As the 2015 election campaign winds down, it is worth considering the Liberals’ and NDP’s electoral reform promises and the impact that they could have on future elections. Both parties have made commitments to replacing Canada’s first past the post electoral system. The NDP has put forward the most concrete proposal of the two parties, committing to adopting a mixed member proportional (MMP) system before the next election. The Liberals have promised to conduct public consultations on changing the electoral system. Justin Trudeau’s preferred system is alternative vote (AV) (otherwise known as a ranked ballot), but there is some division in the Party as to what electoral system should replace first past the post. The decision over whether to adopt AV or MMP has important long term consequences for both the Liberals’ and the NDP’s long term electoral success. Alternative vote systems will favour the Liberals while mixed member proportional system will favour the NDP and the Green Party.
Alternative vote systems and mixed member proportional systems work very differently. AV is very similar to first past the post in that prospective MPs run in ridings and parties’ representation in parliament is determined by the number of ridings that they are able to win. Unlike first past the post systems though, AV requires that candidates win at least 50% of the vote in their riding to be elected. Voters do not just select a single candidate, but rather rank order the candidates on the ballot. If no candidate has at least 50% of the vote after all voters’ first choices are counted, the last place candidate is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are redistributed to their second choices. This occurs until one candidate has at least 50% of the vote. In this system a candidate may be leading after all of the first place votes are counted but end up losing if the second (or third place) candidate obtains enough second choice ballots from losing candidates to overtake the original first place candidate. Alternative vote systems preserve the individual riding representation that exists under first past the post, but require that every candidate that represents their riding obtain at least 50% of the votes in that riding.
Mixed member proportional systems operate very differently. In MMP voters cast a ballot for a local representative and for a party list (these can be selected in a variety of different ways). Some MPs are elected in individual districts using the same method as first past the post systems, but additional MPs are added to the legislature in order to ensure that the number of seats that each party has reflects the proportion of votes that each party wins on the party list ballot. For example, a 100 seat legislature might be divided into 50 seats that are elected from ridings and 50 seats that are elected using the party lists. The Conservative might win 40% of party list votes, the Liberals 30%, and the NDP 30%. If in that election the Conservatives won 40 riding seats, the Liberals 10, and the NDP no riding seats, the Conservatives would get no extra list seats (because the number of district seats they won is equal to the percentage of list votes they received), the Liberals would get 20 party list seats, and the NDP would get 30 party list seats. That way each parties’ overall number of seats would correspond with the percentage of the party list vote they received. The idea behind mixed member proportional systems is to preserve some of the individual riding representation that exists under first past the post while also ensuring that each party’s overall representation in the legislature reflects the percentage of the vote they get nationally.
AV and MMP would treat the Liberals and the NDP differently. The Liberals stand to gain from the adoption of an AV electoral system. Because they are the party closest to the centre of the Canadian political spectrum, the Liberals are likely to be the second choice of both Conservative and NDP voters. In ridings where either a Conservative or NDP candidate finishes third the Liberals are likely to benefit. In both cases the Liberals are the party that is ideologically closer to the third place party, and thus the party most likely to be third place party’s voters’ second choice. In contrast, the distance between the Conservatives and the NDP ideologically means that the NDP are unlikely to pick up many second choice votes in ridings where the Conservatives first. The NDP only benefit from AV in ridings where the Liberals finish third and in which Liberal voters prefer the NDP to the Conservatives. While the Liberals’ move to the left means the NDP are likely the second choice for many of their voters, there are likely a few centre-right Liberals who still prefer the Conservatives to the NDP. The positioning of the Liberals between the NDP and the Conservatives makes them likely to gain the most second choice votes of any party and thus benefit most from the adoption of AV. Alternative vote systems are not proportional systems, and can make it very difficult for parties who are not close to the centre of the political spectrum to win seats.
An MMP system, in contrast to AV, would benefit the NDP. Under MMP voters would no longer have to worry about vote splitting. They could cast their party list ballot for the party that they prefer knowing that every party list ballot contributes to the overall percentage of the vote that a party wins and therefore the number of seats that a party receives in the House of Commons. MMP, like AV would protect both the Liberals and NDP from losing seats as a result vote splitting of the left, but it would not punish the NDP for not being the second choice of as many voters as the Liberals.
The NDP also would benefit from the way that MMP removes the link between geography and the value of different votes. In systems that use only ridings like AV and first past the post, votes only change the results of elections if they push a party past the threshold needed to win a riding (50% in AV and usually 35%-45% in first past the post). Running up the score in ridings that a party has already won does nothing to change the results of elections in either systems. Because the NDP is a left party, its voters are likely to be geographically concentrated in very urban areas and in working class and industrial parts of the country. As a result, the NDP vote is often not as efficiently spread across ridings as the votes of other parties such as the Conservatives. Growth in NDP support in places like Hamilton or East Vancouver does little to help the NDP in either first past the post or AV because the NDP is winning in those ridings by a large margin already. Under MMP, however, a voter can increase the number of party list seats a party wins even if the riding they live in is a safe NDP seat. Increases in party list votes always contribute to the number of seats a party holds, even if those votes come in ridings that a party is winning by a large margin. The inefficiency of NDP votes under first past the post mean that the NDP would benefit from a proportional system such as MMP.
The prospect of electoral reform has many progressive voters excited about the possibility that either a Liberal or an NDP government would be able replace Canada’s first past the post electoral system. Electoral reform, however, should not just be about replacing first past the post, the costs and benefits of different electoral systems have to be weighed very carefully. Different parties stand to benefit from different types of electoral reform, and that is likely influence the kinds of systems they support. Supporters of the NDP should be particularly cautious about voting Liberal in the hopes of getting a government that will pursue an electoral reform agenda. The AV system that some Liberals, including leader Justin Trudeau, supports would do significant damage to the NDP’s electoral prospects.