One of the goals of the Charter Challenge for Fair Voting is to have the Supreme Court of Canada order the government to develop a voting system that is compliant with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This post introduces the types of voting systems that exist around the world, including the systems that would be strong candidates to replace the first-past-the-post voting system, if the Court were to call for its replacement.
There are nearly as many voting systems as there are countries in the world, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. In this post, I’ll share some of the basics about what each system looks like in one spot.
Why consider electoral reform?
Voting systems are the foundation of our public institutions. We use our voting system to elect members of our Parliament who craft the laws of the land. The composition of Parliament determines the quality and brand of executive government (Prime Minister and Cabinet) that we have. The executive is responsible for hiring and firing the senior civil servants who oversee critical public services offered to Canadians.
A structure is only as strong as the foundation on which it rests. Finding the best voting system to serve the public interest improves the likelihood that everything derived from it - Parliament, executive, public services, laws and budgets - also serves the public interest.
While citizens interact in many different ways with government, elections are the only direct opportunity available to every Canadian to shape our government and hold our elected officials accountable. Therefore, it is important to consider which system ensures not only that every vote is counted, but that every vote counts.
Voting System Options for Canada
There are two main families of voting systems used throughout the world: winner-take-all systems, and proportional representation (PR) systems. Let’s start with unpacking winner-take-all systems.
Winner-Take-All Voting Systems
Most winner-take-all systems are characterized by single-member districts (one MP per riding) where the winner is the candidate who receives the most votes. In the case of the first-past-the-post system, the winner just needs to receive a plurality, or more votes than anybody else. In the case of the alternative vote (AV) system, a candidate needs a majority of votes to win.
Case Note: The name 'winner-take-all' indicates the majoritarian nature of the system. In neither system is there any means to account for voters who voted for losing candidates. As such, if the court finds that the first-past-the-post voting system is in violation of the charter, and each Canadians right to 'effective representation' then it stands to reason that an AV system would also violate those rights.
The only practical difference between the two systems is the ballot, and how the ballots are counted to determine who the winner in each riding is. The riding boundaries and the number of MPs can stay the same.
In FPTP, voters mark their ballots for one candidate only, and the candidate with more votes than any other candidate wins, regardless of whether or not they have a majority.
The alternative vote system
In the alternative vote (AV) system voters rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference.
How voting works in the alternative vote system
If one candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, they are elected. If no candidate receives a majority of first preference votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a second round of counting occurs, where the lowest ranking candidate’s votes are redistributed to the second choice marked on each ballot. The process repeats itself until one candidate receives a majority of votes.
The AV system is often simply called the ranked-ballot, or preferential ballot, and was system Prime Minister Justin Trudeau favoured (although few other parties did). It’s worth noting that ranked-ballots can be used in proportional systems like the Single Transferable Vote, where the counting works differently in order to deliver a proportional result.
Proportional Representation Voting Systems
The second family of voting systems used around the world is Proportional Representation.
In proportional representation systems the share of the popular vote a party and its candidates earn are reflected in the number of seats the party holds in Parliament. For example: if a party’s candidates earn 10% of the popular vote in a proportional system, they’ll end up with roughly 10% of the seats in Parliament; if a party’s candidates earn 40% of the votes, they’ll get about 40% of the seats in Parliament; and so on…
There are as many types of proportional representation systems as there are countries that use them. In this post, we’ll explore the main systems being used:
- List Proportional Representation (List PR)
- Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
- Single Transferable Vote (STV)
All of these systems use some kind of large multi-member district(s) to achieve proportionality. There are however, proposed systems that use single-member-districts to achieve proportionality.
