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Is proportional representation too complicated?

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 Summary

The claim that proportional representation is complicated is mostly false. There is little to substantiate it in terms of the experience of voters around the world. 

Proportional representation systems are common around the world. Voters in over 80% of countries in the Organization for Economic Development (OECD – the western democracies) use proportional systems. Voters in places like New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

There’s no evidence that voters find most proportional representation ballots complicated. Voter turnout in countries with PR is higher, on average, than countries with first past the post. And the rate of spoiled ballots is no different from Canada. The overall results of proportional representation in the legislature (30% of the vote = 30% of the seats) is more straightforward than first past the post.

However, the formula to determine the winning candidates is more complex.

More Details

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

  1. How easy it is for voters to fill out their ballots
  2. How Elections Canada counts the ballots (the formula) to get the results
  3. How easy it is for voters to understand the results in their local area, and the overall results in Parliament

How easy is it to fill out a ballot?

How simple a voting system is to use is a highly subjective opinion. There are 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 most voters find whatever system they use now to be fairly easy, because that is the system they are used to.

We can only infer how simple proportional representation is to use compared to first past the post by looking at other indicators. For example:

Proportional representation systems are extremely common

    • 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. 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
    • The trend around the world is towards more proportional systems. 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.  Among countries that already have PR, the trend is towards systems that give voters more choice.

      Voter turnout is higher in countries with PR

      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). It doesn’t appear that proportional ballots are deterring citizens from voting.

      Spoiled ballots are no more common in countries with PR

      Although there has been no exhaustive comparative study of spoiled ballots across countries, electoral reform expert Associate Professor Dennis Pilon notes that the rates of spoiled ballots are no higher in countries with proportional representation. In other words, voters in PR countries aren’t marking their ballots incorrectly any more frequently than they do in Canada. In recent elections, the rates of spoiled ballots in Sweden, Ireland and Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany were .9%, .9% and 1% respectively. These citizens use PR systems similar to those recommended for Canada. This is comparable to the rate of spoiled ballots in Canada’s 2021 election at 1.02%.

    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.

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

    However, first past the post may be difficult to understand when you look at overall results in the legislature. 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.

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