MYTH #6 – Is a “Ranked Ballot” a Voting System??

2016_03_FVCmythusting_06_ranked ballot

When discussing electoral reform options for Canada, the mainstream media is spreading a lot of confusion about “ranked ballots”.

Controversy makes a more appealing story, and the most common way the electoral reform options are presented is “ranked ballots versus proportional representation.”

Two Families of Systems

Let’s start with the basics.2016_01_2Families5

Proportional representation isn’t a voting system. It’s a principle that says 30% of the vote should earn a party about 30% of the seats.

The other way to look at proportional representation is as a family of systems where the point is to produce a legislature which reflects how people voted.

On the opposite end, you have the majoritarian/plurality family of systems. The goal of systems in this family is to create a manufactured, single party majority government.

The problem with majoritarian systems is they are designed to keep most voters out. Consider the fact that there are 25 million eligible voters in Canada and only 4.6 million voters elected the MPs that have currently have 100% of the power – less than 20% of voters. Yet, they hold a majority of the seats in the House of Common.

How “Ranked Ballots” Fit In

Ranked ballots aren’t a voting system. They are a mechanism within a system that determines how votes are counted.

Ranked ballots can be used in winner-take-all systems and proportional systems. They are sometimes called “preferential ballots”.

Australia uses ranked ballots in their majoritarian-winner-take-all system and they call the system ‘the Alternative Vote’.

When the mainstream media uses the term “ranked ballot” they almost always use it to refer to a particular winner-take-all voting system used in Australia’s lower house which is properly called Alternative Vote (AV). All winner-take-all voting systems create false majorities, including the Alternative Vote. That’s the point of these systems – manufactured majorities.

But, it can be used in a proportional system as well – such as STV or MMP. With either STV or MMP, the larger the district, the more proportional are the results.

When you use a ranked ballot or preferential ballot in a proportional system you have a few options. For instance, Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote. This system is also used in Australia’s Senate, You can also add a ranked ballot to a Mixed Member Proportional system like the model Fair Vote Canada has illustrated here.


What problems are we trying to fix?

The problems associated with all the systems in the winner-take-all family – phony majorities, ineffective votes, wild distortions – are what we are trying to fix.

Proportional systems – whether they use a ranked ballot or not – will fix the problems with first-past-the-post.

Winner-take-all systems – whether they use a ranked ballot or not – will not fix the problems we find with majoritarian systems.

Some people are only aware of the winner-take-all system, Alternative Vote, which uses a ranked ballot. They mistakenly rally against all “ranked ballots” believing they are “not proportional” when a ranked ballot has nothing to do with proportionality. It all depends on how and where the ranked ballot is used.

A Word about Alternative Vote (AV)

Alternative Vote (AV) is the system used in Australia to elect its lower house. AV is used nationally in just two countries (Australia and Papua New Guinea).

Essentially, AV means holding 338 instant run-off votes to elect our 338 members of Parliament. The results are: millions of wasted votes and overall results which are equally distorted to what we experience today. AV is not the least bit proportional.

AV to elect our Parliament would mean replacing one winner-take-all system with another.

The last 12 commissions in Canada – including citizens and experts – looked objectively at  AV and rejected it.

As some commentators have pointed out, AV appears to be a partisan solution for one party, with projections that the Liberals would have won 224 seats instead of 184 had it been used in 2015.

Alternative Vote (AV) to elect a single position – like a party leader – makes sense. It makes no sense when the goal is to elect a representative body.

More Detail on How Ranked Ballots can be used in Proportional Systems

How can ranked ballots be used in proportional systems?

  1. Mixed Member Proportional with a ranked ballot Jenkins-ballot

With MMP, you have two votes – one for your local constituency representative, and one for a candidate from your preferred party’s regional list.

The Law Commission of Canada recommended that ⅔ of the seats be constituency seats, and ⅓ regional top-up seats. 

In countries around the world that currently use MMP, the constituency MP seats are elected with first-past-the-post.

However, these local members could also be elected using a winner-take-all ranked ballot in each constituency. This would probably deliver the same local winner as first-past-the-post over 90% of the time but because of the regional top-up seats, the outcome of the system would still be proportional.

The regional seats could also be elected using a ranked ballot. Instead of just picking one candidate from you’ party’s regional list, voters could have the option of ranking them.

With MMP, the overall results in the region, and nationally, are proportional.

2) Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) STV-ballot-realistic

STV is the proportional system used in Ireland. STV was recommended by the BC Citizens’ Assembly and received 58% of the vote in the first BC referendum. .

Essentially, you take several ridings which now each elect a single member using first-past-the-post, and combine them to create a local district which elects a team of MPs using a ranked ballot. (The number of MPs per local district will vary by area).

Voters can rank as few or as many local candidates as they like.

STV gives voters the ability to rank candidates across party lines and often even rank candidates of the same party – if they choose.

With STV, the overall results in the district, and nationally, are proportional.

In Summary

There is no voting system in the world called “ranked ballot.”

A ranked ballot is just a tool that allows voters to mark 1, 2, 3…

It can be used in a proportional system – such as STV or MMP – or in a winner-take-all system, such as Alternative Vote.

When the media refers to “ranked ballots” they almost always mean Alternative Vote, or describe Alternative Vote. This unnecessarily confuses people and paints high quality, highly proportional systems with the same brush.

The Liberal Party platform stated that they will “make every vote count” and they will consider “proportional representation” and “ranked ballots.” Only proportional systems come close to making every vote count.

The Liberals did not specify which form of proportional representation they are most interested in, or what role a ranked ballot would play. These are questions the committee will wrestle with after the public consultations.

The main message that Canadians will deliver to the committee over the next 12 months is that we want voter equality – to make every vote count.

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