPs, not the 18 or 19 they deserve. The same is true in large portions of other provinces. Conversely, Conservative voters in Toronto would still elect no MPs when they deserve five or six, and none in Montreal, Laval, Montérégie, Laurentides and Lanaudière where they deserve five or six. In short, the exaggerated regional differences continue.

IRV is too obviously partisan in today's context. If it worked perfectly for the Liberals, it would have held the Conservatives down to about 94 seats in October, when their vote share would have given them about 118. That's the same reason why the Jenkins Commission in the UK rejected the preferential ballot. Electoral reform cannot be a partisan project.