Preferential ballot will not address Islanders’ concerns
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.