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The myth of the wasted vote

I have been told, often angrily, by supporters of some parties that they are tired of "wasting" their vote. I know where they are coming from but, strangely, I feel no sympathy for the position. In my view, the only wasted vote is the one not cast.

The basic premise of the wasted vote theory is this: a voter votes for a candidate who does not stand a chance of winning in their riding. The voter's choice of representative goes on to, as predicted, lose their riding. The voter considers the victor to not represent them. The notion is that because they knew they were not going to win that riding, they are wasting their vote by casting it for that candidate who is not going to win.

The question I have to ask is: why should that person win? The concept of representative democracy is that the candidate who has the most support, not the least support, represents the riding. In the current electoral system, voters go to the polls and select their preferred candidate. The candidate who gets the most votes wins.

Here's the kicker: Under MMP, the exact same thing happens.

Yes, that's right, we're keeping FPTP under MMP for our ridings. Voters will still be forced to choose a strategic vote to get the representative they don't want less than the one they really don't want at the cost of the aformentioned one who has no chance of winning that they do want.

The difference is MMP will compensate the parties that the candidates who lose are affiliated with by allocating the parties -- not the candidates -- consolation seats commensurate with the percentage of the province-wide popular vote the party, not its candidates, earn. The party receives these seats based on pre-selected lists that have nothing to do with so much as the candidates' performances in the riding elections. Somehow, we are told, this solves the originally stated problem because, while your choice for representative still did not win, the party you voted for still gets a seat who may or may not have even heard of your riding because they did get a small smattering of votes across the province.

The reality is that new parties can, in fact, win seats in the legislature. In Quebec, the Parti Quebecois went from non-existent to majority government in just a few short years, among many other examples through history. All they have to do is win the mass appeal of their peers. If the people in the community of a candidate cannot be convinced that they are worth voting for in enough numbers to carry the riding, why should their party be allocated consolation seats? If their position is not beneficial to the residents of any particular area anywhere in the province, why should they win anyway?

If the problem is that peoples' first choices are not winning, why are we not considering their second choices? Or their third?

Our problem, fundamentally, is not that votes are "wasted". It is, firstly, that people who support minor players are upset that their players are minor, and, secondly, that voters often must select a less unfavourable candidate to block a more unfavourable candidate from winning. Both of these problems will continue to exist under MMP because MMP retains our current electoral system at its core, adding only an abstract layer of completely unaccountable politicians with no constituency as a consolation for those minor players.

If we wanted serious reform that addresses "wasted" votes and substantially reduces the problem of strategic votes, the question on the ballot would be offering us some form of preferential ballot, where voters can rank the candidates in their riding in order of preference, not a legalised pork-barrel scheme where 39 MPPs will always be accountable to noone but their party hierarchy, whatever that party may be.

The only wasted vote is the one not cast.

Posted at 14:32 on September 25, 2007

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

Let Frank in! | elections reform | On wanting the Third Way

John writes at Tue Sep 25 17:23:46 2007...

If we wanted serious reform that addresses "wasted" votes and substantially reduces the problem of strategic votes, the question on the ballot would be offering us some form of preferential ballot, where voters can rank the candidates in their riding in order of preference, not a legalised pork-barrel scheme where 39 MPPs will always be accountable to noone but their party hierarchy, whatever that party may be.

Well I disagree. Those 'list MPPs' are accountable because the party must submit to Ontario Elections how they selected them. That's much different to the unaccountable way that MPPs are appointed now.

Perhaps you should look at how Labour party in New Zealand does MMP. They split NZ up into regions, so that list MPPs correspond to different regions (like normal MPPs), and people end up getting more than one representative. From what I've heard, the people love it and voter turnout is up.

The Ontario Citizen's Assembly looked at STV (the preferential system you advocate) and rejected it in favour of MMP; BC voters ALSO rejected STV.

cdlu writes at Tue Sep 25 20:43:23 2007...


Voter turnout in New Zealand sank to record lows under MMP. I don't think your hearing is entirely functional.

Also, I never said anything about STV. I advocate for a simple preferential ballot such as IRV or even Approval voting, not the particularly convoluted proposal of the BC referendum.

cdlu writes at Tue Sep 25 21:09:20 2007...


Also, those list MPPs will have substantially less accountability than current MPP do by virtue of being appointed by parties rather than elected in ridings, but more importantly, the system preserves the "unaccountable way" that MPPs are appointed now for 70% of the MPPs.

Shoes writes at Wed Sep 26 00:12:35 2007...

An incisive and well (brilliantly) cast arguement.

