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“Ranked ballot” is not a voting system – a ranked ballot is just a tool. It’s the ability to express preferences using numbers on a ballot.

Ranked ballots can be used in a proportional system OR in a winner-take-all system. It’s the family of system – its aims and outcomes – that really matters the most.

Proportional (PR) systems make almost every vote count: most voters end up represented by someone they helped elect.  In a proportional system where parties are involved, the seats each party earns will closely reflect its popular vote. If a party earns 39% of the the votes, they will get about 39% of the seats. PR promotes cooperative, stable governance.

Winner-take-all systems, by contrast, divide voters into “winners” (voters who got the representation they wanted) and “losers” (who are stuck with a representative who doesn’t share their values).

Fair Vote Canada’s position paper from 2009 on the Alternative Vote (AV – the winner-take-all ranked ballot) is here. Read more at the links below, or scroll down to read the problems with winner-take-all ranked ballots in a nutshell!

Why winner-take-all ranked ballots can make politics worse:
in a nutshell 

Justin Trudeau, Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and the media often talk about “a ranked ballot.” Technically, “ranked ballot” is not a voting system. Ranked ballots (the ability to mark preferences with numbers) can be used in proportional systems, too.

But what the Liberals and the media always mean is one specific system – the winner-take-all system, Alternative Vote (AV). Read more in-depth at the links above or watch our webinar at the bottom of the page for more info.

1) Non-proportional ranked ballots can deliver results that are even LESS proportional than first-past-the-post!

Non-proportional ranked ballot can make the results of our elections even less proportional than they are today.

Expert testimony to the federal Electoral Reform Committee concluded that winner-take-all ranked ballot was the one system that would deliver results that were less proportional than first-past-the-post. The UK Independent Commission on the Voting system concluded the same thing.

False majority governments will continue just like with first-past-the-postgovernments which get all the power with less than 50% of the vote. In fact, of the 27 majority governments in Australia since 1949, only ONE had the support of 50% of voters.

Experts tell us that winner-take-all ranked ballots risk exaggerating landslides even more. (For a recent example of this, see the picture at the bottom of this page comparing two elections in Australia).

2) Non-proportional ranked ballots are not supported by evidence.

In 2016, the federal Electoral Reform Committee (ERRE) spent five months doing an in-depth look at electoral reform options. Hundreds of experts were called from Canada and around the world. The MPs on committee (including the Liberal MPs) could request experts to testify (Fair Vote Canada had no influence over this). 88% of the experts recommended proportional representation and only 4% recommended winner-take-all ranked ballot.

There was less support among experts for winner-take-all ranked ballot than for first-past-the-post. No commission or committee in Canada has ever recommended Alternative Vote, because it continues or exaggerates the problems with first-past-the-post.

There are only two countries that use winner-take-all ranked ballots to elect governments at the national or level or the equivalent of a provincial level: Australia and Papua New Guinea. By contrast, over 80% of OECD countries use proportional systems.

3) Non-proportional ranked ballots will continue adversarial, hyper-partisan politics.

Claims that politics will be more “civil” before or after the election are grossly overexaggerated or downright misleading.

When the UK had a referendum on winner-take-all ranked ballot in 2011, impartial experts warned not to expect improvement in the tone of politics, except “at the margins”. Under winner-take-all ranked ballot, elections will remain a vicious fight mainly between two big parties.

Politics in Australia has become so hostile with winner-take-all ranked ballot that MPs were ejected from the Parliament by the Speaker hundreds of times over just a couple of years, and this pattern is only getting worse.

There is no cooperation between parties in Parliament because the winner-take-all ranked ballot almost always produces false majority governments. This means the two parties attack each other in hopes of gaining or maintaining 100% of the power at the next election.

Trust in political institutions hit an all-time low in Australia a few years ago, in large part due to public dislike of the tone of politics, which one expert called “blood sports”. A 2019 election study showed that only 12% of people think the government is run “for the people” and 56% believe it is run for “a few big interests”.

4) Non-proportional ranked ballots can lead to “wrong winner elections”

This means Party A wins more of the popular vote (more voter support) but Party B forms a majority government. This has happened multiple times in Australia.

