Claim: “Proportional representation is complicated, it’s confusing…” “Voting should never be complicated…”

Stated by: Bill Tieleman, spokesperson for the official NO campaign, Globe and Mail, July 1, 2018. No to PR campaign on Twitter.

Fact Check

This claim is mostly false. There is nothing to substantiate it in terms of the experience of voters around the world. Over 80% of countries in the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) use proportional systems.

However, the formula to determine the winners is more complex than first-past-the-post.

When opponents say “it’s complicated”, they can mean:

  1. How easy it is for voters to fill out their ballot
  2. How easy it is for voters to understand the results
  3. How Elections Canada counts the ballots (the formula) to get the results

There’s no evidence that voters find proportional ballots complicated

How “simple” a voting system is to use is a highly subjective opinion. There are simply no comparative studies asking voters in different countries how “simple” they think their electoral system is to use or to understand. It’s very likely that voters find whatever system they are familiar with to be simple.

We can only infer how simple proportional representation is to use is by looking at other measures. For example:

  • Voters in about 102 countries use proportional or mixed systems, making systems with proportionality the most common in the world.
  • Almost all new democracies adopt proportional representation. The trend around the world is towards more proportional systems and towards systems that give voters more choice. Colomer (2005) finds: “more than four-fifths of today’s democracies in countries with more than one million inhabitants use electoral systems with proportional representation rules (80.5 percent), while less than one fifth use majoritarian rule systems (19.5 percent).” 1
  • According to the Ace Electoral Knowledge Network (Table 1), of 31 countries which have changed their electoral systems in the past 20 years, 27 increased the proportionality in their electoral system and only one moved in the opposite direction.” Based on the popularity of proportional systems, it is counter-intuitive that most countries would adopt systems that are too difficult for their voters to use.
  • Many studies have replicated the finding that countries using proportional systems have a higher voter turnout – anywhere from 5-10% higher depending on the study. The most comprehensive work was done by Arend Lijphart, looking at 36 countries over about 55 years. (That does not mean that proportional representation will increase turnout – see Fact Check here). One can logically conclude from this that proportional ballots are not deterring citizens from voting.
  • Although there there has been no exhaustive comparative study of “spoiled ballots” across countries, the rates of spoiled ballots in Sweden, Ireland and Badden Wuttermburg Germany were .9%, .9% and 1% respectively in their last elections. These citizens use systems similar to those recommended for Canada. In comparison, the rate of spoiled ballots in Canada’s last election was much the same, at .7%. It is impossible to tell how many spoiled votes were due to complexity versus individuals choosing to spoil their votes to make a statement.

How well do voters understand the results with PR?

There are no comparative studies assessing how well voters in different countries understand the results of their electoral systems.

Research does show that voters in countries with proportional systems score higher on levels of political knowledge (Segura, 1997 & Milner, 2014).

Advocates of first-past-the-post will say that it is the simplest system to understand in terms of results, because the candidate with the most votes wins each riding. The claim that FPTP is simpler to understand at the riding level is intuitively plausible.

However, it is not clear whether most voters could explain how riding level results translate into overall results in the legislature with first-past-the-post. Can most voters explain how a single party with 40% popular support across country can win 100% of the power?

Advocates of proportional representation would argue that overall results in the legislature are simpler to understand with proportional representation: 30% of the vote = 30% of the seats.

Recent research from Sweden (which uses a system similar to Rural-Urban Proportional) shows that voters engage in a rather sophisticated form of strategic voting to achieve the nuanced outcomes they want.

In New Zealand (which uses Mixed Member Proportional) about 30% of voters “split their ticket” – giving their local vote and party vote to different parties. These examples suggest a high level understanding of how votes translate to seats among a substantial number voters in those countries.

How complex is the counting?

Every voting system uses a “formula” of some sort to determine the winners, with the counting administered by an impartial electoral body (like Elections Canada).

Opponents are correct that counting the ballots with the proportional options for Canada is more complex than first-past-the-post. However, a different formula than first-past-the-post is not entirely unfamiliar to us.

Alternative Vote was used in BC in the 1950’s, Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) and Alternative Vote were used provincially in Alberta and Manitoba for 30 years, at-large voting is used municipally in many cities, and run-off voting has been adopted in London, Ontario.

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