voting system values

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Based on material by Craig Hubley and Julian West. Feel free to edit further and add NB examples. See also the frustrated voter, vote swaps, keep paper ballots and the BSTV+C+L system, and voting system values scorecard

Values, goals and guarantees of electoral reform[edit]

Probably the ideal way to design a voting system is to agree first on what values and principles must be reflected, and which tradeoffs apply. Within the Canadian voting reform community, there is remarkable unanimity on what values are important for Canadian voters. The constitution of Fair Vote Canada expresses these values as follows:

1) broad proportionality,

2) extended voter choice,

3) stable and responsive government, and

4) maintaining a link between representatives and geographic constituencies.

This list resembles the list of requirements issued by the British government to the Jenkins commission. It was first proposed in the Canadian context by Nick Loenen, and then adopted, with minor modifications, by Fair Voting B.C. and Fair Vote Canada. A similar, but slightly longer, list was used by the New Zealand Royal Commission and was in 2005 adapted by the Law Commission of Canada.

Any rigorous literature search will reveal broad agreement about these values. Politicians and electoral reformers on the left and the right, and from all political parties large and small, accept them. At Fair Vote Canada’s founding meeting, they were adopted by a roomful of members, with consensus being reached after including the words “and responsive”, having articulately questioned whether “stability” alone is the actual goal.

While lawyers and professional politicians may agree only on these four broad values, their view is not the only view we must consider. The public has political instincts too – additional values, guarantees expected. The experiences of Canadian electoral reform advocates in actual referenda demonstrate the futility of failing to address these properly.

Let’s consider boundaries. Political scientists broadly agree that government has primary responsibility to manage the relationship between the lands and waters and ecosystems on which we live, and the human infrastructures built on it. When dealing with these very fragile relationships, bioregional borders are recognized as optimal boundaries that are both stable and responsive as a population grows and natural systems come under stress: water, soil, invasive plant species, effectively move only in one direction: down via the watershed to the rivers, lakes and sea. It is probably only these borders that can provide long term stability, responsiveness and objectivity. UN ICLEI and other global agencies recommend marking such borders clearly with signs. Many experts in international relations have commented on the effects of arbitrary borders drawn to separate people of similar lifeways and dependent on similar ecosystems, and the potential to create chaos if policies on how to manage natural ecosystems vary too broadly, e.g. Mekong, the Nile. For these and several other reasons, Canadian municipal borders remain relatively stable compared to federal and provincial districts. A system capable of dealing both with fixed ecological borders and changing populations helps anticipate and mediate municipal disputes - Niagara Region in Ontario, for instance, took over watershed management of small slices of adjoining counties, to prevent any future dispute about watershed policies.

Experience and public opinion suggests a few specific guarantees, each of which extends one of the basic four principles and all of which are satisfied by several voting systems

1a) instant adjustment to ensure proportionality so every vote counts exactly the same without districts having to change

2a) a fair chance for community-based independents - including municipal politicians - without strong (or any) party ties

3a) aligning municipal divisions more closely to the ecosystems they manage and to stable federal/provincial districts

4a)guaranteed fixed and stable divisions of political responsibility for ecosystems protected and used in common

Three further implicit values invariably come up when considering specific systems, each with a related guarantee demanded by at least some of the advocates of that value. These concern election timing, process, public input into the actual persons who sit as members:

5) a relatively predictable election schedule so that small parties or those choosing leaders are not unduly disadvantaged

5a) fixed election dates guaranteed by statute that can only be over-ridden by a specific protocol that delays the writ drop This constraint is likewise more easily satisfied by a system in which seat shifts are generally proportional to the popular vote rather than being wildly volatile with small shifts in that vote in specific districts. The motivation to disrupt and dissolve legislatures is almost nil since no party is likely to gain a large number of seats by doing so at a particular time, and cannot benefit from vote-splitting among its rivals.

6) simplicity insofar as an ordinary member of the public can learn and practice the counting system with no expertise

6a) zero tolerance for any system that does not guarantee a paper trail, paper recounts, or relies on electronic storage

6b)backwards compatibility of the ballot so that those familiar withi FPTP voting systems can participate without spoilage

Nearly universal resistance to "e-voting" among neutral non-industry-allied experts is evidence that guarantee 6a is important to reformers. Many US states have passed laws requiring paper trails and forbidding reliance on any system that only experts can verify. While arguments regarding the complexity or simplicity of a voting system are often raised with the assumption that simpler is better, it is absolutely clear that Canadians do not understand how FPTP system works nor how it leads to such vastly disproportional results. The simplicity of the ballot itself, in other words, is not necessarily as important as the simplicity of candidate selection, counting systems and understanding how to change one's representative. Canadian experience suggests that simpler systems, well understood, such as MMP, receive uniformly poor results compared to more complex systems, such as those based on STV, that satisfy other constraints, notably this last one:

7) the public themselves, not the political parties, makes the final choice regarding who is to be trusted with real power

7a) every individual who acquires a vote in the legislature must have been selected by a process open to public input

Failure to recognize this seventh value at all led Prince Edward Island and Ontario both to propose MMP systems that allocated about one third of all seats to "party list" candidates chosen by the parties and leaders. Both proposals were overwhelmingly rejected by the public almost certainly because of their failure (or perceived failure in the Ontario case) to satisfy this extremely important public trust constraint. American political parties invariably guarantee 7a at least for registered members of their political party. In Canada only party leadership races are subject to any public scrutiny, so there is an argument to permit only leaders and simultaneously elected deputies to reach the legislature by means of proportional seats. Ideally that would only be permitted if the most popular elected member of that party chooses to step aside, and if the party's advertised constitution requires them to - and if their political advertising made clear that this might occur. It could be required also to hold a ratification by-election to clear this substitution with the public, though that would possibly be onerous, or undermine parties.

A report by the Scottish parliament of Ireland’s use of STV noted "heavy emphasis on constituency casework, faction-fighting between candidates from the same party, a focus on constituency, localist matters in election campaigns and parliamentary work, 'friends and neighbours' voting, are all seen as resulting - at least in large part - from the candidate-centred, preference voting of STV"

Whether constituency or local focus and visible conflicts within parties are a good or bad thing is entirely a question of one's values. It would appear, however, that the public in Canada errs more in favour of these things than against them, judging by MMP's failures.

Theese values have become evident in the Canadian experience, and extant in academic study of the role of governments (1a, 2a, 3a, 4a) and in actual experience with proposed electoral reforms in Canada (5, 5a, 6, 7, 7a ) and the US (6a) and especially counter-intuitive results or rapid poll shifts once the public realizes a value is being violated (6, 7a). The degree to which any change requires learning and creates errors also requires us to minimize the disruption of any changes (per 6b). Any voting system should be assessed against all seven of the broad and all seven specific values. Informed advocates will certainly intensely scrutinize any system that does not satisfy or potentially satisfy all seven values and eight specific goals and would certainly oppose, for instance, systems like closed-list MMP implemented electronically (violating 1a, 2a, 3a, 4a, 6ab, 7, 7a). Presenting a simple choice between status quo FPTP and such a closed-list MMP system must be viewed as a sabotage of the reform process, given the sub-40% outcomes in PEI and ON. Presenting STV similarly may likewise be doomed: it proved easy to defeat in the 2009 BC referendum using promise of MMP as a wedge.

The remaining options in Canada are runoff, “instant runoff”, a mixed STV system with only a few party-proportional seats (such as Craig Hubley’s BSTV+C+L proposal), or an increased reliance on vote swaps or candidates endorsed by multiple parties within FPTP.