Proportional representation is not 'too complicated' -- the fix is in

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The voting reform debate in Canada is full of statements like these:

"I don't support pure proportional representation. I prefer a mixed system."

"We need to support proportional representation and stop these ranked ballots."

"If we get ranked ballots, it is a step closer to proportional representation."

Note that these positions on voting systems appear coherent but are actually complete nonsense. And, that is intentional.

The federal Liberals have exacerbated this confusion by being vocal about the need for electoral reform and equitable representation in Canada -- even proclaiming the 2015 election to be the last under the first-past-the-post system -- and voicing tacit support for a preferential ballot system that will accomplish nothing of the kind.

The notion "any type of electoral reform will do" is misguided -- and the thought that proportional representation is too confusing is incorrect.

Sowing confusion about fair representation

Opponents of fair voting have found that the two most effective interventions in preventing Canadians from getting the proportional representation are:

1. sowing confusion about voting systems and the terms that refer to them; and

2. feigning ignorance about voting systems

When voters hear a constantly shifting set of contested terms, the statement that "proportional representation is too complicated" gains traction; voters disengage from the issue of reforming our voting system and reforms designed to further reduce representation of Canada's diverse communities can be peddled as the opposite.

It's not an accident. An alliance of paid Ontario Liberal staffers and Liberal-aligned think tanks decided in 2009 that the best way to re-institutionalize Canada's "natural governing party" was to change the voting system to one even less democratic and representative than the current one.

One of the first measures this group took was to popularize and subsequently redefine the term "ranked ballots." Until 2009, in Canada, "ranked ballot" meant the same thing it does anywhere else: a ballot marked with numbers instead of "x"s.

And what determines whether a voting system is fair or proportional is not how it is marked but how it is counted. But this campaign deliberately sowed confusion from its inception.

Ontario takes cues from B.C.'s confusion

For instance, in 2005 and 2009, British Columbians voted in two referendums on using the kind of proportional representation system currently used to elect Ireland's Parliament and Australia's senate, called Single Transferable Vote (STV).

STV requires the use of a ranked ballot. But so does the system for choosing Australia's lower house and the leaders of Canadian political parties in their internal elections.

This voting system, called Alternative Vote (AV) or Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is one of the least proportional in the world. Had it been used in Canada's last election, the Liberals would have won an additional 22 seats, giving them 61 per cent of the seats with 39 per cent of the vote.

The introduction of the term "ranked ballots" to Canadian political discourse as an alleged voting system and its aggressive popularization began during the 2009 STV referendum in B.C., when NDP-aligned activists who opposed proportional representation staged an effective but dishonest campaign.

They successfully convinced many British Columbians that they were not voting on STV, a form of proportional representation, but on AV/IRV, one of the few systems less fair, proportional and representative than our current first-past-the-post. This campaign was especially effective with elderly voters who remembered the 1952 and 1953 elections that were held under AV/IRV.

Having witnessed this successful manipulation of the voting public, Toronto-based Liberal groups and organizers appear to have decided to take this show on the road and conflate all voting systems that use ballots marked with numbers under the name "ranked ballots," in order to convince voters that, by switching to AV/IRV, they were moving towards proportional representation.

On April 4, Ontario announced that, if passed, it would introduce ranked ballots for municipal elections beginning with the 2018 municipal election.

Fair voting system is at stake

Referring to "ranked ballots" as a voting system makes no more sense than referring to the dozens of diverse electoral systems -- including both proportional and FPTP systems -- as "Xed ballots."

What matters far more than what you mark on a ballot is how those marks are counted.

In STV, for instance, voters cast ballots in multi-member ridings and rank candidates in order of preference. Each candidate needs a quota roughly equal to the number of ballots cast divided by the number of members representing the riding. The candidates with the fewest first-choice votes are eliminated and their votes are redistributed to their second, third, etc. choices indicated on the ballots.

The result is that ridings produce cross-partisan delegations of MPs or MLAs based on the share of the vote won by their party.

STV is my favourite system because, like regional list systems, they produce a diversity of local MPs so that nearly everyone in a riding has an MP whose ideology they share and whom they voted for.

It also has the added virtue that, because voters get to rank individual candidates and a single party never sweeps a single riding, members of party unhappy with its current crop of MPs or MLAs can defeat their representatives by ranking their party's new candidates ahead of its incumbents.

In Ireland, MPs are routinely defeated by members of their own party, renewing caucuses regularly and keeping them responsive to the party base.

But I don't love STV so much that I would ever oppose another form of proportional representation just because it was not my favourite kind. At the end of the day, any system where all votes count equally, where no votes are wasted, where a party's share of the seats corresponds to their share of the vote -- that is, any form of proportional representation -- is better than the alternative.

As we fight for a fair voting system for our nation in the coming months, our opponents will not argue honestly for their preferred system. Instead, they will seek to sow confusion and disunity amongst reformers.

Our best way to inoculate ourselves against this is to be clear in our language, precise in our arguments and willing to call out deception where we see it.


Interested in contributing to this series on proportional representation? Send us a pitch to [email protected] with the title "Proportional representation series"

Part 1: Proportional representation is not 'too complicated' -- the fix is in

Part 2: Activists gear up for 'historic opportunity' to usher in proportional representation

Part 3: Proportional representation for Canada: A primer

Part 4: Nation-to-nation recognition, not electoral reform, key to increasing Indigenous voter turnout

Stuart Parker, a Surrey-based writer and university lecturer, has been a leader in Canada's electoral reform movement since 1996, serving on the boards of the Electoral Change Coalition, Fair Voting BC and Fair Vote Canada. He is currently the president of MoVE: the Movement for Voter Equality and Los Altos Institute. His political writing can be found at

Photo: flickr/ liz west

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