You are correct. A preferential ballot is such a simple and understandable system.

You know the problem with the CA is they a) did not include you, perhaps you did not put your name forward and b) they did not / would not accept the advice of politicians or the politically astute.

Well, I predict MMP is going to be defeated , for good reason as you and I know. The question is what's next. Well once the CA gets past the teeth nashing and the affront to their proposal, (hopefully) McGuinty will begin another process. Then again, when I hear about the apathy towards the issue I wonder if they is another solution. Except I don't really know what the problem is other than low voter turn-out. I was out poll dropping today. One home owner / voter had a sign on their mail box "no solicitation, no brochures NO newspapers" I am so depressed. What is the solution to disinterest and apathy?

cdlu writes at Wed Sep 26 08:32:39 2007...


Thanks for your comment.

I did make a submission to the CA advocating for three things: a preferential or approval ballot, the retention of the 60% passing requirement, and that no form of proportional representation be adopted.

As for setting up another such assembly: it would probably reach the same conclusion as this one. Anyone willing to commit a year of their lives to studying electoral reform already has a pretty good idea of the reforms they want.

The trouble with a preferential ballot is that well-funded and well-organised groups like FairVote Canada don't want them. It is right in their mission statement that they want proportional representation, and so meaningful reform is not on their agenda. Similarly, political parties do not like the idea that voters might like more than one of them, so the notion that voters could be allowed to vote for as many parties and candidates as they like scares them.

If we do manage to defeat this offensive attempt at electoral reform, we will be the third province to reject proportional representation by plebiscite following BC and PEI, along with New Brunswick which found MMP so bad they refused even to put it to a vote. Hopefully the reformers will eventually get the message, but I doubt it.

Ryan writes at Wed Sep 26 09:43:20 2007...

I live in a riding where my representative both federally and provincially are NDP. I vote Liberal. I do not want my vote to go towards my second or third choice, I want my vote to go to my first choice. If I'm the lesser plurality in my riding, fine, I can live with that (begrudgingly), but I would feel immensely better knowing my party vote still goes to support my party and that the representation in the legislature is commensurate with their level of support. We need to hear from the smaller parties because their views contribute to a consensus that is representative of society - many progressive ideas have come from minority positions.

MMP will fail due to the electorate's general unawareness of the referendum and the high requirements for it to pass, but not because it's a lesser system. Once it fails, we won't see any discussion of electoral reform for a generation or more, because an overwhelming majority of citizens in the CA, after being schooled on their electoral system choices, selected MMP and it lost. So we'll get FPTP, the worst of electoral systems, for as far as we can see into the future.


Shoes writes at Wed Sep 26 22:17:39 2007...

Thanks for the reply and you are probably correct that the process was influenced in ways I can only imagine. BTW an excellent letter in the Merc. Question, did they edit it or publish as submitted?

cdlu writes at Thu Sep 27 08:26:11 2007...


My letter to the Merc was substantially longer than their requested length so what they printed was only the second half of it, though that more or less intact. I'm hoping that the first half is printed today or tomorrow. :)

Jamie Deith writes at Fri Sep 28 15:13:21 2007...

[i]BC voters ALSO rejected STV.[/i]

C'mon John and cdlu, you can't seriously believe this if you paid attention to the results. In the BC referendum, STV received a whopping 57.6% of the popular vote and majority support in 77 out of 79 ridings. Ironically those numbers are almost identical to the first-past-the-post result in 2001 that saw Gordon Campbell's Liberals very nearly win a legislature with no opposition! If anyone rejected STV it was the existing political establishment who refused to implement what was clearly favoured by the voting public. Thank goodness the numbers were high enough that they couldn't just fob it off, which is why we'll see a 2nd BC referendum in 2009.

People that paint STV with the same brush as Ontario's MMP proposal have it all wrong. Both systems give much better proportionality but that's where the similarities end. MMP sets aside 30% of the seats for party lists, while STV elects only candidates who receive a direct mandate from the voters. STV even forces members of the same party to compete with each other for votes. (How's that for a refreshing thought?)

