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NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Why a change to your ballot would give the NDP an edge next election Add to ...

If Canada adopted a preferential ballot for its federal elections, outcomes could be radically different – at least according to a new poll. And it would be Stephen Harper’s Conservatives who would suffer the most.

Preferential balloting, also known as instant run-off voting, alternative voting, or a ranked ballot, is a system used in many jurisdictions around the world. A proposal to adopt this method will be considered by Toronto’s city council in the coming months, and it is a system that is supported by Justin Trudeau. It was used in the federal NDP’s last leadership race, and will also be employed to select the next Liberal leader.

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On a ranked ballot, voters rank candidates according to their preference. If no candidate gets 50 per cent support on the first ballot, the candidate that received the lowest number of first choice ballots is dropped, and his or her votes are then distributed according to second rankings. If majority support is still not achieved, the next candidate is dropped and their votes are distributed according to second choice (and, if need be, the first candidate’s votes are then distributed according to third choice), and so on until one candidate gets over 50 per cent of the vote.

A new poll by Abacus Data, surveying 1,014 members of an online panel between Mar. 19-21, provides details of how a preferential ballot would break down in Canada. The poll asked respondents to rank seven parties from 1 to 7 (they were not given the option to rank less than seven parties, as a preferential ballot would allow). It included a few fringe parties to determine whether this system would encourage Canadians to give them more of a chance (generally, it did not).

The result lays out how supporters of each of the main parties would rank the other parties if they had to on a preferential ballot, and there are a few surprises.

A majority of Conservatives (57 per cent) ranked the Liberals second, while 20 per cent put the New Democrats as their second choice. Supporters of the NDP split between the Liberals (37 per cent) and the Greens (33 per cent) as their second choice, while most Liberals (57 per cent) ranked the NDP second. But a large proportion of Liberals, or 28 per cent, ranked the Tories after their own party. For the Greens, 44 per cent ranked the NDP second while 26 ranked the Liberals as their next choice, and 61 per cent of people who ranked the Bloc Québécois first put the NDP as second.

These results should give some pause to those advocating electoral co-operation. Almost one-third of Liberals ranked the Tories second instead of the NDP, while roughly the same number of NDP and Green voters ranked the Conservatives, Bloc, or another party second.

But second choice preference is something that has often been polled before. Third and fourth rankings, however, are never polled.

The consensus Conservative ballot puts the Liberals second, but after that things get less clear. The NDP was most often ranked as the third choice at 37 per cent, but 24 per cent of Conservatives put another party as their third preference (mostly the Christian Heritage and Libertarian parties). For their fourth preference (and in many ridings this would come into play), the Conservatives opted for the Greens or a smaller party.

There were some important regional variations: Tories were split in Quebec between the Liberals and NDP for their second choice, while the Greens (not the NDP) were the consensus third choice in British Columbia.

For the New Democrats, no party had a majority of support on any of the ballots. While their supporters were divided between the Liberals and Greens as their second choice, they were similarly divided on their third choice (people who ranked the Liberals second ranked the Greens third, and vice versa). For their fourth preference, a plurality of New Democrats ranked a fringe party. In British Columbia, the Greens were the consensus second choice of NDP voters, while in Quebec the Bloc Québécois received the most support on the second and third ballots.

The Liberal ballot is mixed after the second choice, with the Greens, NDP, and Conservatives jumbled together on the third ballot. On the fourth ballot, however, the Greens were the clear preference. But in British Columbia and Quebec, Liberals split between the Tories and NDP on the second ballot and in Atlantic Canada the Conservatives were the consensus third choice.

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