5) Non-proportional ranked ballots could drive us closer to a two party system.

The one thing winner-take-all ranked ballots have done well in practice in Australia is to drive almost all the votes for third parties and smaller parties into the baskets of the two big tent parties. Instead of more accurately reflecting the diversity of the voters, non-proportional ranked ballot could make the near-monopoly the two big parties have on our system even worse.

6) Non-proportional ranked ballots continue the problem of “policy lurch”

Policy lurch occurs when one government almost completely reverse the policies of the previous government. (For example, Jason Kenney promised to spend the first 100 days undoing Rachel Notley’s policies). Policy lurch has had a devastating effect on climate policy in Australia, limited what it is politically possible to achieve. Australia ranks last for policy on the 2021 Climate Performance Index. Evidence shows that countries with proportional representation outperform winner-take-all countries, in part because they are able to make, sustain, and gradually improve over time.

7) Non-proportional ranked ballots do not end strategic voting.

Any winner-take-all system where a single party can get 100% of the power with 40% will be rife with strategic voting—parties telling you how to vote stop the “bad guys” from winning and deliver the most votes to them.

Ranked ballot just change what strategic voting looks like. The ranked ballot allows you to put your true preference in the #1 position (so you may feel better for a moment), while the big parties fight it out for the strategic #2 votes from the voters in a few swing ridings.

In Australia’s national Parliament, parties give voters “how to vote” cards telling them how to rank their rank their choices and fearmonger about what will happen if the other party wins.

In other parts of Australia, the parties urge supporters to only mark only a #1, with dishonest messages about what bad things could happen if you rank more choices.

In any case, unless your #1 choice is the most popular candidate in the riding, your true preference will be ignored anyway. Just like with first-past-the-post, the the real battle is between the two biggest parties in your riding.

If you live in one of handful of swing ridings – the only ones that matter in winner-take-all systems – your strategic third or fourth choice could end up helping the big party you dislike less. Just like your strategic vote does now.

8) Non-proportional ranked ballot make it harder for voters of third and smaller parties to be fairly represented

For example, the Green Party in Australia regularly gets over 10% of the popular vote in Australia (about twice the support of Canadian Greens) but has only ever been able to elect ONE MP to their National Parliament. That’s because under winner-take-all ranked ballot, votes for third parties just get funneled back to the big two parties through preferences.

In 2019 in Australia, parties other than the big two parties got over 25% of the vote – but only 3% of the seats.

Winner-take-all ranked ballot makes it harder for new challengers to break into the system. When winner-take-all ranked ballot was used for forty years on Canada’s prairies, a greater number of parties ran in the election, but no more parties won seats: other voters were shut out of representation.

9) Non-proportional ranked ballots will not increase the chances of moving to a more proportional system.

Any system that advantages and concentrates power even more with the biggest parties will make it even more unlikely they will be willing to share it later.

Australia’s Parliament has had winner-take-all ranked ballot for over 100 years and has almost no chance of moving to PR, despite some of their states/territories demonstrating how well a proportional ranked ballot can work.

When winner-take-all ranked ballot was used on Canada’s prairies for decades, reformers hoped it would lead to PR, but advocacy feel on deaf ears. Eventually the politicians brought back first-past-the-post. The same thing happened in British Columbia when one party brought in winner-take-all ranked ballot for a few years – hoping to advantage themselves – in the 1950’s. A few years later, a different party just brought back first-past-the-post.

10) Non-proportional ranked ballots are highly likely to benefit one party over others.

Different experts (going back to 1980), multiple simulations, and an actual mock vote run alongside an election have all shown the same thing: winner-take-all ranked ballot would benefit the Liberal Party at the expense of other voters. When the Liberals push a winner-take-all ranked ballot, it’s clearly for their own self-interest.

Being the second sincere or strategic choice of voters to the left and right in swing ridings, the Liberals would very likely win even more the seats despite having no more popular support than they do now. This could deliver grossly exaggerated majority governments even more frequently, where no compromise or power-sharing is required.

Watch our webinar on the Alternative Vote:

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