I can understand how some people might prefer AV (or single-member STV), but you need to be clear that AV is definitely NOT a proportionate system, and it will NOT promote any smaller parties in the legislature. If anything it strongly favours centrist parties, i.e. Liberals, in a way that most would see as being unfair, i.e. non-Liberals. It's not hard to see why it's unfair. If we had AV in Ontario (or most provinces for that matter), in nearly all ridings the counting would eventually reach the stage where there were 3 candidates left - 1 Lib, 1 Con, and 1 NDP. Of those 3, whoever's last will be knocked out and votes transferred according to the preference rankings. For sake of argument let's say that the NDP comes third. Do you think it's at all likely that an NDP voter will rank the Tories 2nd? Of course not - most of them will settle for a Liberal. Now flip over to the case where the Conservatives are knocked out. You won't find many in that group ranking the NDP as their backup choice. So any time the Liberals are one of the top 2 parties in a riding, they pick up an enormous advantage from the counting system. Great if your objective is Liberal majority governments as far as the eye can see, but in my view this hardly represents the collective will of the people. Nor does it do much to alter the balance of power between the party and its caucus.

Incidentally Ryan, while your concern about vote transfers is valid for AV, in an STV election you don't really need to worry about your 2nd and 3rd preferences helping to elect a party you don't like. There will almost certainly be multiple Liberals on the ballot, so you could choose to rank just the Liberals and forget the rest. You don't even need to look at their names if all that matters to you is the party.

As far as electoral reform for Canada are concerned, STV is simply the only option that gives both representation that is proportional to broad spectrum of political viewpoints, and true accountability to the voters in the riding.

cdlu writes at Sat Sep 29 10:04:57 2007...


You're right. STV is far more democratic and far superior to MMP. If our ballot said something ridiculous like "Ontario's electoral system is in dire need of reform, would you prefer (a) BC-STV or (b) ON-MMP?" I'd be voting STV without hesitation.

That said, proportionality is not the be-all and end-all of democracy. To insist on proportionality makes a couple of assumptions that I do not agree with:

- That parties are more important than the people who make them up

- That this is a good thing

If we assume that parties are, in fact, a good thing, and that parties are more important than the people who represent them, then proportionality is a good thing. Personally, I believe every member of a legislature should be personally accountable to an electorate before a party, and that their first priority should be to their electorate, not to their party. Proportionality is not a high priority for me as proprtionality assumes the value of the party's representation is higher than that of its individual members, something which I will never agree with. STV actually manages to achieve some degree of proportionality while retaining some measure of direct accountability, but, as with MMP, the cost of achieving proportionality is of the distribution of representation.

As someone who grew up in a rural area, the notion that one large riding can be combined with one or more of its neighbours into a larger riding where all its representatives could easily be next-door neighbours in what was once a riding three ridings and half a province away, is not beneficial to democracy. BC-STV implemented as single-riding STV in rural areas and implemented under its original proposal only in urban areas, would actually be sufficiently beneficial that I could be convinced to support it. This could be easily achieved by putting a geographic size limit on multi-member ridings, anything greater than which would be a single-member riding.

A preferential ballot's primary purpose has nothing to do with proportionality. Its purpose is to address vote splitting and strategic voting. There are various types of preferential ballots. The least democratic but easiest to count is Instant Run-Off, or what you call Alternative Vote or single-member STV, which sequentially drops the last place, even if that candidate is the second choice on everyone's ballot. The most democratic but hardest to count is Condorcet, which considers all pairwise comparisons between candidates, allowing someone who is the second choice on everyone's ballot, eg the Greens, to win even if noone listed them first.

Instant Run-Off is a compromise between Condorcet and Single Member Plurality (the correct name for FPTP) that allows, but does not require, people to list a second choice. That it would tend to prefer a centrist party is not definite, but that it would prefer a candidate other than an SMP victor in a riding is a sign of its success in eliminating the scourge of strategic voting.

Mark writes at Sat Sep 29 18:00:50 2007...

"New Brunswick which found MMP so bad they refused even to put it to a vote"

That's completely untrue.

The NEW BRUNSWICK LIBERALS were so against MMP that they refused to put it to a vote.

Probably had something to do with the fact that they got a majority government EVEN THOUGH THEY GOT LESS VOTES THAN THE INCUMBENT TORY GOVERNMENT. I think that that explains why they just tossed aside the good work of the NB Commission on Legislative Democracy.

Jamie Deith writes at Tue Oct 2 01:33:16 2007...


It seems we both agree that parties, and party leaders in particular, currently hold too much power. There's almost no point in even knowing the name of your riding MP or MPP because the system today pretty much reduces that person to party Muppet.

Where we probably differ is whether there is ANY useful place for parties. I actually think that parties do provide a useful rallying point for like-minded individuals, and as a practical matter our natural human tendency to form groups means that in some form parties will find a way into the legislature whether you want them or not. Having said that, there could well be some merit in changing the way that election campaigns are funded so that everything is candidate-centric and not party-centric. This could be done even with SMP (but definitely not MMP, and either way I wouldn't hold my breath). At any rate, I believe there is a middle ground that recognizes that there is a healthy role for parties that does not imply party supremacy over the caucus members.

