RCV and Solving the Problem of Non-Majority Winners in Canadian Districts

Posted by Haley Smith, Rob Richie on October 23, 2015
Canada's most recent elections epitomized the distortions that a winner-take-all electoral system can produce—including a second consecutive "majority government" that won less than 40% of votes. But the elections also showcased the unfairness within each single-member district produced by a plurality, "top of the heap" voting rule. The candidate on the top of the heap always wins regardless of whether they received 20 percent of the vote or 80 percent. That candidate will then "represent"voters even if  a majority strongly preferred someone with very different views.

Canada has three competitive national parties (the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats), one strong regional party (Bloc Quebecois) and a persistent national minor party (the Greens), which means votes are consistently fractured such that most winners do not receive 50 percent of the vote in their district. Indeed, this was the case on Monday, where five candidates were elected to the House of Commons without even winning 30 percent of the vote. Canadian voters are all too familiar with the phenomena of split votes and non-majority winners—more than half of winners in 2011 also failed to win a majority. Sadly, before the 2015 election, there was much hand-wringing about whether voters ought to vote tactically against their least favorite party or sincerely for their favorite party.

Here are the data on non-majority winners in 2015 and 2011

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Canadian political parties already have rejected plurality voting for their own internal elections in favor of ranked choice voting (often called "preferential voting" or "ranked voting" in Canada). Now they may do so for national elections, as Prime Minister designate Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party have pledged that the 2015 election was Canada's last under plurality voting. Similarly, the Liberal-led government in Ontario is moving to allow its 444 local governments to use ranked choice voting, both its single-winner form and its proportional, multi-winner form.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) provides a more representative outcome than plurality because it allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than only expressing a preference for one candidate,and seeks to maximize the number of voters whose one vote helps elect someone. As the least popular candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated one-by-one, their votes flow to their voters’ second choices. This means winners have to reach out to more voters than they would under plurality so that they can be not only the first choice of their most ardent supporters, but also the second and third choice of a broad range of voters. In its multi-winner form, RCV encourages candidates to reach out to voters for the same reasons and provides fuller representation of the diversity of opinion within a district.

Under RCV, the presence of three strong parties, a regional party, and a minor party would no longer split votes so that candidates win with less than 30 percent support. That's a win-win for voters both being free to vote expressively for whom they want and intentionally to make sure  their vote counts  when the field narrows to the strongest candidates  It's high time Canada adopted RCV to accommodate the realities of multi-candidates  elections and non-majority winners—as we should in the United States.
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