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The world according to David Graham


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An alternative to proportional representation

My opinion on proportional representation is no secret. I think electoral reform is favourable, but I think proportional representation is an inherently flawed concept. For more on that, here's my column in today's Mercury.

The recent federal election confirmed, once again, that our electoral and democratic system needs improvement.

When 70 per cent of voters in Guelph can vote for a progressive candidate, yet the Conservative candidate can come within three per cent of taking the riding, we need to do something to fix the system.

But I disagree with the conventional wisdom that some form of "proportional representation" is the answer.

Proportional representation, the system that a group called FairVote Canada seeks to implement, is not representative. It is a simple electoral system in which political parties are assigned a number of seats in Parliament based entirely on how many votes they received in the election across the country.

It sounds great, until you consider that it means that the members of Parliament the system elects are answerable only to the political parties that named them.

Proportional representation, then, allows parties to be represented in Parliament, but does not represent the people who elected them. Under proportional representation, there would be no Frank Valeriote representing Guelph, no Mike Nagy building his profile and popularity in the city, no Tom King running as a local star candidate.

MPs would live or die by how high on the party list their party put them, not by whether voters selected them to govern.

I disagree fundamentally with the concept of "proportionality" as a worthwhile value in democracy. Democracy means "governance by the people," not "governance by the parties."

On the surface, proportionality sounds wonderful: nearly everyone in the country who votes directly affects how many seats each party will be assigned. In a representative democracy, my question is: who represents who to whom? If we are electing parties to send their representatives to Parliament, we are asking for parties, not voters, to be represented in Parliament. Under any variant of "proportional representation" we have to ask: who represents you and me, and how do you fire MPs if they do a bad job if they are assigned to Parliament by their party and not by us?

Some will tell you that the system Ontario proposed in last year's defeated referendum fixed this by keeping the current plurality system.

All the system, called Mixed Member Proportional, would have done, and would do federally, is give us a system where our local decisions still have to be made strategically, and our votes are still split. Our national parties would stack their lists with friends who are accountable to the party rather than to the electorate.

In essence, Mixed Member Proportional combines the worst of both systems.

I believe our democracy needs some fundamental improvement. There should be fewer appointed candidates and fewer party-line votes in Parliament.

Since Confederation, power has been drifting from the hands of the MP to the hands of the party. Each party is becoming a dictatorship of the party leader, and any form of proportional representation would continue this trend. Power should always be handed to the people before the political party. With that in mind, there is an electoral system I would endorse that solves most of our strategic and vote-splitting problems in one go, without disproportionately empowering political parties or separating individual members of Parliament from the accountability of being elected.

Instant Run-off Voting (IRV), a system used non-controversially in Australia's lower House, is the ideal solution. With it, each voter gets the opportunity to rank their preferences within their riding. To decide the winner, a tally is done only of the first choices on the ballot.

Instead of looking for an 'X', poll clerks would look for the number '1'. If no candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote, the candidate who received the fewest '1's is dropped, and that candidate's ballots are redistributed to the remainder counting the '2's. This is repeated until a candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote.

Vote splitting and strategic voting essentially cease to exist under such a system, without the flaws introduced by the concept of "proportionality." By being able to rank your choices, there would be no risk in voting for a candidate you don't actually believe will win, as voting for that candidate will not negatively affect any others.

FairVote's American counterpart calls for this system to be used in the United States.

I would like to see IRV implemented at all levels of government, including municipally. I believe democracy works more in spite of political parties than because of them, a statement that even Green party Leader Elizabeth May agreed with when she spoke to us at an editorial board meeting this summer.

In an environment where the role of parties is reduced, such as in our municipal government, there is still a risk of vote splitting that IRV would eliminate.

Allowing constituents to order their preferences for whom they would like to represent them, allows the constituents to be the real winners in every election, and it allows everyone to vote their consciences without worrying about voting strategy or vote splitting. It also returns authority and accountability to the person who wins.

That's what elections should be about.

Posted at 17:44 on November 18, 2008

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

Ontario LinuxFest 2008 | columns reform | Frank Valeriote off to a good start in the House of Commons

Chrystal Ocean (challengingthecommonplace.blogspot.com) writes at Tue Nov 18 20:09:23 EST 2008...

David, I saw your column earlier today and wrote a Letter to the Editor in response. Here it is:

"David Graham's article in the Guelph Mercury, in which he proposes the

Instant Runoff Vote (IRV - also referred to as the Alternative Vote),

over proportional representation, suggests that he's confusing

proportional representation with a particular model of proportional

representation, that of a version - and there are several - of mixed

member proportional system or MMP.

"I say this because Graham decries that under proportional

representation, parties rather than voters select the candidates.

