Alternative voting systems for Canada

With 2015 bringing a federal election where current polling suggests that either the Liberals or Conservatives could have a minority government based on how people vote, I'm rather interested in how election systems could influence the outcome. Last month there was an article about two alternative voting systems and how they would influence the elections. While reading into these systems I also found out that voting system reform is not a new thing in Canada and that both the NDP and Liberals have actually discussed changing how federal elections work after the 2015 election. With the importance of this election being so high -- the Conservatives have been the ruling party since 2006 with a majority since 2011 and so it is expected they will at minimum lose their majority stance -- I decided to try and learn what alternative voting systems are being proposed and how they would influence the political landscape in Canada.

Quick primer on Canada's federal government

Canada's government is based on the Westminster system where there is Parliament made up of representatives elected by the public. Each member of Parliament -- known as an MP -- is elected by a riding of which the largest is just over 180,000 people but hovers more around 100,000 nationally (which I have been told is one of the best ratios of people to representative in the world). The political party with the most number of representatives appoint the prime minister -- who is always the party leader -- who is known at the PM. Federal elections are called whenever Parliament is dissolved which typically occurs when a majority of MPs vote for elections to occur.

One key thing to realize about this kind of system is that whenever a party has a majority government -- which cannot last longer than 5 years by law and what Canada currently has -- they can basically pass any law they want as long as the Senate signs off on it (which they almost always do). The only check on Parliament then comes from the Queen of England and the Governor General who is the Queen's representative in Canada. Either of these two people can dissolve Parliament and are the only people who can do so (when Parliament votes to dissolve Parliament it's just a suggestion to the Governor General).

We also have five national parties: Conservatives, Liberals, NDP, Greens, and Bloc Quebecois. The first three are the big ones while the Greens are fairly new and only have 2 MPs and the Bloc is exclusively from Quebec and only have 2 MPs. In other words fairness in voting is a big deal here since voting is not a binary choice.

First-past-the-post voting (what the Conservatives want and what the current system is)

The voting system currently used in Canada is called first-past-the-post (abbreviated FPTP). In this system you get a single vote and you cast it for the person who you want to win. The person with the largest number of votes wins the election. Very simple.

Unfortunately it also leads to disproportionate representation. Let's pretend we have a total of 3 MPs named Brett, Andrea and Gidget. Each MP represents a riding made up of 10 people. Brett is a Liberal and gets elected by 6 votes with the other 4 going to the Greens. Andrea is also elected by a 6-4 vote along Liberal/Greens party lines. Gidget, though, gets all 10 votes in her riding and she is a Green representative. So while Parliament would be split 2-1 Liberal/Greens, the 30 voters actually voted 12-18 Liberal/Greens. In other words while people as a region voted more for Greens than Liberals, because of the way first-past-the-post works the Liberals are actually the party in power.

This example shows why sacrificial voting is caused by first-past-the-post. In our example, it obviously is not worth voting for the Greens if you know they won't win your riding, regardless of whether you think they are the best party to run Canada. And so people end up voting for the best party they think can win instead of the best party period. While a two-party system like they have in the United States doesn't really need to worry about this so much, in Canada where there are five officially recognized political parties at the federal level, sacrificial voting is definitely something one has to take into consideration, e.g. I might prefer the Greens but if I would rather the Liberals win out in a close race against the Conservatives I would be compelled to vote for the Liberals to help make sure the least bad result which actually has a chance of occurring.

Alternative voting (what the Liberals want)

Also known as instant-runoff voting, alternative voting -- abbreviated AV -- is a voting system where you rank the candidates in order of preference. Once all votes are cast each ballot counts as a single vote for the person's top choice. If no one got a majority of votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and then the ballots are counted again. In this next round, though, any ballot that cast the now-eliminated candidate as their primary choice shift to having their second pick count as their vote. This process of elimination and shifting who gets the vote from a ballot continues until someone gets a majority of votes. Or another way of looking at it is imagine everyone casts their votes for their top choice, if there is no clear winner then the least popular person is eliminated, and then there is an instant-runoff where everyone votes again with one less person to consider (this is where the name of the system comes from).

In Canada, AV is used to elect the leaders of the Liberal and Conservative parties. It's also used in Australia to elect members of their House of Representatives.

AV does a better job of proportional representation than FPTP which is obviously good. It also makes key ridings less important as you may not win a riding simply by having the most #1 votes if it's less than a majority while someone else has a majority of #2 votes.

