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Proportional representation would be worse than the status quo

There is a large and growing voice in our country demanding that we switch to a partially or fully proportional system for our federal elections. I disagree wholeheartedly. First past the post has some serious weaknesses, but the drawbacks of proportional representation far outweigh its strengths. More importantly, there is a third, much better, option available to us that neither status quo nor proportional representation proponents ever discuss: preferential balloting.

In short, a preferential ballot is a single-ballot run-off system. There are numerous variations of the preferential ballot. The two most important ones are called Borda and Condorcet. Borda is the simplest, but Condorcet is by far the best for a federal election and is the one I will concentrate on.

I challenge the notion that a vote for a losing candidate is a wasted vote. Every vote for every candidate is equally important in determining the outcome of an election. That is the purpose of the vote.

My most fundamental problem with proportional representation is the sacrificing of individual representation in favour of party representation, followed closely by the sacrificing of riding-level representation in favour of a national system.

I live in the city of Guelph, Ontario, which, in our municipal election last month, voted overwhelmingly to retain our ward system for municipal elections, dumping both the notion of an at-large system for elections and virtually the entire council that suggested it. Of 12 councillors and the mayor, only four won re-election, and the mayor was not one of them.

To me, the at-large system is the municipal equivalent of proportional representation. Under at-large, ward representation is thrown out, and everyone must elect representatives from and for the entire city. Campaign costs would be driven up, distribution of representation would not be assured, and local issues that would matter to a ward representative could be safely ignored without jeopardising the seats of at-large councillors. Under proportional representation, all these things are true on a macro scale.

So, first off, I would like to assess what I see as the strengths of having riding-level representation are compared to what can best be described as a national at-large system.

The strengths of riding-level representation

The weaknesses of riding-level representation

So with that bit out of the way, here are my assessments of many of the various possible electoral systems:

The strengths of the status quo - first past the post

The weaknesses of the status quo - first past the post

The strengths of full proportional representation

The weaknesses of full proportional representation

The strengths of mixed member proportional representation

The weaknesses of mixed member proportional representation

The strengths of a single transferable vote

The weaknesses of a single transferable vote

The strengths of a select-all-that-apply system

The weaknesses of a select-all-that-apply system

The strengths of preferential balloting under Borda

The weaknesses of preferential balloting under Borda

The strengths of preferential balloting under Condorcet

The weaknesses of preferential balloting under Condorcet

Based on this comparison and in thinking about it, I would prefer, ranked in order of preference, the following system:

  1. Preferential/Condorcet
  2. Select-all-that-apply
  3. The status quo/first past the post
  4. Preferential/Borda (instant run-off)
  5. Single Transferable Vote
  6. Mixed Member proportional representation
  7. Proportional representation

This is a preliminary list of strengths and weaknesses, and I would be curious to hear others' reactions to it. I've also written a bit on this topic before.

Posted at 11:25 on December 11, 2006

This entry has been archived. Comments can no longer be posted.

Winter! | elections | What's Iggy up to?

cdlu writes at Mon Dec 11 14:35:12 2006...

I've incorrectly lumped Instant run-off voting (IRV) in with Borda. I would put IRV between choices 2 and 3 in my list.

More info:


other voting systems

Halden writes at Mon Dec 11 15:18:35 2006...

You have not swayed me from my support of a Proportional or Mixed Proportional system but you do raise some interesting points.

John writes at Mon Dec 11 15:43:17 2006...

Like Halden, I'd support PR or Mixed PR first (I'm very impressed with Democratic Space's proposal for Ontario) but you make a good argument. I'd be interested in hearing less a pro/con argument, and more about what positive impact you think a Condorcet count would have in Canadian politics that FPTP, PR, and other methods wouldn't.

I disagree with your headline - PR being worse than the status quo - but it's important to point out that proportionality is not, in itself, a virtue. Rather, we want proportionality because it adds democratic legitimacy to government that currently lacks it. Preferential balloting could get the same end with different means.

Bill Longstaff writes at Mon Dec 11 16:20:10 2006...

Regarding full PR, you say, "Parties are allocated seats based on their total support across the country, regardless of performance in any specific region or riding." This is a common misunderstanding. PR requires only that ridings be multi-candidate; they can still be local. For example, here in Calgary we have 9 MPs, elected from 9 single-candidate ridings, all Conservative. If Calgary were one riding in which each party ran up to 9 candidates, we would have elected 5 Conservatives, 2 Liberals, one NDP and one Green. We would all have an MP who represented both our political philosophy as well as our local interests. PR is clearly much better designed to accurately represent local and regional interests than first-past-the-post, an important consideration in this highly regionalized country of ours.

