The Scoop: Alternative News & Views

Plurality Voting

Jeffrey Aylesworth

01 September 2015 in Politics

We take it for granted that elections ought to be decided by asking every voter who they believe is the most qualified and awarding the election to whoever gets the most votes.

We take it for granted because that is how government elections are held in most of the world. In Canada, every official who is voted into office does so in an election with these rules.

This style of voting is called a plurality vote. A plurality vote is distinguished from a majority vote in that a candidate need only get more votes than every other candidate individually to win an election, they do not need more votes for them than against.

It is not just a technicality that an election may be decided without a majority vote, it is standard. Windsor-West's very popular Brian Masse was first elected in 2002 with only 43% of the vote (more recently, Masse was elected with 53% of the vote).

Where plurality voting falls apart

Imagine a hypothetical riding in a Canadian election with only two candidates, one from the Conservative Party and one from the NDP. Polling of the electorate suggests that 60% support the NPD candidate and only 40% support the Conservative candidate.

However, after a Green Party candidate entered, 25% of the riding now support the Green candidate, 35% support NDP and 40% still support the Conservative candidate. Suddenly, the election has shifted from NDP to Conservative.

The NDP and Green are much closer in ideology than either is to the Conservatives. In a sense, the NDP must compete with the Green Party for votes, whereas neither will have much success convincing staunchly Conservative neighbourhoods for theirs.

Unfortunately, this tends to perpetuate the status quo in elections. Even if the majority of people want things to change there's a lot of trouble in agreeing how it should change. Plurality voting assumes that every candidate you did not vote for are equally despicable options. This is very rarely the case in actual elections.

Honest voting and Strategic Voting

Elections are carried out under the pretense that every voter ought to vote for the candidate she thinks is the most qualified. Because elections are blind, there is no way to enforce this voting policy, but when it does happen the vote is said to be honest. A vote that takes into consideration how others in the electorate are expected to be voting is said to be strategic.

Strategic voting is important because plurality voting leaves a lot of incentive to not vote for the most qualified candidate. It's often a good idea to vote for someone just because they're more likely to win. This has been the sentiment among many Canadians tired of seeing Stephen Harper in office, yet he stays because these votes are split across party lines.

On the surface, pooling support into a single party may seem like a workable solution, it is only a solution in the short term. Plurality voting tends to lead to "democracies" ruled by few mega-Parties. The worst case of this can be seen in the United States where bipartisan policies are often called nonpartisan. Canada is blessed to have been left with three sincere choices (four if you are in a Quebec riding), but most voters are still wary of voting Green or Communist for fear that their vote will not be meaningful.

How can votes be better counted?

Plurality voting creates a poor representation of a population because it has very low standards for declaring a winner. Runoff elections are run similarly but require a majority to vote for a candidate in order to declare a winner. If there is not a majority vote, the candidate with the least votes is removed and a second round of voting takes place. This process continues until the voting results in a majority. In the most extreme cases, many rounds of voting may reduce many candidates to only two.

Holding many rounds of voting is obviously not feasible in modern elections. However, this can be accomplished with a single round of voting where every voter ranks the candidates from most qualified to least.

Other forms of voting have been proposed, for example giving each candidate a score from zero to ten. This allows the vote to record not only how the candidates are ranked, but can tell how satisfied the voter is overall with the choices.

A lot of academic research has been done on various forms of voting systems, often with the goal of eliminating strategic voting by counting votes such that the best strategy is to vote honestly.

But what about the coming election?

We can complain all we want about plurality voting, but there's every indication that we are going to have to face it head on in the coming election. We'll ignore the discussion of whether you should even vote at all.

Understanding that a election system is rigged to perpetuate the status quo is necessary to understand how to interact with your democracy. A vote cast honestly will not make change.

But all hope is not lost. A new voting strategy has emerged in the last decade that has some hope of salvaging plurality voting while we wait for policy to catch up. Vote swapping is an informal agreement between two voters in different ridings to vote in support of the other person's preferencees. Thus, you get say over not only which candidate you vote for, but which riding you vote in. Voters who want to vote Green, for example, but won't for fear that their vote will be meaningless can trade their vote to Saanich--Gulf Islands and vote for Elizabeth May, or into another riding that has a strong Green candidate. Meanwhile, you may be casting a vote for someone who would ultimately like to vote NDP, for example, but does not want to jeopardize a Green candidate.

2017/01/01 Removed reference to voteswap.ca as the website is down.