Pref­er­en­tial bal­lot will not ad­dress Is­lan­ders’ con­cerns

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY JACK­SON DOUGHART AND JEFFREY COLLINS GUEST OPIN­ION Jack­son Doughart is an in­tern with the Na­tional Post ed­i­to­rial board. Jeffrey Collins is a re­search as­so­ciate with the At­lantic In­sti­tute for Mar­ket Stud­ies (

The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has pub­lished a white pa­per on "demo­cratic re­newal". Its au­thors an­nounce a pe­riod of public con­sul­ta­tion and a new plebiscite on elec­toral re­form. They en­dorse a pref­er­en­tial bal­lot to re­place first-past-the-post, mean­ing that in­stead of mark­ing an X on the bal­lot, vot­ers rank can­di­dates ac­cord­ing to pref­er­ence from first to last. If no can­di­date wins a ma­jor­ity of first se­lec­tions, the num­ber-two se­lec­tions from the bal­lots of the can­di­date who came last are added to the to­tals. And so the process con­tin­ues un­til one of the can­di­dates reaches a ma­jor­ity.

The pa­per also rec­om­mends that the province re-adopt dual rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Via lay­ered dis­trict­ing, ev­ery­one would have one re­gional and one lo­cal rep.

While the gov­ern­ment should be com­mended for con­sid­er­ing re­form, three cen­tral prob­lems are worth men­tion­ing.

First is the du­bi­ous struc­ture of the pre­scrip­tions sec­tion. While the plebiscite would give par­tic­i­pants a choice be­tween first-past-the-post, pref­er­en­tial bal­lot, and pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the pa­per only goes into de­tail about the gov­ern­ment's favoured pref­er­en­tial bal­lot. The virtues that it at­tributes to this sys­tem are ab­stract, and could easily ap­ply to other sys­tems. At this pre­lim­i­nary stage in the dis­cus­sion, the pros and cons of all op­tions should be enu­mer­ated if one is se­ri­ous about an in­formed de­bate.

Sec­ond, the gov­ern­ment's case for a pref­er­en­tial bal­lot is mostly pred­i­cated upon the need for more ef­fec­tive re­gional and mi­nor­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Yet, as demon­strated by the Guild's public fo­rum held in June, these are not the pri­mary con­cerns about the cur­rent sys­tem. Rather, the is­sues of a) wasted votes; b) the con­sid­er­able swings in elec­toral out­comes based on small dif­fer­ences in votes; and c) the dis­par­ity be­tween a party's num­ber of seats and its share of votes re­main un­ad­dressed with lay­ered dis­trict­ing and pref­er­en­tial vot­ing. In the 2015 elec­tion, the Greens and the NDP re­ceived a com­bined 22 per­cent of the vote but ob­tained just one seat, while the in­cum­bent Lib­er­als, with 41 per­cent of the vote, re­ceived 18 seats.

Third, ranked vot­ing does not — as the pa­per as­serts — “en­sure that all win­ning can­di­dates en­ter of­fice with the sup­port of a ma­jor­ity of their con­stituents.” Rather, it uses the "votes" of peo­ple who do not ul­ti­mately pre­fer that can­di­date to­ward his or her to­tal. Like first-past-the-post, it will in­her­ently favour the big, en­trenched par­ties. For sup­port­ers of the NDP or the Greens, their bal­lots will most likely ac­cu­mu­late votes for the very par­ties that they op­pose, rather than help those they pre­fer.

Depend­ing on how the rank­ings of a rid­ing turn out, the pref­er­en­tial bal­lot could ab­surdly pro­duce a vic­tor who came sec­ond-last among con­stituents' first se­lec­tions. The psy­chol­ogy of vot­ing is also dif­fer­ent with a pref­er­en­tial bal­lot, where one's sec­ond or third choices could be more mean­ing­ful than one's first.

It is dif­fi­cult to see this as an im­prove­ment. As Is­lan­ders con­sider the is­sue for them­selves, they should keep in mind the al­ter­na­tives of keep­ing first-past­the-post or adopt­ing pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which the gov­ern­ment's white pa­per did not ex­am­ine in enough de­tail.

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