Friday, February 03, 2017

Politics 101: Proportional voting

Thd kerfuffle has died down, but I suspect that the rage of the extremist supporters of proportional voting will resurface during the next election in 2020. (2017-02-27)

Right now, there’s a kerfuffle about Justin Trudeau’s backtracking on changing Canada’s electoral system. He promised that 2016 would be the last election using first-past-the-post or  plurality voting. Some form of proportional representation would replace it.

A lot of people don’t like plurality voting. We have three strong parties: Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic, each with regional strengths and weaknesses. The Green Party regularly gains 3 to 5% across all ridings (1), and wins in one. In addition we have the Bloc Quebecois, a purely local party, but which has won large numbers of Quebec seats in the past. Each major party wins majorities in some seats, and all have widely varying regional support. The Liberals tend to win in the East, and the Conservatives in the West. The NDP is mostly urban.

The result is that national support between 35 and 40% is enough to form a government. (2) If enough people vote their support rather than their opposition, we tend to get minority governments, in which no Party holds a majority of the seats.

People give various reasons for thinking this is an unfair system. Chief of these is this observation: with roughly 40% support and a roughly 60% voter turnout, about 25% of voters voted for the government, while 75% voted against it. It seems manifestly unfair that only one in four voters determine who governs. Worse, the distribution of seats does not reflect popular support. What about the values and views of those whose vote was cast differently? They will not be heard, it seems. What about people who voted for a losing party? Their vote doesn’t count, it seems. So why vote?

Let’s dispose of the unfairness argument immediately. There is in fact no fair voting system. Several mathematical proofs and demonstrations show that all systems can (and therefore sooner or later will) produce results that most voters do not like. Some will do so most of the time.

Plurality with three or more strong parties magnifies the difference between popular support and distribution of seats, which practically guarantees voter dissatisfaction.

Ranked voting tends to favour second and third choices, practically guaranteeing weak support for the government. Weak support translates into dissatisfaction very quickly.

Runoff voting, like plurality, magnifies the difference between popular support and seats won, since it masks low support for the eventual winner.  Like ranked voting, it guarantees weak support for the government.

Proportional voting almost always results in minority governments, which usually require formal or informal coalitions. Coalitions magnify the power of minority views and values, and of single-issue parties, which tend to be extreme. (3)

In short, all voting systems will skew the vote one way or another. They all cause different kinds of mismatch between what people want and what they get.

So the question becomes not, What kind of voting system do you want? but rather, What kind of skewed voting or unfairness can you accept, and why? And the complementary one, What kind of unfairness can you not tolerate, and why?

I do not like “proportional representation”, as its supporters usually term it. I have two reasons, the magnification of extreme views, and the magnification of the power of the Party.

Proportional representation with three or more strong parties results in minority government. That forces collaboration and even coalition. That’s a good thing, and if politics were on the whole a process for reasonable people to figure out what they want to do and how to do it, I’d have no qualms. But politics is about power, and in the pursuit of power people are not reasonable. The government may have to act on extreme views from one or more small parties to ensure the votes it needs. If it can’t do that, there’s instability. (4)

I don’t like extreme views. They are always held by a minority, thus do not reflect the majority. Holders of extreme views are incapable of admitting the validity of different ones, not even those that are similar. That’s a recipe for trouble, of political and civil divisions, and, too often, bloodshed. Any voting system that gives extreme views more effective power than their numbers warrant is bad. (5) Proportional representation encourages people with extreme views to form Parties, knowing that the odds are that they will get at least a seat or two, and with luck may use those few seats to exert influence on the coalition.

Proportional representation always means slates of candidates, one way or another. (6) Slates are determined by Parties. This means that the power of the Party machine becomes stronger. The Party machine does not like local control of candidate selection, since that makes it easier for a group of  determined local voters to frustrate the will of the Party. Slates make it easier for the machine to prevent that.

I prefer the plurality system, despite its flaws, because it magnifies local control, and it forces all parties to appeal as best they can to the average voter, the so-called mushy middle. There we find a variety of political views and values, ideas that often contradict each other, and the human inconsistency that makes collaboration not only possible but necessary. Parties that have to appeal to that mushy middle don’t drift too far to the left or right. When they begin to do so, they are replaced by the other party.

Bottom line: I don’t mind that Trudeau backtracked on his promise. If I had to choose another system, I’d go with runoffs. Ranked voting does not predict run-off voting, which forces the voter to think twice, which tends to change people’s minds.

(1) A riding is an electoral district. We elect “Members of Parliament” who sit in the House of Commons. We do not elect Senators.
(2) The Party that wins the most seats forms the government. If it has less than half the seats, it’s a “minority government”.
(3) Neither the Bolsheviks nor the Nazis won a majority of seats before they came to power.
(4) See Italy, which changes its government about every 18 months.
(5) See Israel. Most Israelis want peace with the Palestinians, but the government is hamstrung by extreme right-wing nationalist parties whose votes it needs.
(6) Slates are ranked by the Party. If your Party wins 10 seats, you’ve voted for the top 10 members of the Party list, whether you want them all or not.

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