An interesting question for you: Assume for the moment that you have no choice but to accept the existence and significant influence of parties. Under such circumstances would you rather have proportionality or not?

Another major area where I disagree with you is the impact of STV on large rural ridings (the next-door neighbours argument). SMP ridings should each have roughly the same number of people to ensure fairness, so by definition when you combine 2 or 3 of these to create an STV district you are joining 2 or 3 equally weighted population centres. The only way you're going to get all the reps for the district coming from one place is if the voters in the 'losing' ridings are generally indifferent. I just don't understand your grounds for asserting that an un-democratic result will ensue.

I concur that a preferential ballot is a good thing for democracy because it allows voters to go beyond the "who's your single favourite?" question, but on its own it does nothing for proportionality. Proportionality really requires multi-member districts. Even in a world with no parties, I would still argue that better democracy is obtained using a multi-member system; a much broader cross section of voter sentiment is reflected than the single riding winner-take-all alternative. I suppose one's view on that would depend largely upon whether you think it's more democratic to grant power to the largest faction in a riding, in which case you would favour single-member, or you feel democracy is more about sampling the wider spectrum of opinion in some sort of proportionate manner, which would have you leaning toward a multi-member system.

cdlu writes at Tue Oct 2 10:00:26 2007...


To answer your first question, I accept the signifant influence of parties as it is, but that does not mean I agree with it. I will always object to party proportionality being a consideration in electoral systems because that reality should not be the case. Introducing proportionality legitimises rather than addresses the problem of internal party power. Proportionality is antithetical to representative democracy and I will never support it.

To answer your next point, multi-riding STV will always tend to gravitate toward the most influential part of an enlarged riding. Just like with MMP, candidates have more incentive to concenrate on areas that are vote rich for their campaigning. The point of my argument here is that STV does not stop all the winners from coming from the same place.

I do agree with your last point. Multi-winner ridings is a good solution. There is what I call the "good MMP" and the "bad MMP". Bad MMP is Mixed Member Proportional that is on our ballot. Good MMP is Multi Member Plurality, which is the system cities like the one I live in use for electing city council. We have 6 wards, 2 members per ward. Giving us a preferential ballot and saying the top two people in each riding become the representatives would have the single drawback of engorging Queen's Park with 214 members..

As I've said many times before, proportionality is not a priority for me, so looking for ways to make a preferential ballot proportional is not going to sway me. A preferential ballot is definitely more proportional than a plurality ballot as it gives you a most-approved plurality instead of a most-favoured plurality, which will be a higher proportion of the riding.

I feel democracy is about selecting people to do their best to do well for their electorate, plain and simple. Political parties hamper this as I addressed at length in a post this spring, as does emphasising any aspect of the electoral system other than direct representation. If our municipalities and two of our three territories can run effectively without overt political parties, I see no reason why our legislatures cannot as well.

Ralph Anderson writes at Tue Oct 2 12:56:38 2007...

I would say that parties have a place in democracy. Just not in a parliament of the people. What do you (all who read this) think of having a vote on district representation, and a separate election wide vote on party policy platforms. We must have representation. By separating everything that is party from representation, I can see representation being there for us in the best "what's in it for us" sort of way. They can work that out. Our parliament would get a mandate chosen by the people. Yes, let the people decide, and it's got to be majority rule. Parties would be inclined to put forward agendas in the best interests most of the people. The people we elect would be inclined to accept and follow most of the chosen plan. It's their job. "None of the above" becomes something to vote for if the parties can't convince enough of us to see things in any of their ways. We would still have the representation to run the government if we have NOTA to do.

cdlu writes at Tue Oct 2 14:31:42 2007...


I'm not sure I entirely understand your suggestion. From the sound of it, you are asking if people would like MMP without anyone actually elected from the party vote, and with the addition of a "none of the above" option?

I would certainly endorse a "none of the above" option, where voting "none of the above" results in a portion of seats not being allocated.

Ralph Anderson writes at Tue Oct 2 16:14:05 2007...

to cdlu,

MMP proponents would like us to believe that every vote counts. We know better, it's the ones over threshold that count. It's the Hare formula making sure that parties get what parties want. NOTA coulda bin there. We could save some money. Unfortunately vacant seats will only help the biggest party (the one that didn't need any list seats) to move closer to a majority if they don't have it already. To be effective, NOTA seats would have to have voting power and count as opposed to anything and everything when it comes time to vote in parliament.