Paul Vincent writes at Mon Dec 11 16:48:10 2006...

Bill, I wholeheartedly disagree with you. Take a small province like PEI which has two significant industries, farming and tourism (sorry fishing isn't big there anymore Islanders). With PR PEI would have a single representitive.... if that. No one is going to campaign in a national campaign for regional issues. If you look at the national campaigns that run they are usually on anywhere from 10-50 topics... very few regional issues discussed.

I disagree with one of the weaknesses of STV voting. STV doesn't have to work in between ridings, it can work within one riding.

You have a list of umpteen candidates, I'll take a three example

You have canddiates, X, Y and Z.... their vote totals are as follows:

X: 35%

Y: 35%

Z: 30%

In a second round votes are transferred from Z to the remaining candidates. Whoever the persons second choice was in the case of Z transfers those votes to X and Y. Then the winner of this last round becomes the candidate that has the highest preference.

I do agree however that PR may in fact be worse for the country. PR tends to work best in small countries and not large ones. I do think there are some measures needed to fix our current system but adopting something like List PR isn't going to help.

cdlu writes at Mon Dec 11 16:55:41 2006...

John, Bill,

Thank you for your pointers. I intend to write more on the topic in the future as I really do believe PR is quite bad for our country.

The notion that proportional balloting/representation can be used to allocate multiple MPs for a region is a bit odd. It still creates the problem of eliminating independent candidates, still emphasises parties over individuals, and still means MPs can be elected to ridings with which they have no familiarity.


Single-riding STV is effectively the same as instant run-off and has a similar effect to other preferential systems (though each can, in some cases, give different results.)

The strength of condorcet over instant run-off, borda, and STV is that there it provides a preferential ballot on which one is not required to rank all candidates, only those they wish to rank. This system is used to great effect on a small scale by some open source software projects (like SPI and Debian).

Another trouble with advocating single-riding STV is that it can be misinterpreted as advocating multi-riding STV. Referring to another form of preferential ballot is preferable.

Matt Arnold writes at Mon Dec 11 17:06:37 2006...

Voting systems are hard to determine. PR has the problem of continual minorities, which we seem to be getting used to but I'm not sure if people are ready for it full-time.

Any of the runoff/STV/condorcet methods suffer in that they're more complicated, and people won't understand why one guy can win even when most people didn't like them as their first choice. Like, some of those ones we could end up having a Green MP elected when only 2-3% of people voted for them first, just because nobody hates them, and everyone likes them better than the other guys.

Miranda (A View from the Left) writes at Mon Dec 11 17:35:20 2006...

Interesting breakdown. I agree that PR would be worse then our current system, though I disagree that mixed PR would be worse then the current system. However you raise a good point about having one set of MPs that are accountable to their riding and one set that is accountable to the party only. To fix this I would suggest that parties not be allowed to make up a slate of people who they would like as MPs, but instead must pick from those candidates that didn't get elected in their own riding. Therefore all of those sitting as MPs must have run at the riding level in order to sit in the House making them more accountable to the ridings.

cdlu writes at Mon Dec 11 18:37:30 2006...


I don't believe continual minorities are in and of themselves a problem. The problem comes when dozens of fringe parties show up and will back any government, as long as their special interest is covered even if it serves no national interest. Take the orthodox Jews in Israel, for example, who have used this system to achieve monk status where some needn't even work.


Point, but I disagree on the last bit. If the PR lists are made up of losing general election candidates, their accountability is even lower as they no longer will even feel a need to necessarily get elected and have a place to go if they fail. It would even be a coveted position to come in a strong second due to the smaller workload of a PR-tier MP. I personally cannot reconcile any form of PR with riding-level accountability.

Miranda (A View from the Left) writes at Mon Dec 11 20:20:36 2006...

True. The only solution to that I can think of is that each party is limited to the number of MPs that be renewed as a PR MPs after each election. That way the party couldn't always select the same people - though it would allow them to continue using the few that were good - and it would force PR MPs to stay in touch with their ridings in hopes to win a seat there next time. I think that would also help get rid of parachute candiates because parties would be less inclinded to run someone in a winnable riding as oposed to the riding they actaully lived in.

However I think the topic does need a lot of debate, though I can see merit to a mixed PR system to give a voice to those people who vote for the Greens but with a percentage that is so spread out across the country that it is near impossible to elect a Green MP.

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