The Time to Support PR is Now

I want to explain why I personally feel so strongly that Fair Vote Canada members should choose Option A: Keeping Fair Vote Canada about proportional representation.  This site reflects my personal views. I do not speak for Fair Vote Canada, or any other individual or organization. Those of you reading this page may already know much of this information, particularly about the Alternative Vote. If so, I encourage you to scroll down to read the sections that most interest you. 

Let me begin by making one thing clear. This referendum is not about whether you personally feel any particular city would be better, worse or the same with run-off voting for councils. If you support run-off voting in a particular locality, join or form a local group outside of Fair Vote Canada and promote it. This referendum is about whether Fair Vote Canada, the national citizens organization for proportional representation, should fundamentally change its mandate right now to endorse a winner take all system for the election of any municipal body.

Alternative Vote in General 

Many of you may already be familiar with the Alternative Vote and its implications. If not, I strongly encourage you to read through the resources linked here, and do your own research.

What is the "Alternative Vote"?

There are two major classes or families of voting systems in the world: 

  • Winner-take-all (also called "majoritarian" by political scientists) and
  • Proportional representation. 

    Alternative Vote (AV) is a winner-take-all system just like First Past the Post. Both keep the same single member (one winner) ridings that we have today (based on the problematic premise that a single politician can represent the views of everyone who happens to live in the same geographic area). AV is also called "Preferential Ballot" or "Instant Run-Off Voting". The difference between AV and First Past the Post is that with AV, voters rank preferences (1,2,3). If one candidate has 50% of the votes to begin with, he or she is declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the smallest number of votes is dropped from the race, and the second preferences of those voters are redistributed. This continues until a single candidate has 50% of the votes and is declared the winner. 

So, what's the problem with the Alternative Vote? It sounds a bit better than First Past the Post.

AV has lots of superficial appeal. Everybody likes to rank things, myself included. It makes me feel like someone wants me to express my opinion, or maybe I even have more of a say. Problem is, in all but a small fraction of cases (somewhere in the neighbourhood of 5%), the same guy wins anyway. This has been studied in Australia for 90 years. In the few ridings where AV could change the outcome, it just shifts votes for smaller parties or parties with less support in a particular riding into the basket of one of the two mainstream parties, usually the centrist party  - the natural second choice or "vote for the lesser evil" choice of both left and right. (You can easily figure out why there is only one party pushing for AV, despite the fact that the independent commission their government called upon to study electoral reform in 2004 soundly rejected AV). The overall outcome of AV is to make a legislature even less diverse than we have today, pushing us further towards a two party system.

In terms of the number of seats a party receives compared to its popular vote, the results of AV are just as distorted as FPTP. In fact, AV can produce even more distorted results. Based on second choice preferences, AV likely would have given the Liberal Party of Canada phony super-majorities federally. The Ontario Three Votes study done last year showed that with PR, the Liberals would have received 30% fewer votes, and garnered 36 of out 107 seats in the legislature. With AV, the Liberals would also have received significantly fewer first choice votes than they did in the actual election, but the outcome would have been the opposite: they would have received 62 seats - almost 60% of the seats in the provincial legislature - forming a super-majority government. In addition, the number of effective parties in the legislature would have decreased with AV (bringing us closer to a two party block). Every citizen's assembly and non-partisan commission in Canada that has studied voting systems has overwhelmingly rejected AV. Despite it's superficial appeal as an improvement, it fails to correct the very problems - unrepresentative legislatures, wasted votes, distorted results, concentration of power - that are causing Canadians to call for voting reform in the first place. 

But doesn't AV eliminate strategic voting? 

AV institutionalizes strategic voting. You can now throw away your sincere vote, marking your true choice number one when your candidate has no chance of winning a seat and you know he/she will be eliminated, and use your second vote to vote strategically for the "lesser evil" to try to block the guy you really don't want. Again, up to 95% of the time, the same person wins anyway with AV. In Australia, the parties give voters voting cards telling them how to vote strategically (in what order to rank the candidates).

But doesn't AV encourage politicians to be more civil to each other, to get second choice preferences?

That's a nice thought. Even if the Parliament, legislature or council is just as distorted or worse, and my vote still doesn't count, I like the idea that during the campaign they would talk more civilly about each other, to try to woo each others voters. Watch this campaign video from Australia and then decide what you think of the theory that AV creates more civil and nuanced debates. Remember, when it's all about kicking the other guy out and getting all the power for yourself, there's just not much incentive to be nice.

If you want to read more about why AV is a poor choice for Canada, check out the report of the Law Reform Commission of Canada,, the Fair Vote Canada position paper on AV, or Wilf Day's assessment.  

