The Problem at Hand

With so-called first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting the candidate who gets the most votes – wins.

Sounds good, so far. It’s simple, easy to explain and understand, and easy to carry-out. And, when there are only two candidates who attract significant numbers of votes, it works very well.

But as soon as we see a third, fourth, or even more, candidates, the system starts to break down – in the sense that we tend no longer to get a decision that reflects the will of the majority, but, rather, the largest minority of voters.

We could, for example, have one candidate who attracts, say, 26% of the vote, and another couple of them who might each get, say, 25%, and maybe round it all out with a fourth who gets 24%.

The FPTP winner here, the largest minority, would be the 26% candidate. Not much of a mandate, really, when 74% of the voters voted for someone else.

It’s a contrived example, but it makes the point. Real experiences with provincial and federal elections are typically not quite so extreme nor so closely clustered, but the problem remains. (Duverger’s law is probably a factor in this: the propensity for voters to second-guess the outcome and move their votes to perceived front-runners gives these candidates a boost at the expense of the back-runners, which will tend to increase the spread.)

If we knew more about what the voters wanted in these cases we might find in the end that the given candidate really is the true choice of the majority – and be able to demonstrate this to everyone’s satisfaction.

But without that additional information we just have a weak win that is criticized and disparaged by the majority who, all in all, feel cheated and disenfranchised.

Legitimacy and Engagement

What it comes down to is that FPTP is a “plurality” system (Single-Member Plurality (SMP)), not, strictly, a majority decision system. Sometimes we do get a clear FPTP majority win, regardless, and we’re OK, but too often it means that the successful candidate wins on far too much less than that.

Such minority victories detract from the legitimacy and credibility of the decision. They also diminish the winners’ sense of accountability beyond their own narrow voter bases, and feed into voter cynicism, disillusionment, and over-all disengagement. Eventually many people just don’t bother to vote anymore. It’s probably not the only reason, but it’s a good part of it.

Canadian Elections

Canadian Election Participation

For the 2008 federal election voter turnout was 58.8%, an all time low. (Up again in 2015 to 69.6%, however, due to a high level of dissatisfaction among voters – leading to increased engagement.)

At these levels of participation even a solid majority win is the voice of only a minority of eligible voters; a mere plurality, then, but a scant sliver.

And, it gets worse: in our Westminster-style system, a party that wins more seats than any other, even if this is only a plurality of seats, will typically form government (though, in a plurality situation we could see a coalition arise).

This compounds the problems I’ve already described, for we also have the real possibility of a large proportion of the seats staking claim on the right to govern being themselves but weak, minority, victories.

Canadian General Elections

Election Year 2006 2008 2011 2015
Turnout 64.7% 58.8% 61.1% 68.5%
Electoral Districts Number 308 308 308 338
Minority Wins

116

37.6%

120

38.9%

154

50.0%

205

60.6%

Strongest Win Winning Votes 62.6% 82.0% 84.0% 81.8%
% of Eligible 40.5% 48.2% 51.3% 56.0%
Weakest Win Winning Votes 32.7% 29.2% 31.0% 28.7%
% of Eligible 21.2% 17.2% 18.9% 19.6%
Governing Members 124 143 166 184
Minority Wins

67

54.0%

61

42.6%

50

30.1%

97

38.6%

This means that a government can be established on a very weak democratic foundation indeed, seeing themselves accountable to at best a small minority, disconnected from, and functionally deaf to the voices of the public at large.

“It is believed that on average there will only be two viable candidates for any given election under the plurality system. This is because rather than picking the candidate who is their sincere favorite, most voters are likely to instead vote for the one of the perceived front-runners whom they prefer, since this is the best chance they have of their vote making a positive difference. This tendency is known as Duverger’s law, and is thought to be the primary cause of two-party systems where they exist.

“Given the existence of two major party candidates who dominate an election field together, the entrance of a new candidate is most likely to split the vote of the major party candidate whom they have the most in common with, thus giving the other candidate an advantage, and going directly against the wills of would-be supporters of the emergent candidate.

“This ‘spoiler effect’ is an extremely strong deterrent against new parties and candidates entering a race where a close competition has already been established between two major parties.

“This is a fatal problem for the competitiveness of political races and the accountability of politicians. Standards are very low for political candidates because they only need to be preferred over a single other viable candidate, rather than over a large field of viable candidates. This dynamic also encourages negative campaigning, and severely limits the range of political discourse…” – Plurality; A Survey of Basic Voting Methods

Requirements

FPTP is easy. But easy isn’t enough for a robust and responsive democracy, nor does it help the problem of public cynicism, disillusionment, and steady political disengagement.

There are many alternatives to FPTP elections. They all have their own virtues and their own flaws, and there is no system that is perfect in all cases and for all purposes. But we don’t need universal perfection; we just need better – better enough.

We need a solution that:

  1. Is suitable for open, public, general elections and by-elections spanning large areas and involving large numbers of voters;
  2. Can be phased-in with minimal disruption to existing electoral processes at minimal additional cost;
  3. Is transparent, and easy to explain and to educate the public in its use;
  4. Renders decisions in a timely way; and
  5. Reliably renders decisions that a reasonable person would see as fair and responsive to the will of the majority.

Recommendation

On balance, particularly in respect of this crucial last point, the solution proposed is the Condorcet/Ranked-Pairs method to elect, as now, members to existing electoral districts.

I asked for just “better enough” – Condorcet/Ranked-Pairs delivers on that, certainly, but much more.

Particular minority outcomes as noted would not necessarily have changed with Ranked Pairs, though some would – but they would in any case no longer be merely minority wins, but rather the demonstrated will of the majority; they would be as incontrovertible as any election win can be – particularly if along this path we are able to inspire greater participation.

Next: The Will of the Majority

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