Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Fair voting is as easy as 1, 2, 3...or column A and column B

I am running around like that proverbial chicken, so there's no time either to post about the dozen and one exciting things happening in politics these days, or to reply to some very thoughtful comments people have made on various posts. But I wanted to be sure nobody missed Andrew Coyne's column for this week, called "Fair voting is as easy as 1, 2, 3." Here are the first three paragraphs, click-free:

I don't want to alarm you, but there is a small bomb about to go off under the Ontario legislature. All but unnoticed by the media, a group of seemingly ordinary citizens from across the province have been meeting since the summer, planning, learning, steeling themselves for the task ahead. Their name: the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: overthrow Ontario's political system.

Well, give it a good shake at any rate. One of the few election promises Dalton McGuinty kept, the assembly has been handed the remarkable assignment of investigating what, if any, reforms should be made to the way Ontarians are represented in their legislature: whether the province should stick with the old plurality or "first-past-the-post" system it has used since its founding, or whether it should adopt some other system, typically one form or another of "proportional representation." Whatever changes they propose will be put to a referendum at the next provincial election, Oct. 4, 2007.

I say "remarkable," for good reason: That any government elected under the old system of counting the votes would be willing to consider another is one thing, but that it would be willing to entrust this task to a group of plain folks is just astonishing. Like the British Columbia Citizens Assembly on which it is modelled, the assembly is not made up of the usual assortment of interest group axe-grinders and condescending experts that tend to show up at these things. Indeed, it is almost entirely free of politically correct jury-rigging: just one man and one woman drawn at random from each of Ontario's 103 ridings. And if the B.C. experience is any guide, their recommendations will be taken all the more seriously because of it.
I am delighted by Coyne's endorsement of reform, but I do have one concern. Among the available choices for giving Canada a fair voting system, he clearly favours STV. This is a familiar issue among reformers--everybody's got their pet system. On the one hand, that's fine--I've got mine, too. But it becomes a problem when, say, the proponents of MMP say they'll take their marbles and go home if the people pick STV (as the British Columbia NDP did during that province's voting reform referendum), and proponents of STV say they'll take their marbles and go home if the people pick MMP.

What it comes down to is this: every system has its flaws, and either of those two possible systems would be lightyears better than what we have now. For reformers, that needs to mean that if our pet system doesn't get picked by the Ontario citizens' assembly (who,
it should be said, are a very diverse group that's doing very good work), we need to suck it up and let it go. And that goes for Andrew Coyne just as it does for me.


Anonymous said...

I would ideally like MMP, but I would go for STV if it was on offer (though it is, in my opinion, more complicated than MMP and therefore less desirable). Either is better than FPTP.

Deanna said...

God, I was livid when the Greens and the NDP mucked about and insisted on their own way during the BC referendum. We were SO close; we could have PR right now if they hadn't decided to play political games.

The NDP being a pain I kinda understood, since they can win BC through the first past the post system. I didn't like it, but I understood.

But I didn't get the Green position at all. Yes, they wanted MMP, not STV, but pushing PR through could have ensured that they won seats in the next election. They had the most to win from a 60% Yes vote.


I would have happily cast my vote for either, and I hope I'll have that chance again.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Good! Then my challenge to you (and to anyone else who's in that boat) is this: if it turns out that the citizens' assembly picks STV, rather than grumbling about it, you should say that while you would have chosen something else, it is good news.


The NDP being a pain I kinda understood, since they can win BC through the first past the post system. I didn't like it, but I understood.

Oh, I understand, intellectually, why they didn't like it. But it indicated to me that even the party I thoroughly support is more interested in looking out for itself than it is in real reform on this issue. It confirmed for me that change needs to be a non-partisan and multipartisan effort, and come from the citizens rather than from the government (regardless of what stripe that government may be).

I would have happily cast my vote for either, and I hope I'll have that chance again.

You will! Presuming that you still live in B.C., that is. Because the BC referendum came so very close to the supermajority needed for a "yes" vote (almost 58% voted in favour--putting the government in the rather awkward position of holding the next election under a system a large majority had opposed!) that they're going to hold it again, in conjunction with the next provincial election.

Jen said...

It's a little like jumping into a pool, isn't it? We know that the water's going to be cold, but we also know we'll warm up. No one waits on the edge until they're guaranteed that the water's going to be warm.