Fair Vote Canada National Strategy, AV and Toronto

But shouldn't we be encouraging any voting reform, like AV in Toronto, just to achieve a "victory"? 

Consider the current situation. We have a rare window of opportunity for a major federal breakthrough for proportional representation in 2015. For the first time in history, all three major opposition parties are calling for electoral reform. 

The Greens and NDP already support proportional representation. Public opinion polls over the past decade have consistently shown a strong majority of Canadians support the principle of proportional representation - the very principle FVC is fighting for. 

Non-partisan and cross-partisan groups uniting before the 2015 election are recognizing proportional representation as a key issue and a necessity that will put us on the road to the democracy we want.

Stephen Harper is pretty much a walking billboard advertisement for proportional representation, demonstrating daily why we should never hand one party (whose sincere support is well less than 50%) 100% of the power. Particular provincial governments of other stripes are doing their part, too. 

We need all three opposition parties go into 2015 calling for proportional representation, or open to a process which would deliver a more proportional system. The key missing ingredient to this breakthrough formula is the Liberal Party of Canada. In a split vote last January, the party delegates voted to endorse the Alternative Vote. There is a strong contingent for proportional representation within the Liberal Party. Stephane Dion, who originally campaigned for AV, is now traveling the country, visiting riding associations, reaching out to other parties and groups like FVC to promote his system of proportional representation. He is telling Liberals that AV is not the solution for Canada - it only will exacerbate regional differences and divisions, not fix them. He is opening the conversation at a key time, changing the language in the Liberal Party, and Liberals are listening. 

Already a majority of Liberal voters support PR. Fair Vote Canada activists in the Liberal Party, such as FVC co-founder John Deverell, are pushing the Liberal Party in the right direction through internal grassroots efforts. Liberal leadership candidates such as Joyce Murray, David Merner and Johnathan Mousley are advocating PR. At this crucial time in history, Fair Vote Canada must expend it's energy to help shift the conversation among the public, within non-partisan movements and potential allies, and within parties,  to achieve the crucial three party agreement for PR before 2015. We cannot afford to veer off course by endorsing the non-proportional, self-serving systems, that party elites want. 

In 2011, the UK had a referendum on Alternative Vote (only 32% voted yes, 68% voted no). This referendum effectively slammed the door closed to federal voting reform in the UK. Why were the citizens of the UK given no option to vote for proportional representation? Answer: Because the major political parties wouldn't allow it. The major traditional parties refused to put a PR option on the ballot for voters. Let's not let the same thing happen here. Let's keep pushing the Liberal Party to move towards PR, not build support for AV. Let's not make a tactical error which would encourage an impasse in 2015, where one party holding the balance of power in a coalition or minority government refuses to endorse PR, or even endorse an evidenced-based process to look at all options. Let's not help create a situation where the parties can blame each other for thwarting progress. Instead, let's build momentum and seize this opportunity to get everyone on the same page for a more proportional system. Let's send a clear message to the parties, the public and the media, and encourage what we do want: proportional representation.

But couldn't AV be a stepping stone to PR?

In general, incremental change is a good idea. The argument that we should endorse AV just because it is slightly different than FPTP has appeal, especially for those discouraged by the failure of provincial referenda. But evidence speaks loudly. There is no case in the entire history of the democratic world where adopting AV led to PR. 

Listen to Canada's top voting reform expert, Dennis Pilon, answer this very question at a public gathering recently. 

Remember, making progress in the arena of voting systems is unlike other issues. For the decision makers, it is all about power. How power is distributed and whether it has to be shared. How much power the politicians have, the parties have, and the power voters have. AV is another winner take all system which concentrates power in the hands of two large blocks. It is not a stepping stone to PR - at best, it is a distraction, at worst, a roadblock. 

But Fair Vote Canada could support AV only in cities, where surely it can't be that bad, just to make peace with RaBITs*, but still only support PR federally and provincially. What's the harm in that?

The same newspapers and columnists who are such big cheerleaders of the AV campaign in Toronto are the very same newspapers that worked against us in the referendum on MMP in 2007. The media are not interested in AV only for Toronto, or AV as some kind of lead-in to PR - they argue for it federally, too. Do we want Fair Vote Canada to be quoted in the Toronto Star and National Post explaining how AV works and extolling its virtues? I guarantee that if members endorse option B the mainstream media will not give us extra print space to explain why we suddenly think a winner take all system is a great improvement for 2 million voters in Toronto but would be a disaster federally. They will use it to their own ends. 

Look at any article about AV in Toronto and read the comments underneath. All you will see are people commenting that we should use this system federally, too. We just do not have the resources as an organization to counteract media misinformation and educate people about distinctions. There is much to lose by endorsing AV municipally and little or nothing to gain.

