Want to understand electoral reform? Watch the Oscars.
Later this month, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will vote for the best in cinema in 2015, with the winners revealed in February. In most categories – best director, best actress, best screenplay – voters cast ballots according to a system known as first-past-the-post. It's a method used in Canadian elections since Confederation: One voter, one ballot, one choice. You make your "X" next to your preferred candidate and the name with the most "X"s wins.
That's how Julianne Moore won Best Actress last year, and how Birdman took home Best Original Screenplay. Yes, they got the most votes – but they didn't necessarily get most of the votes. In their categories, there were five nominees – and under first-past-the-post, it's mathematically possible to win a five-way race with a mere 20 per cent of the vote. It's one of the criticisms of Canada's traditional electoral system.
But the Oscars use a completely different voting method when picking their Best Picture. It's called preferential or ranked balloting. The Academy's more than 6,000 voters rank their choices among a large field; last year there were eight Best Picture nominees. If one film gets 50 per cent of the first-place votes, it wins outright. But unless that happens, the film with the fewest first-place votes is knocked out, and its second-place votes are counted and assigned to the remaining films. This process of instant elimination and reapportionment continues until one film crosses the 50 per cent threshold and wins. It's like an instant run-off election.
In last year's Canadian federal election, the Liberal platform said the party was "committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system," with a new law ready "within 18 months." The platform never said what will replace first-past-the-post, only that it must go.
It was a rash promise and, in an end-of-year interview, Prime Minister Trudeau doubled down, even dismissing the idea of Canadians getting to vote on any of this by means of a referendum. An issue barely discussed during the election seems to have migrated to the top of the government's lengthy to-do list.
So what are the electoral reform options? There are two main choices: proportional representation and ranked ballots. And yes, there are subspecies of each.
Proportional representation or PR is based on the idea that power ought to be proportional to the votes a party receives – something that doesn't always happen under first-past-the-post.
For example, the federal Conservative Party and its predecessors for years won all or nearly all of Alberta's seats, with no more than two-thirds of the vote. Last fall, the Liberals scored a majority on 39.5 per cent of the vote.
First-past-the-post tends to concentrate power; PR spreads it around. Take the purest example: Israel. Its parliament of 120 members currently includes 10 parties, elected from a single voting district covering the entire country. Canadian MPs are local representatives; their Israeli counterparts are not. And all Israeli governments are minority governments and coalitions – in fact, no single party has ever won a majority in an Israeli election. Under a pure PR system, the current Liberal government would be a minority, and the seat count of every other party, especially the Greens and the NDP, would rise.
Under ranked ballot, Canadians would vote as Best Picture voters do. Australia's lower house – the equivalent of the House of Commons – is elected this way. Each Australian MP represents a riding, just like MPs in Canada; the only thing that is changed is the way the votes are counted. It's widely assumed that this system would advantage the Liberals, as the middle party is the preferred second-choice of many voters.
It's also possible to create hybrids of these systems. That's what British Columbia's citizens electoral commission recommended in the mid-2000s, calling for the traditional system of one-member ridings to be replaced by multi-member constituencies of between two and seven members, with voters casting ranked ballots. It went down to defeat in referendums in 2005 and 2009.
In Ontario, a reform commission proposed a hybrid called mixed member proportional, or MMP. Each voter would get two votes: one for a local candidate, one for a provincial party. Seventy per cent of the seats at Queen's Park would be elected from traditional local ridings, by traditional first-past-the-post. The remaining 30 per cent of seats would be awarded by means of proportional representation, based on a tally of party votes. The proposal was rejected by Ontario voters in a 2007 referendum. MMP was also shot down by PEI voters in 2005.
So how should Canadians weigh these options? Can the Trudeau government save itself from a promise to scrap the electoral system without knowing what will replace it? More on this, tomorrow.