"What Graham might have said was that under MMP models, this is the

case to varying degrees and in accordance with the version of MMP


"With the single transferable vote or STV, another model of

proportional representation - the one which drew the favour of 58% of

voters in BC in 2005 - voters, not parties, choose the winning


In other words, you and I appear to want the same thing - the greatest choice left to voters -, but we've a different understanding of what will achieve that.

catherine writes at Tue Nov 18 20:45:26 EST 2008...

I think BC's version of STV has 2 to 7 ridings combined into a single riding, so that you are electing 2 to 7 MPs at once. If voters are electing 7 MPs, and therefore sorting through 20 or more choices, the individual person becomes less important and the party becomes more important. In fact, in some countries using STV, the ballots have choices where you can tick a single box and just get the whole slate that the party supports. Many people go this route, because it is difficult to get to know so many people to be able to make informed decisions.

By contrast, what David is taking about, IRV, keeps the focus on local representation and allows people to vote for individual people, rather than parties. All models of proportional representation remove this to some degree.

IRV would be my first choice as well.

DeanC writes at Tue Nov 18 20:57:20 EST 2008...

Great article David, I agree IRV is the way to go.

I don't like any of the PR systems but IRV is really STV with only 1 MP elected per riding. People advocating STV need to see that we trade one set of pitfalls for another. If you look at a province/territory with a small population, does the whole province become the riding. For example Nfld is a large province but only has 7 seats, do you make the whole province 1 riding or 2? Local representation gets totally thrown out the window. When MPs become less accountable to their ridings, that accountability is transferred to their party leaders.

In STV parties can run multiple candidates in the super-ridings so strategic voting is not eliminated and independent candidates have virtually no chance of winning seats either.

Partisan non-partisan writes at Tue Nov 18 23:43:50 EST 2008...

"independent candidates have virtually no chance of winning seats"

This is just plain untrue.

Unlike our current system, where independent candidates are very rarely elected (particularly independents who were not first elected under a party banner), STV actually elects independents.

Look into Irish politics a little, there is a long history of independents getting elected.

Currently, 5 of 166 legislators in Ireland are independents. In the previous Dail, there were 13.

And that is with relatively a relatively small district magnitude.

If you want to see more independent MPs, STV is clearly better than IRV/AV or first-past-the-post.

To digress, I would even argue that MMP is better for independents, as voters can vote for an independent and not fear "wasting" their vote, as they know that their second/party vote will still count towards representation.

Ken S from Ramara (ramara.greens.blogspot.com) writes at Wed Nov 19 01:00:57 EST 2008...

When I vote, I am voting for the party, not the candidate. By endorsing the party I endorse the list that party submits. With PR at least I will be guaranteed a caucus that is proportional to the popular vote. New Zealand also held their general election recently. The support for the Greens there approximated the 7% Canada's Greens achieved. The difference being NZ has MMP and their Greens will have 8 seats (in a 120 seat assembly). Detractors of PR always mention list MPs as being unaccountable to constituents. I have to disagree. I consider that all of Canada's MPs (and Senators) are my representative. I have made many requests from these politicians and I'm happy to report they all respond to my correspondence with-in days.

DeanC writes at Wed Nov 19 01:55:35 EST 2008...


Instead of comparing apples to oranges in Canada to Ireland why dont you look at a relevant example of Australia's lower and upper houses which use IRV and STV.


1 ind for 76 members using STV


3 ind for 150 members using IRV

MMP will never fly in Canada, party lists have no broad public appeal. People already feel that politicians have very little accountability, nobody wants to see less.

DeanC writes at Wed Nov 19 02:18:48 EST 2008...


It's easy not to value local representation when you are from southern Ontario, you guys have run the country even before confederation. A statement such as yours totally discounts the rise of the Bloc Quebecois or the reform party which were formed to provide regional representation. As much as I hate to say it, nobody fights harder for Quebec than the bloc does, and even though mostly separatists vote for them they still represent 100% Quebec interests. PR reps are not required to represent their whole riding under STV or any riding under MMP, only those that they received support from.

I have to agree that I vote for the party largely over the candidate (but not entirely). But a system that makes politicians more accountable to the party than their ridings is 180 degrees of the direction we need to be going.

janfromthebruce (janfromthebruce.blogspot.com/) writes at Wed Nov 19 08:53:09 EST 2008...

STV would ensure that either the libs or conservatives remained in power, so no wonder you recommend that system. In BC, where it is essencialy a two party system (Libs (SOC CREDS or NDP), it seems a viable option, but in our multi-party federation, STV is just more of the same - liberal/tory same old story.

Yvan St-Pierre (yvanstpierre.com/enblog) writes at Wed Nov 19 12:48:22 EST 2008...