All we will do by endorsing AV in the largest city in Canada is encourage AV federally at the very time we need to be channeling all our energy towards bringing people together for PR.

What is the relationship between Fair Vote Canada and RaBIT?
Many of us respect and admire the RaBIT campaign's accomplishments, but as a national organization for proportional representation we do not need to join them in their mandate. We have never advocated a system which would deny representation to 50% of voters, and would produce councils which fail to reflect how Torontonians voted and the rich diversity of gender, ethnicity and values of Toronto residents. Fair Vote Canada respectfully disagrees with RaBIT.

What Fair Vote Canada activists would like to see in Toronto is a citizen-led, evidenced-based process that looks at all options for Toronto, including PR. If we do not stand up for this, who will?  Fair Vote Canada's contribution to the debate is not going to stop reform in Toronto - if it changes things at all , it will help create the best possible democratic process and outcome for voters.

Unfortunately, despite years of various types of sincere and lengthy negotiations, the RaBIT campaigners in Toronto are not interested in allowing the two separate organizations to remain separate and campaign fully and honestly, joining together in a call for reform and a fair, evidenced-based and democratic process to achieve it. Instead, their goal is to prevent Fair Vote Canada from being a clear and legitimate voice in the process, and to win their campaign for AV at all costs via a vote at Toronto city council. 

After a FVC member gave a presentation to Toronto city council last year on STV, RaBIT supporters decided to run a slate of pro-RaBIT candidates for the Fair Vote Toronto chapter executive. Election of these individuals to the FVT executive has caused severe and unresolvable turmoil, effectively preventing the FVT chapter from having any campaign for municipal PR. Despite a vote by Toronto FVC members in which 73% reaffirmed that FVT should campaign for municipal PR in Toronto, various tactics have been used at all levels of FVC to keep people intimidated and running endlessly in circles. I have no doubt whatsoever that if FVC does not give them what they want, they will take over the FVT chapter and work to fill Fair Vote Canada's national council with RaBITs. Having individuals elected to FVC boards whose primary goal is to make sure RaBIT wins its AV campaign in Toronto will fundamentally threaten FVC's ability to speak up about AV anywhere at this critical point in federal history

It was this set of circumstances, along with the recognition that whether to endorse AV is a genuine debate among FVC members, that lead to Fair Vote Canada's national council deciding to put this question to members in a democratic referendum.

But you can't have proportional representation in cities. Cities are different.

Yes, cities are different. So is every province. Fair Vote Canada has never advocated a one-size-fits-all solution. We've backed many very different proposals over the years, and have always advocated a citizen-led process to make the recommendations. We simply advocate for a principle: proportionality. Proportionality is not about parties. We often think of proportionality in relation to parties because we talk a lot about seats for parties in relation to their popular vote (this is the easiest way to explain how values get represented differently with PR at a federal or provincial level). But proportionality is really about effective votes for voters, and representative bodies that accurately represent the diversity of views of voters. FVC is not fanatical about achieving "perfect proportionality" anywhere - we advocate a citizen-led process to decide, and are supportive of many ideas that genuinely represent incremental progress.

There are many cities around the world which use PR systems. There are many ways that an element of proportionality could be added to the voting system of Canada's biggest city. If you are really interested in municipal reform for Toronto, you might be interested in this position paper and article on options for Toronto. 
Wait a minute. If we had AV in the last Toronto election, we might not have elected Rob Ford! Surely AV must be an improvement. 

Rob Ford did win by splitting the centre left vote. With AV, he might have lost**. But so might Naheed Nenshi - Calgary's first progressive mayor - who won by splitting the right wing vote. In any case, this referendum is not about how we elect mayors! Fair Vote Canada has clearly stated time and again we have no problem with using AV to elect a mayor. In the case where there can only be one single winner to represent everyone (you can't possibly add proportionality), AV is the way to go. But when we have a body of people who are supposed to represent us, let's advocate a system where they actually do. That's what FVC is all about.

In summary:

  • The very mandate of Fair Vote Canada going forward is at stake. 
  • AV is a winner-take-all system, a tinkering with First Past the Post, that can suppress diversity, produce even more distorted results, concentrate power in left/right blocs, and is not a stepping stone to PR.
  • This is the worst time in history to be confusing and diluting our message. We need to be a clear, consistent voice for proportional represention going into 2015. 
  • A diversion away from proportional representation to promote the very system currently favoured by the Liberal Party elite and mainstream media will only put our federal campaign at risk.
  • Let's continue to be a voice for evidence-based decisions, a citizen-led process, and equal and effective votes for all Canadians, no matter where they live. There has never been a more important time to stand up for proportional representation than right now. 

* RaBIT: Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto
** Highly unlikely since he captured 48% of first choice votes, needing only a few second choice preferences to win.