Honest Broker’s Quick Guide to Electoral Reform

Black male holding flag. Voting concept - Canada

The House Committee has not even started its study of electoral reform, yet already people are lining up for and against PR, MM, PB, AV… Huh? What?

Three issues to address: First and second: what is “mixed member” or “proportional” representation and what is a “preferential” or “AV” ballot? Third, in a subsequent post, what would a referendum on this accomplish?

There are a myriad of different voting schemes and variants, but I am going to coalesce this discussion around two. I also provide a series of links to more information.

It’s not difficult to vote under any of these competing systems: it’s understanding how your vote is counted that’s the difficult part. Confusion will be the credo of this post.

Quick way to avoid this post or understand it better: start by watching this video.

Proportional representation

In the most basic system of proportional representation, as compared to our current first-past-the-post system, each party gets the same proportion of Members of Parliament in the legislature as the proportion of votes they receive nationally in a general election. Those MPs who get seats have been identified in advance of the vote on ranked party lists, so if the party is accorded three Members, they will be numbers 1, 2, and 3 from the party list.

Party BallotHere’s a problem with basic proportional representation: one of the traditions of our Parliamentary system is that we all have someone we can call our Member of Parliament. When we have passport problems or pardon problems or we feel we have been shortchanged by Employment Insurance, we can appeal to our MP for help. And help she will do. However, with proportional representation, Members of Parliament are drawn from a list and in most cases there is no effective way to link a single MP to a particular riding. You may consider that a major downside. A minor downside is that it’s the party which decides who their MPs will be, not voters.

Mixed member representation

Now in truth, one of the two systems that is most likely to be suggested is not a strict proportional representation system, but instead is a hybridized system referred to as Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMPR), seemingly favoured by the NDP. Under this system, each of us has two votes: the first vote goes towards your preferred MP; the second vote goes towards the party you prefer. Approximately 70% of the seats would be allocated on the basis of you voting for your MP; the last 30% of the seats would be allocated on the basis of the national proportional vote, where those 30% of the seats are used to “top up” the party representation in the legislature so that each party would be presented proportional to the popular vote of the second ballot.

MM BallotThis hybrid system does give us all an MP, but still leaves about 30% of the seats for MPs with no accountability to a riding and who are elected from a party list, not by voters. An assembly of independent non-partisan Ontario citizens proposed this system for Ontario in 2007.

Confused? How could you not be when compared to first-past-the-post, which is just so easy to figure out, flaws and all. No wonder the MMPR proposal failed in the Ontario referendum.

Muaaaahhh! Whether you choose strict proportional or mixed member voting, you can kiss majority governments good-bye. Coalition governments, not part of Canadian tradition, would become the norm. This has never hurt German governments over the past decades, but if you are familiar with the undue influence that some small parties exert in the Israeli government, you might think there is a downside to coalition governments. Coalition governments in Greece haven’t been so good either. The rise of fringe parties can threaten the stability of coalition governments.

Here is the link to a five-minute Ontario video explaining the system. Warning: this video is very clear, but it’s unbelievably annoying too.

The other system: ranked choice, preferential ballot, or alternative vote (AV)

UK Cover AlphaThis is the alternative voting (AV) system that was proposed for Great Britain and is slightly different from the system recommended for British Columbia (BC-STV). Both failed in referenda, twice in BC. This is the voting system reputedly favoured by the current Liberal government.

Before describing this AV system I want to walk you through my personal history with this system.

There I am in England in 2011, just shortly before the referendum on the AV system and I am chuffed to get my mitts on a copy of the pamphlet explaining the system. But I cannot understand it. I think it’s crazy-crazy. My friends say they will vote against it, and I can understand why.

Open Booklet Alpha

Fast forward to last fall when I am having too many beer with my Irish-iqaluit drinking buddy, Paul, in the Storehouse Bar within the Frobisher Inn. You might have already read Paul’s email to me about the ice in Iqaluit, so you might already know that with Paul there are no half measures: he talks with great passion and conviction. And so he does as he argues the virtues of the AV voting system.


Storehouse Bar and Grill Iqaluit NU


It comes down to this: within the British parliamentary system (truly “our” system too), AV makes more sense because there is no party list: you are always voting for an MP,  your MP. After the vote you and all other Canadians now have an identifiable Member of Parliament. Paul, as always, is persuasive – and instructional too. Yet the next day, when I sit down to explain AV to one of my students, I still can not do it. Maybe it was all the beer.

So, how does ranked balloting or AV work? You vote “1” for your preferred local candidate and “2” for your second preference. If you have a third preference, that person gets a “3” on the ballot. If your first preference candidate looses, your second preference vote is then applied, and so on until one candidate receives 50% of all votes. Confused? This five-minute video called “Is Your Cat Confused …?” explains the AV system well, and with (British) humour.

AV BallotNow, a problem with this system is that according to polling from the last election, the Liberals would have received an even greater majority under AV, at the expense of both the Conservatives and the NDP. So, needless to say a Liberal government that favours this voting system appears to be self-serving, which is unfortunate, if you believe it’s the best.

If you followed the London mayoral voting of May 6-7; you would have seen AV in action. Here is the first tabulation that the BBC provided, before second-ranked ballots were counted.

First Round Majoral VoteAnd here, a few hours after midnight, is how the final vote looked after the three fringe-y candidates were dropped and the second preferences of their voters were applied to the remaining two candidates. Note that while the Labour candidate did win with 57%, the Conservative candidate’s votes went up from 35% in the first round to 43% in the second, which argues against the idea that only a front runner (eg the Liberals) benefits from AV.

Second countThe question

Under a proportional ballot, whether strict proportional or mixed member, are we willing to have Members of Parliament at large who do not have a constituency and are we willing to forgo majority governments for the very high likelihood of perpetual coalition governments? Or, are we willing to have a system that benefits the party(s) in the middle at the expense of left, right, or fringe parties?

What do you think? Please let me know.

Pass this on

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Links to other sources, many of which are wikipedia. These will open in a new window:

First-past-the-post voting

Instant run-off voting (aka AV)

Mixed-member proportional representation (MMPR)

Single transferable vote (STV)

BC Referenda on electoral reform

Ontario referendum on electoral reform

Institute on Public Policy Research: Ontario’s Referendum …

UK referendum on electoral reform

Electoral reform in New Zealand

Graphics and photos

Lead ballot box photo licensed from iStock.

Photo of Storehouse from their Website

Partial screen grabs of London election from BBC

Photo of UK pamphlet and ballots © Ian Hornby


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