Preferential voting – we’re already doing it.

After a mini-rant on facebook about strategic voting and the like, I’ve been thinking more about preferential voting and how it would avoid this problem. I’ve already discussed (probably in too much length) how this works in Australia but let’s consider how it works in Canada for a minute.  I was chatting with an Australian friend tonight who pointed out that if he were forced to vote in a first-past-the-post system he might actually change his vote, to vote “first preference” (and only preference) for the candidate who was actually likely to win.  It got me thinking about how we already use preferential voting – but we do it in our heads, and based on a number of assumptions that are likely to be completely false.

Someone has created something called “Project Democracy” in Canada, which claims to “educate voters about the issue of strategic voting in Canadian Democracy” while basically just advocating strategic voting against the Conservatives.  Nevertheless, voting against the Conservatives is a popular thing to do, and many people categorise their voting options as “Conservative” and “not Conservative” due to a number of perceptions I won’t get into here.  This leads a lot of people make assumptions about a lot of things, and to vote for a candidate that is not their preference, in order to prevent a candidate they really dislike.

The best way to illustrate this is to pick a random riding from this site.  In fact, I’m going to pick the riding of Random-Burin-St. George’s.  This is a good riding as it has candidates from the four major federal parties, and its name includes the name Random which makes it feel very neutral.

If you’re someone who might visit this site, you’re likely going to oppose the Conservatives.  But your actual preference might be to the Liberals, the New Democrats, or the Greens – supporters of all these parties have various reasons to oppose the Conservatives, and I regularly hear from supporters of these parties who are willing to vote for the others if it means a Conservative won’t get elected.

So, if you’re one of these people, these are your likely preferences:

A

B

C

D

E

F

1st Liberal Liberal NDP NDP Green Green
2nd NDP Green Green Liberal Liberal NDP
3rd Green NDP Liberal Green NDP Liberal
4th Conservative Conservative Conservative Conservative Conservative Conservative

While this site actually suggests voting Liberal, depending on which poll you select, the NDP is the likely party to beat the conservatives.  This ended up being a lucky riding to pick – if you add the NDP, Green, and Liberal vote together, the “not Conservative” vote is close to double the expected Conservative vote, but under the Poll Rollup from April 25th, the Conservative is still going to win.

Under a preferential or ranked-ballot system (also referred to as Instant Transferable Vote or Alternate Vote – currently being considered in the UK too), you would simply number your votes in the order listed above.  Based on the April 25 Rollup Poll, the Greens would be dropped, and the voters in columns E and F would have their votes reallocated to the NDP and Liberals, depending on the ballot preferences.  This, in turn, would lead to the Liberals still being third.  The people in column E would have their votes allocated to their third choice NDP, column A voters have their votes shifted to their second choice NDP, and since the Greens have already been dropped column B voters have their vote skip the Greens and go straight to the NDP.  This leaves the NDP with more than 50% of the votes (assuming there weren’t a significant amount of Liberal and Green voters who ranked Conservatives second or third – which might be the case), and the NDP wins the riding.  Everyone who wanted to vote Green voted Green, everyone who wanted to vote Liberal voted Liberal (and that $2/vote levy thing went to the parties ranked first), but ultimately none of those votes were “votes for the Conservatives” – the candidates people preferred over the Conservatives were elected.

Under our current system – people make assumptions.  Like this website, you might assume that the Liberals still stand the best chance based on whatever circumstances you know of – having the incumbent might be a good reason.  Or you might assume the NDP is more likely to win because of their big surge federally (though, apparently, not in Atlantic Canada).  So then Liberal voters say “I want to vote Liberal, but if I do the Conservative will get elected, so I’ll vote NDP.”  And Green voters say “I want to vote Green, but if I do the Conservative will get elected, so I’ll vote NDP.”  At the end of the day, the vote either ends up getting split anyway, or a whole bunch of people vote for the NDP when they don’t even want to and that candidate might not even get elected.  [I’ll admit – it’s still weird for me to be talking about people choosing to vote for the NDP as a strategic vote… but let’s just work with it for now].

So what happened under both situations?  Under preferential voting, people express their support for the candidates they wanted to vote for, and ultimately Random elects an NDP MP, which the majority of residents are at least kind of okay with.  Under First-Past-The-Post, people express their support for a candidate they don’t want to vote for, and Random either elects a Conservative MP, which a majority of residents didn’t want, or elects an NDP MP.

What’s my point? We’re already using a very flawed version of a preferential voting system. We’re just deceiving ourselves into thinking we’re not.  Under preferential voting we record officially on our ballot who we actually want to vote for, in order, and ultimately our vote counts towards our third choice which we still like better than our fourth.  Under First-past-the-post we run through the scenarios (usually based on flawed data) in our heads to decide the likelihood of each candidate winning, and vote directly for our third choice to prevent our fourth choice from winning.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather remove the imperfect information, and vote for who I actually want to win, while ensuring that the person I don’t want to win never gets my vote.

Let’s do this already – I’m sick of people talking about strategic voting.  Vote for who you want to win.  And when parliament sits again – contact your MP to demand preferential voting. It’s time we stepped into the 20th century.

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