Tell me, in the PR world, are you one of the lone one's out with this whole German perspective, that is, that the point of changing systems would be more political compromise and cooperation? Because if so, then I can see why people would be so desperate to hold onto their systems if they thought that it should, instead of levelling the playing field, give their own party a greater chance. I'll have to see for myself when I get back, I suppose. Until then, I'll keep on reading. :) (Well, I'll keep reading when I get back as well!)

Michel Fortin said...

One thing I don't like about STV is that it's more complicated, and because it is it encourages electronic voting, and I don't trust computers (or rather I don't trust everyone who touch them) when it comes to counting the vote.

From this point of view, STV might be just as flawed as FPTP when put into practice, even if for completely different reasons.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Actually, my main reason for supporting proportional representation is that it just makes more sense. The first parliamentary democracy I lived under was Germany's, and when I first thought about moving here I was actually under the mistaken impression that Canada's system worked the same way. When I found out how it really worked, my reaction was to think: "why the hell would anybody ever have a stupid voting system like that?" (I'm far more informed now than I was then, but I still wonder that.) The only answer I've come up with is that Canadians aren't taught about other voting systems in school, and they don't realize that there are alternatives. But ignorance isn't a reason to stick with a system that's clearly not working on any level.

Anyway, from what I've observed, I do think most electoral reformers agree with me and see cooperation as a feature rather than a bug, even if it's not the primary reason for reform. But I, too, wonder why that aspect of things isn't discussed more often.


Would you mind telling me more about all those jurisdictions that you've heard about that use STV and also count ballots electronically? You know, the ones that have you so concerned? 'Cause I don't know of any. *grin*

From the wikipedia article on electronic voting:

Ireland [the primary STV-using jurisdiction] using bought voting computers from the dutch company Nedap for about 50 million euro. The machines were used on a 'pilot' basis in some constituencies in two elections in 2002. Due to campaigning by ICTE, Joe McCarthy, and the work of the Commission on Electronic Voting, the machines have not been used since, and their future is uncertain.

From this contribution about STV and electronic voting:

I think it's important to break any link between STV and electronic voting. You can use the example of Ireland, where we have been counting STV by hand for the best part of a century, but perhaps a better example is the assembly elections in Northern Ireland, where they do proper fractional transfers by hand.

Michel Fortin said...

I have no clear reference, but a search for STV on Wikipedia gives me this page which contains:

"Most STV elections today are assisted by the use of computer technology where voters' preferences are transcribed and entered into a database which is used to count and determine the results of the election."

And if you search for the word "computer" in that article, there are seven occurrences (I'm counting "computerized" as one), each in a sentence explaining how a computer may allow better counting methods, like in this excerpt:

"However, while simpler methods can usually be counted by hand, except in a very small election Meek and Warren require counting to be conducted by computer. Meek is currently used in STV elections in New Zealand."

Ha! Isn't this what I was searching for? It may be worth more investigation though.

Anonymous said...

rather than grumbling about it, you should say that while you would have chosen something else, it is good news.

Grumbling? IP, you must think me a very cranky person. ;)

Jen said...

Sorry for coming back to this so late, but being an LJer, I get lazy what with being told when I have new comments.

Anyway, we are taught about both FPTP and PR in high school, at least I vaguely remember so. But what I also remember is coming out of it not fully informed about PR, just with a sort of vague certainty that it's right for Canada because of regional representation, though we did discuss a bit how you won't get a true representation of a variety of parties. Somehow the former seemed to win in importance over the latter. I can't remember a great effort being made to justify PR, especially not in cooperative-politics terms. Maybe it was just because my teacher was a Liberal? ;)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


First, I haven't the foggiest which "STV elections in New Zealand" that's referring to, because at least in general elections, New Zealand uses MMP. It could be on some smaller level like municipal, or it could just be an error--I haven't been able to come up with an answer on that front.

My real point, though, is that Ireland is the major jurisdiction that uses STV, and they do not use computers to count votes--making it anything but inevitable here. Our polls are small enough that STV votes could easily be counted in exactly the same way they're counted now; it would just take a little longer.


If your teacher was arguing that PR wouldn't work for Canada because of regional representation issues, then she was flat-out wrong. There is no reason why either MMP or STV couldn't be designed to take regional representation into account. In fact, it works perfectly well that way in other jurisdictions.

Gah. The misinformation people--even smart, educated people--put out there about this stuff annoys me no end.

Anonymous said...

Great Post! Wish I would have found it sooner! 8^)

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