As for my subggestion, I will rephrase. Elect our representation, district wide, majority rule. Elect a party's plan (no list, no seats), province wide, majority rule. Have our directly elected representatives go to Queen's Park and implement our directly elected plan. It would be more like a municipal election with a vote on a mayor's vision (taking sides on the issues, but with no mayor), and a vote for ward councillors. After the election, have the councillors elect a mayor from within council. That's my version of an accountable, recallable, representative democracy.

cdlu writes at Tue Oct 2 16:49:32 2007...


I don't think NOTA counting as votes against everything would be particularly beneficial to anything at all.

The idea of the platform independent of the candidates sounds interesting, but highly implausible. What I would rather see is the second part of what you are saying there, with all candidates elected locally by preferential ballot with, at the very least, party affiliation not denoted on the ballot. All MPPs would go to Queen's Park and elect a leader, speaker, and cabinet, much the way NWT and Nunavut do it.

aej writes at Wed Oct 3 00:48:48 2007...

Pleeease stop this. Our province and country are dominated by groupthink. What is minor is not a minor party, but what is minor in a riding. Do I have to live amongst people who agree with me to count? Do not tell me that the person I did not vote for represents me. They are part of a party that votes against what the party I vote for 90% of a time.

I spoke to a WWII vet who voted for a major party all his life and not once was represented by someone he voted for.

Look at this. Take an issue such as autism. People who have kids with autism are all over the province. In one or two places that issue might have been brought forward by an MPP. Or mental illness. Across the board, what are the chances this is an issue that your MPP takes to heart.

Why can't we have MPP's that are stars on issues, that are not stuck with constituencies where the people affected by these issues are not large enough to get the radar, yet across the province they are. Why is it that this middle-aged white man who I didn't vote for is the only one to represent me, just because of where I live.

I don't want to be at the twilight of my life having felt I never made a difference with my vote and my vote was totally ignored. The major parties are doing badly because they do not have the help they need from a more diverse representation that truly represents ontario. They only serve dominant interests, and forget that life will be better when we are all included. We'll know how to deal with problems that today we don't understand well.

Stop this please.

cdlu writes at Wed Oct 3 09:00:51 2007...


What you want, MMP does not offer.

Mike S writes at Wed Oct 10 16:10:20 2007...

Anything is better than the status quo. I think BC STV sounded odd to me at first, but it looks better and better with time. I am surprised that people see political parties as such a problem. To me they are an absolute necessity for the average citizen to participate. You can condense the political ideologies into 4 or so brand names that are easy to keep track of. But to keep track of what their representatives are doing as individuals at every level of government without those brands is too time consuming.

If you did not have strong parties the end result would be tipping the balance of power strongly in favour of incumbents. That is my theory about the sick democracy in the USA. There is virtually no party discipline there and you have voter alienation to the max and moneyed interests buying off politicians all the time.

So when I hear people bad mouthing parties I see us heading towards more of an American system, which I am hoping most would agree would be a disaster.

cdlu writes at Wed Oct 10 20:17:23 2007...


Anything is not better than what we have. Any change should be carefully considered, not just jumped on because it's different.

BC STV is definitely far superior to MMP. It's not good, but it's far better.

Single riding/single winner STV would be very good.

P.J. Mora (pasifik.ca) writes at Tue Jan 1 19:11:32 EST 2008...

2008 Resolution:

To Practice Perpetual-Direct-Democracy

This means to participate in a pacific revolution through ourpolls.ca This computerized social forum is where relevant social issues are listed; you can add your opinions on the topics of your interest; and ultimately you can register your vote on the potential policy of your choice.

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Under our traditional electoral system, on elections' day, we the citizens voluntarily give-up the power to make our own rules of governance; and, we give away all decision making authority to a few politicians for a term of office.

Myths of hierarchic authority (the leader knows best) prevail in our social consciousness making us doubt of our own ability to govern ourselves.

This polling project offers a revolutionary foundation upon which, the disempowered citizens, can begin transforming our present top-down governance into a direct-self-governance.

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Ourpolls.ca is an evolving list of topics. At these early stages, it has been organized tentatively into three main sections:

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Participants, once registered, have the ability to either vote for someone else's already listed point of view, or add their different point of view on any topic.

The uniqueness of this computerized social forum is that you can participate in it by adding your own choice of a potential policy in your own words at your own time; and best of all, you can change your vote when you change your mind.

To build a genuine polling system, all participants are required to register their legal names and address of residence. To avoid fraudulent or duplicate registration, a riding manager checks and activates each account. For verification and accountability of registration, electoral committees for each riding will need to be formed as interest develops.

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