Why We Need to Stop Talking About Voting Systems!

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Pulling a Trudeau.

With all the talk in recent years about the problems with our voting system, the need for proportional representation, and the headway made in public support evidenced by polls such as this post-election Angus Reid poll, I was completely shocked by this announcement last year.

Ontario Liberal Leader, Steven Del Duca is trying to pull a Trudeau on us and came out supporting ranked ballots in the form of alternative vote, a voting system which gives results even more disproportional than first-past-the-post.  Why does this keep happening?

I will tell you why.

Because as supporters of proportional representation, we have to stop talking about voting systems!

What? Stop talking about voting systems?

Here’s what I mean….


The conversation is being misdirected.

When politicians publicly show their support for a particular voting system, it leads the public, and the conversation astray.  People react to announcements such as this by talking about the wrong things.

For instance, using ranked ballots as our example, supporters often spout the benefits to the voter – your vote doesn’t get lost because if you don’t get your first choice, you get your second choice.  Or that it’s more democratic because the winning candidate actually has to earn 50% of the vote before they can win.


Looks legitimate.

On the surface, this sounds totally legitimate, but it actually distracts and confuses the public.  After all, why wouldn’t you support a voting system that gives you more choice?  Why wouldn’t you support a voting system that actually elects winners with more than 50% of the vote?  Sounds pretty fair.

And then you go down the rabbit hole of debating one voting system over another, as the article above eventually does, and this one, which is full of arguments by a non-supporter of PR that sound legitimate on the surface.

And I am pretty certain, if you looked up similar articles on this topic (including those from Trudeau’s support of ranked ballots) you will find the exact same pattern of people debating the pros and cons of each individual system, and getting trapped in the vicious cycle that is the voting system debate.

Unfortunately, when this happens, as I’ve witnessed time and again, everyone misses the point.

Or at least the point is barely made.


What is the point?

The whole point of changing the voting system is not about how we vote.

And it’s not about how one political party might unfairly benefit or lose using one voting system over another.  Voting is not about benefiting parties.

The point the conversation should focus on is whether the representation that results after an election accurately reflects the wishes of the people.

And the only way to do that is to make sure the results are proportional.


Don’t let opponents direct the conversation.

So what is the solution?

It’s one that takes awareness and practice.

Don’t respond directly to what is being said. 

Redirect the conversation to be about proportionality and the moral and democratic obligation to ensure that the results accurately represent voters’ intentions.


For instance:

“Polls show that voters want election results to be more proportional.  Why is Stephen Del Duca (Trudeau/The Liberals) supporting a voting system (again) that gives results even more disproportionate than first-past-the-post?  Does he believe voters want results that are less reflective of their wishes than the current system?”

“How do you justify supporting any voting system that gives disproportional results over proportional ones?”

“Why should Canadians support a voting system that will reward your party with disporportionately more seats than there are actual voters who support your party?”

“Isn’t it a huge conflict of interest to have politicians decide on the very system that determines how they are elected?”

And most of all, if we do talk about voting systems, we could frame it like this:

“Should we allow an electoral system, put in place by affluent, white, male politicians with colonialist, classist, sexist and racist intent, to continue to exist?  And if not, should it be determined by politicians who are the result of this very system?”

“Shouldn’t the electoral system be determined by a non-partial body of citizens who represent the cross-section of society, just as our elections should result in the same?”

Another tactic would be not to assume that ranked ballots means winner-take-all.  We could come back with:

“Do you mean ranked ballot like Single Transferable Vote (STV) that gives us proportional results, or Alternative Vote that gives us even more disproportionate results than the current system?”


PR leaders need to lead the conversation.

These are the conversations we should be having about our voting system, and the questions we should be pressuring politicians to respond to.

What’s the difference?

The difference is that these questions all lead the conversation in the direction we want, and make it clear that proportionality is the only way forward.

As supporters of PR, we need to master the subtle art of redirection.  If we don’t lead the conversation where we want it to go, then we will forever be lead by the direction of others, which will make the road to electoral reform longer and harder.


Proportional representation is a principle.

On the same vein, let’s stop talking about proportional representation as if it was a set of voting systems.  Proportional representation is a principle.

It’s a principle to be used to guide the design of a voting system so that election results are proportional to what voters voted for.  More about this in a future post, but Guy Giorno talks about this clearly in his talk here.


Whenever someone starts arguing about voting systems, let’s practice redirecting the conversation towards our moral obligation to have the results of our elections be an accurate cross-section of the beliefs of Canadians.

The voting system we eventually choose to adopt or design is secondary, and cannot be determined (and has no place in a debate) until it is determined that we want proportional results in the first place.


So, don’t be mislead.  Keep redirecting every conversation to be about proportionality, not voting systems.