Hi David,

I also oppose PR, for reasons that are parallel but close enough to yours, I think. In my view, a morally demanding view of democracy requires us to put a premium on political compromise between people with conflicting interests (as in a riding), as compared with associating only with like-minded people (as in a party).

But I have to admit that I had never heard of this IRV mechanism before - it never came up, as far as I know, in the alternatives considered here in Qubec a couple of years ago, when there was wide consultation on electoral reform. Yet this appears like a great solution indeed - not only would we then resist letting parties broker the governing compromise post-election, instead of citizens pre-election, but we'd really let citizens have more of a say in the direction of power by using that much more information about their preferences. I really like it.

PS I never followed up on our old discussion about Qubec nationalism, but I haven't abandoned - I hope to get back to blogging soon. In the meantime though, I think I'm 100%with you on this post.

Chrystal Ocean (challengingthecommonplace.blogspot.com/) writes at Wed Nov 19 13:41:23 EST 2008...

Um, Jan, are you perhaps confusing STV with IRV?

Both use the preferential ballot. But STV is a proportional representation system while IRV is, like FPTP, a majoritarian, winner-take-all system.

With STV, the preferential ballot is applied to multi-member ridings, not single-member ridings which is the case with both FPTP and IRV. This is how STV delivers proportionality according to the percentage of the popular vote. (It wouldn't be purely proportional, since there'd likely be a minimum threshold imposed - say, 4%.)

Partisan non-partisan writes at Wed Nov 19 19:56:59 EST 2008...

"A system that makes politicians more accountable to the party than their ridings is 180 degrees of the direction we need to be going."

Dean, neither you or David have produced any evidence to support the assertion that PR "makes polticians more accountable to the party then their ridings".

And indeed, if MMP were to make legislators more beholden, then why were political elites in Ontario almost entirely opposed to MMP?

Partisan non-partisan (fairvote.ca) writes at Wed Nov 19 20:02:08 EST 2008...


If we are going to make comparisons between IRV and STV, in terms of whether they are more likely to allow for the election of independents, we can't just exclude any countries from the comparison.

I bet if we were to create data set of STV elections (Ireland and the Australian Senate) and IRV elections (Australia and any other countries), I'd bet that there are more independents elected under STV.

If you do that and I'm wrong, I'll send you a case of beer.

Heck, you could even include Malta in the STV data set, which I know has an entrenched two-party system, and there would still be more independents elected under STV.

Partisan non-partisan (fairvote.ca) writes at Wed Nov 19 20:03:55 EST 2008...


If you want a system that puts a premium on compromise, then you're looking for PR.

Proportional voting systems are going to better promote compromise than majoritarian systems like AV/IRV and first-past-the-post.

DeanC writes at Wed Nov 19 21:22:51 EST 2008...


Anybody that conducts scientific or statistical studies that are recognised to have any merit, eliminate the intangibles. For example to compare Ireland to Canada doesn't account for demographics, geographical differences or cultural differences. Even big differences in time can affect the data, 1950s society is different than today's. If you wanted a good source of data, comparing Aussie data over multiple elections might be good because all of those factors are eliminated. I have no interest in compiling data myself, I don't know why fairvote doesn't do it, that's right they are already biased against IRV.

IRV does one thing that no other voting system can do that I know of (and that includes PR & FPTP systems). IRV is the only system that allows a voter to vote against a party or candidate. This is accomplished by ranking that candidate last in your preferences. Before you say that STV allows you to do the same, no it doesn't and here is why. There are voters that always vote for the same party because they are ideological or partisan. This is a parties base, well PR systems guarantee that the parties base ensures that a given party will always be represented. To further illustrate this example, look at the election that defeated Kim Campbell in 93, the PC party still received a sizable 16% (3rd place) of the vote but won 2 seats. The electorate clearly wanted change because the Mulroney government was clearly unpopular at its end and deserved to be tossed. Now to how this makes MPs accountable to their ridings. In a MMP system a long time MP may lose his riding but get back door'd in on the party list. In STV each party will/may have multiple candidates within the super ridings and parties will tell they supporters what order to preference them, you can bet the good old boys that have seniority and been loyal to the party will be the first stringer for their party within the super riding. IRV allows you to vote against bad incumbents, thus incumbents have to be more responsible to the riding.

Yvan St-Pierre (yvanstpierre.com/enblog) writes at Thu Nov 20 07:54:13 EST 2008...


I guess I didn't express myself correctly. I believe in a system that promotes individual citizens' compromise, not one where politicians take over that responsibility by engineering coalitions and policies that nobody voted for.

I don't see PR promoting that at all - on the contrary, strategic voting in a PR system means more radicalization on the part of citizens, whereas in FPTP it means voting against what we believe to be too radical.

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