The alternative vote—not a great option for Canadians or democracy

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, October 31, 2016

Despite recent musings by the prime minister, that electoral reform—a Liberal campaign promise—may no longer be a priority, the parliamentary Special Committee on Electoral Reform will deliver a report by Dec. 1 on how to, well, reform Canada’s electoral system.

The prime minister seemingly favours an alternative vote (AV) system—the system Canadians likely understand the least.

Under AV, voters rank the candidates running in their riding. If a candidate receives a majority of “first preference” votes, he or she is elected to the seat in their constituency. If no candidate receives a majority of first preference picks, then the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and those votes are redistributed based on the second or subsequent choices of voters. This process is repeated until one candidate achieves a majority.

But what would happen if Canada adopted an AV voting system?

Firstly, it’s unclear how switching to AV fulfills any of the guiding principles set out by the government for the electoral reform committee.

This first principle states that electoral reform should increase the legitimacy and effectiveness of the system, and reduce distorted outcomes. Rather than reduce distortions between voter intention and the final result, AV could actually amplify those distortions by manufacturing a majority where none existed previously.

The second principle aims to increase voter participation. Again, it remains unclear how switching to AV would encourage greater engagement and participation. Past research analyzing the outcomes of provincial elections conducted under AV rules found that the switch to AV didn’t produce a large change in voter turnout.

It also isn’t clear that adopting an AV electoral system would address the other three guiding principles: avoiding undue complexity in the voting process, safeguarding the integrity of the voting process, and ensuring the accountability of the local representative.

Moreover, in a recently released essay, we re-estimated the results of the seven previous federal elections dating back to 1997 to better understand how a move to AV could affect the outcomes of elections. The results were illuminating.

The only party to benefit in all seven elections was the Liberals, who gained an average of 19 seats. To a lesser extent the NDP increased their seat totals in the more recent elections. Only the Conservatives lost seats every election.

More dramatically, according to our estimates, changing the voting system to AV would have resulted in different governments, and in other cases, different Official Opposition parties. For example, had AV been in place for the 2006 election, the result would have been a Liberal minority government instead of a Conservative minority.

No doubt, as others have observed, changing the electoral system will also change the strategies of parties and the calculations of voters. However, it appears the Liberals will have the easier path to power under an AV system.

This raises a number of issues, although the problem is not which parties win or lose but rather the diminished competitiveness of Canadian elections. Based on our estimates, no party, other than the Liberals, would have achieved a majority government during the period analyzed. This indicates that elections may become less competitive under AV. Competitive elections are an essential feature of a healthy democracy, as they help foster debate about which ideas and policies governments should implement.

Although we can’t be certain about the exact outcomes of switching to an AV electoral system—the prime minister’s preferred system—some things are clear. It will do little to address the guiding principles of the electoral reform committee. And it could result in less-competitive elections.

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