Unlike winner-take-all systems, the three proportional systems we’ve mocked up for this post involve the use of larger districts (or ridings). The electoral map changes with each of these systems. In reality, the process of drafting new ridings is it’s own technical exercise of ensuring equal-sized ridings, and determining appropriate district boundaries. We’ve drafted some loose models of what the results might look like in three provinces:
- a small province (New Brunswick)
- a mid-sized province (British Columbia)
- a large province (Quebec)
We begin with list proportional representation (list-PR). For the record, while List-PR is a system used in many countries around the world, that is advocated for by practically nobody in Canada. Explaining it first, however, makes the mixed-member-proportional system easier to understand later on.
List Proportional Representation (List PR): How it works
The closed-list ballot in list PR systems
The voters in List PR systems have one vote. If the system is a closed list system, like those in Spain, Israel or Argentina, the parties determine the ranking of candidates from their party and voters simply cast their ballot for their preferred party. The ranking of the candidates on the list determine the order in which the candidates are elected.
The open-list ballot in list PR systems
If the system is an open list system like Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Fiji, voters select their preferred candidate within the list provided by each party, and the vote for that candidate counts toward the popular vote for that party, and improves the ranking of that candidate on the party’s list.
Multi-member districts in list PR systems
There are no single-member districts in most List PR systems. States that use List PR either divide the state into several large multi- member regional districts, like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, or treat the entire state as one single district, like Fiji, Israel or the Netherlands.
In Canada, the largest possible district for a federal electoral district would be a single province. In the List PR model shown here, the district borders follow naturally distinct communities and regions, and the number of MPs is based on the population within the borders.
The size of the multi-member district can vary. For example, in densely populated areas like Montreal and Vancouver, a district could have a large number of voters and many MPs, unified by a common geography. On the other hand, a low-density region of northern Quebec or rural New Brunswick could be represented by only two MPs, where the ratio of voters to elected representatives is the same as elsewhere in the country, while not merging a rural community with a distinct urban community for political reasons.
Adjustment seats in list PR systems
Adjustment seats are often used in List-PR systems to improve proportionality of the statewide results, where seats are not assigned to a particular district, but their addition makes the results more proportional.
Counting votes and declaring winners in List PR systems
In closed and open list systems elections officials count the votes and award a share of seats to each party that roughly corresponds to the share of the votes that party (or its candidates) received. In a closed list system, the candidates who the party placed highest on it’s list are awarded seats in Parliament until the number of seats held by candidates from that party roughly match the share of the popular vote the party received.
In an open list system, the same process applies, but the party list candidates who received the most votes become the first awarded seats in Parliament for their party. Many open list systems are not completely open, so each party’s ranking of their own candidates has some influence on which candidates get elected first. Candidates at the top of the list still require support, but require a lower threshold to win than candidates lower on their party’s list.
Thresholds in List PR Systems
List PR systems often employ minimum thresholds that each party must meet to receive seats in Parliament.
Two thresholds could be used to win federal seats:
- a party must earn a minimum percentage of votes across the province in question - typically set at between three and five per cent.
- a party must earn a minimum percentage of votes in a multi-member district - typically set between 10 and 12 per cent.
Thresholds are generally used to limit the prevalence of extremist views, and the proliferation of an unruly number of small parties.
Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP)
Mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) is the voting system combines elements of FPTP and List PR. It originated in Germany and is still used there, along with New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, and other countries.
The MMP system has several proponents in Canada, including the federal NDP and the Green Party. Voters in PEI recently selected this system in a plebiscite on electoral reform held in 2016.
Casting a ballot in a mixed-member proportional system:
In an MMP system, voters typically cast two votes: one for their preferred local candidate and another for their preferred party. As with List PR, open or closed lists can be used to determine the rank of candidates on the party list.
Two types of districts in a mixed-member proportional system
There are two types of districts in all MMP systems. The local single-member district is standard across all systems. Then, as in List PR, a province can be divided into several large multi-member regional districts as Scotland does, or treat the entire state as one large multi-member district, as New Zealand does. In the MMP map modeled below, we model each province as one large multi-member district.
