A brief essay on the subject of Alternative Voting Systems

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The results of the 41st Canadian election (to wit: a Conservative majority in Parliament with about 40% of the popular vote) have engendered a bit of consternation among my more left leaning friends (and as a right-wing kook, many, possibly even most, of my friends are to the left of me), and a bit of reflexive stumping for the merits of alternative voting schemes, notably instant-runoff systems or proportional representation systems.

The first question I have for proponents: "what problem are you trying to solve?" That's not rhetorical. The second question is: "how's your voting system working out where it's been tried?" Also not rhetorical.

Instant-runoff is used in a few countries, most notably Australia. The result is that Oz has a de facto two party system, with major left-of-centre and right-of-centre parties dominating a coalition of lesser parties, and currently there are only four parties with any representation in the lower house (and a fifth in Australia's PR-ish elected Senate).

Proportional representation systems are common in Europe, though Italy's notorious andcomplex system was revised in 2005 to give a "plurality bonus" in order to ensure a working majority for the leading coalition. Meddling by Berlusconi, or a desperate reform of a system more famous for elected porn stars than good governance? (OK, it's unfair to mention a pol who has been out of office for so long. These days, Italy's representatives are perfectly normal.

The other vice of proportional representation is that it increases the primacy of party over individual representatives, as your standing on the party list is what matters, not whether you can appeal to a plurality of voters in a geographical riding. I believe, not always on strong evidence, that geography, community, and the individual representative should matter, and do matter.

Voting systems aside, I have come to an unproven (and possibly unprovable) theory that the great virtue of democracy is the ability to eject leaders before they wish to leave. I don't know that it does a great job of selecting leaders, but it seems good enough. At least it strips away the craziest strivers for power, more or less.

I submit that there's a virtue in giving a tight leadership group a relatively free hand and a reasonably long mandate, the proverbial elected dictatorship that majority-government Westminster parliaments are sometimes accused of being. At the next election, that party stands or falls on their record.

A leader can still be ousted early by losing the confidence of their caucus (just ask Gordon Campbell and Carol James, or Jean Chretien), which acts as another sort of fail-safe on politicians overstaying their welcome, or getting too radical between elections.

Mostly minorities

It's true that without FPTP, Steven Harper would not have a majority today. But less noted is that no party has won a popular-vote majority in the last 20 years. The Liberal majority parliaments in that era were all based on support around the 40% mark. The last leader to receive more than 50% of the popular vote? Brian Mulroney in 1984.

One more zing

My friends to the left do seem to delight in pointing out that turnout is relatively low (at 60%, this election saw turnout slightly higher than historic low of the 2008 election, but far from the historic high in 1958) and that voters tend to skew older and more conservative than non-voters. There seems to be a belief this indicates a general disaffection with the electoral process (and maybe even a certain illegitimacy of the result).

I like to point out that there is may be a turnout crisis, but apparently only among supporters of the left, and why is the left so incompetent at GOTV?