FPTP is not flawless though, as it does lead to collusion between parties in telling people to vote specific parties lower than another one. The idea is that I will tell my constituents to put you second if you tell your constituents to put me second. So there is room to influence votes with AV.

Mixed-member proportional representation (what the NDP and Greens want)

Abbreviated MMP, mixed-member proportional representation has a somewhat interesting history in Canada. Back in 2004, the Law Commission of Canada -- de-funded since 2011 -- released a report suggesting MMP would be a good voting system for Canada (PDF; relevant discussion of MMP is in Section 4.4 starting on page 83 of the printed text, page 105 of the PDF). So what is MMP and why was it suggested for Canada (and is already used in New Zealand and Germany among others for their federal elections)?

In MMP you vote for two separate things. First you vote for the party you want to lead the federal government. Second, you vote for the person you want to represent you. In both FPTP and AV this is one and the same vote which means if you don't like the person running in your riding but they represent the party you want to run the country then you have to decide which is more important to you. But in MMP who you think can represent your riding the best is not conflated with what political party should be setting the agenda in Ottawa. Think of it as you're voting for the party you want running the federal government and you're separately suggesting the individual you want to personally represent you regardless of what party they represent.

The other interesting aspect of MMP is how these two seemingly separate votes consolidate with each other so that you end up with a representative government that is proportional to what your region wants. For each riding, the representative MP that you directly voted for wins based on first-past-the-post. These elected riding MPs make up 2/3 of all MPs representing a region (which can be as big as a province). The remaining 1/3 of MPs are filled based on how many MPs a party would need to top up their MP count to more accurate represent the party vote in the region.

These "filler" MPs are called list MPs because they are essentially pulled from a list provided by the party (the Law Commission of Canada suggested letting people either vote for specific list MPs that they preferred or simply vote for a party and let that party choose which list MP would get that vote, that way people can choose how involved they want to be in choosing their list MPs; pulling from the list exclusively is called closed list MPs, always voting for the list MP is called open list, and allowing either is called mixed list).

Consider a region with 10 MPs: 6 riding MPs and 4 list MPs. Let's also say that the Liberals got 50% of the party vote along with 3 riding MPs elected. That would mean the Liberals get 2 list MPs since the region said they should make up 50% of the government but fell short in the riding MP votes by 2 representatives. Notice how voting for a riding MP does not mean you can vote for your party twice; if you voted in a Liberal MP and voted for the Liberal party you don't get to make 2 MPs suddenly appear for the Liberals, just that you got to help select one of the Liberal MPs directly because you liked them personally. A good example of how this whole thing works can be found in the Law Commission of Canada's findings on printed page 94.

A huge effect of MMP is that minority parties can get much larger representation in government. Since your party vote directly correlates to proportional representation for your region it means you can vote for e.g., the Greens knowing that your votes actually counts towards them representing you in Parliament. This more favourable representation is why the NDP actually brought a vote on MMP this past December and have a petition to try and change the voting system in Canada after the 2015 election.

MMP is not perfect, though. Your vote can still not count the same as someone in another region based on how the number of MPs a region represents is divided. In some places that use MMP they solve this by having the list MPs be filled in nationally so that everyone's vote is equal (this wouldn't work in Canada for historical reasons, but basically certain provinces and all territories have minimum representation guarantees in Parliament and so having overflow representation would break those guarantees). But compared to both FPTP and AV, MMP usually has the better representation of voter intent.

The other issue is the size of the ballot. With a mixed list vote you would have a ballot listing all of the riding MPs you have to choose from and then you would have the mixed list vote where you either vote for a party generally or vote for a list MP specifically which could be as long as 15 people. I have looked at the example ballot and it isn't complex, but it definitely isn't small if you have up to 5 parties listing 15 people each for their listing MP votes (this is more of a technicality and is a solvable problem, but it is something to consider).

My personal opinion

After reading about all of these voting systems, I have to admit that MMP appeals to me the most. It comes the closest to making sure my vote for a party actually leads to representation by that party in Parliament. I also appreciate that my personal representation in Parliament by an MP is a separate vote and does not impact which party I want to represent me.

It also has the side-effect that majority governments would become a rarity. With small parties able to win more seats it leads to more compromise and teamwork between parties in order to get legislation passed. MMP just seems the most fair, and as a Canadian I like being fair.