There are a few ways to move from the present system to an MMP system. The number of single-member-districts could be reduced, and the size of those districts expanded. Or, additional list seats for each province could be added in addition to the existing MPs in parliament. In the electoral map modeled below, we assume the number of single-member-districts would be reduced by half, and half of each province’s MPs would come from a list (New Brunswick would have five list and five district MPs, BC would have 21 list and 21 district MPs, and Quebec would have 39 of each type of MP).
Counting Votes in a mixed-member proportional system
First: the votes cast for all local, single-member districts are counted to determine the winners using the FPTP method. The candidate with more votes than any other candidate is elected.
Next: the party votes are counted and list seats are awarded to ‘top-up’ parties that earned a larger share of party votes than their share of local seats won. This ensures that the total seat count for each party is as proportional as possible to their share of the party vote.
Thresholds in a mixed-member proportional system
As in List PR, an MMP system may employ a minimum threshold of the popular vote that each party must earn in order to receive seats in parliament. An additional threshold that may be used in MMP systems is reached when a party wins a pre-set number of local district elections. For instance, if the popular vote threshold were set to ve per cent, and the district threshold were set to one district seat, a party that had earned one district seat, but only four per cent of the popular vote across a province, would be awarded roughly four per cent of that province’s seats in parliament for having reached one of the thresholds.
The Single Transferable Vote (STV) System
The single transferable vote (STV) is a system for electing representatives to multi-member districts using a preferential ballot. This system is used in Ireland, Malta, the Australian Senate, and in many municipal and organizational elections (for governing boards and councils) worldwide.
The STV system has not had strong political support within mainstream politics, but remains a popular choice amongst fair-voting advocates across the country. In 2004, the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia recommended a type of STV to BC voters.
The STV system is unique compared to the other proportional systems presented here as it is not dependent on the presence of political parties in order to function.
Casting votes in the single transferable vote system
In an STV voting system the voters rank candidates in order of preference. Because the election is for a multi-member district, the number of candidates is typically quite large, with each party running multiple candidates in each district.
Districts: In the STV system, a state is divided into several multi-member districts. For example, in Australia, each of the country’s six states is its own district, with 12 senators elected from each.
Thresholds and vote-counting in the single transferable vote system
The first step in determining the winners in an STV election is to calculate the winning threshold, known as a quota, which is the number of votes a candidate must receive in order to win.
The quota is calculated based on the number of seats available and the number of valid votes cast. It is typically the lowest number of votes that only the winning number of candidates can receive.
Once a quota is established, the first preference on each ballot is counted and all candidates who meet the quota are declared elected. Then, if the total number of seats available is not filled on a first count, counting proceeds to a second round. The surplus votes received by winning candidates in the previous round (votes in excess of the quota) are then ‘transferred’ to the next preference choice marked on the ballots added to the totals of the remaining candidates.
If no candidates exceed the quota using the surplus votes in a single round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second preference on those ballots are added to the tallies of each of the remaining candidates. This process continues until all seats are filled.
Here’s a video from the Scottish electoral commission explaining how the quota and counting process works for their council elections, which run using STV.
There are two families of voting systems. Winner-take-all systems include first-past-the-post and the alternative vote, where each district has a single MP. The three proportional voting systems modeled here use some form of multi-member district to ensure more proportional results, where the share of votes cast for each party’s candidates closely matches the share of seats that party’s MPs hold in parliament. In proportional systems, thresholds come into play. In MMP and List PR, those thresholds are decided in advance, and determine how much overall support a party needs before it’s candidates are awarded seats in parliament. In STV, the threshold is determined by a calculation based on the number of seats available and the number of votes cast.
The Charter Challenge for Fair Voting will argue that only a proportional representation voting system can adequately the right to 'effective representation' that is guaranteed by section three of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The ballots and models in this post are based on the paper published by Springtide in the fall of 2016 "Better Choices: Voting System Alternatives for Canada"
See also: Trudeau's timeline on electoral reform: from clear commitment to 'no consensus'
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