Last year I wrote a couple of blog entries on RaBIT’s campaign website (http://wp.me/p18Zxl-92 and http://wp.me/p18Zxl-9k) that detail how it makes promises that it can’t keep. It tries to sell the sizzle while ignoring the lack of beef. I’ve written many other pieces on electoral reform issues but these two will give you an idea of the lack of depth to RaBIT’s analysis.
Some people said that their main reason for supporting RaBIT (Ranked ballots are more commonly called Alternative Vote – AV or Instant Runoff Voting – IRV) was that it could be a step toward to PR. In fact, RaBIT tried to get electoral systems expert Dennis Pilon to agree with that in a public forum last year. You can see this at http://vimeo.com/52788545. Their question is at 21:45. Pilon of course takes the careful academic approach and doesn’t specifically say that it can’t happen.
The basic facts surrounding AV as an incremental step toward PR is that it has never happened. While Pilon mentions Australia, it is actually unusual in that it has stuck with AV for a century. No other jurisdiction has used AV for anywhere near that long. Other jurisdictions that tried AV, notably 3 Canadian provinces and 5 U.S. states, all abandoned AV after a period and simply reverted to their previous system.
More to the point, only one Canadian province has subsequently revisited electoral reform and that only after half a century elapsed since it abandoned AV. The other provinces and states that tried AV have yet to reconsider electoral reform.
Conversely, several Canadian provinces that did not experiment with AV have seriously looked at electoral reform recently. New Brunswick and Quebec have conducted studies into electoral reform while PEI and Ontario have brought the matter to referendum.
It is therefore reasonable to conclude that AV not only is not an incremental step to further reform but is in fact an impediment. After trying AV and finding it wanting, jurisdictions simply revert to their former system and give up on the idea of electoral reform.
American electoral reform expert Douglas Amy (see https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/polit/damy/articles/irv.htm) goes on further to note that “In addition, it is unclear how reformers would be able to easily shift political gears after the adoption of IRV and begin to promote a change to PR. They would have to turn from enthusiastic supporters of IRV to severe critics of that system – an inconsistency that would surely not go unnoticed by the public, the media, and policymakers.”
It’s worth noting that Dr. Amy’s criticisms are in the context of the American system, which has weak election finance controls. When you move it to a jurisdiction without political parties (that establish candidate branding) and strong election finance controls (i.e. Toronto), other problems may arise.
Because AV reduces the impact of vote splitting, cooperative campaigns which would simply split the vote under our current system actually reinforce one another under AV. This allows moneyed interests to finance multiple campaigns to control the messaging in an election.
In short, there is good reason to expect that switching to AV would increase the stranglehold elites already have on our municipal elections.
Scottish electoral systems expert James Gilmour produced a chart based on Toronto’s last municipal election that shows just how little room there is for AV to actually change the results (http://www.fairvotetoronto.ca/resources.html). Even in our last election, which was unusually close, only 5% more votes would be brought into play.
I will note that these are people’s secondary choices. AV actually gives fewer people their first choice of representative because when it does change a result, it does so by electing someone who was not the first choice of the largest block of voters.
Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that the system is more proportional. It usually means that it eliminated a vote split that would have given a minority candidate a shot at election. For example, in the Calgary mayoralty race, Naheed Nenshi would have lost under AV while under first past the post he was able to win when the right wing vote split. By trying to always elect the majority candidate, AV can actually be less proportional than our current system.
While AV’s problems with electing minorities are well known, that hasn’t stopped groups from trying to minimize them. I have heard RaBIT use San Francisco as an example of how AV helped minorities win elections. Unfortunately this simply isn’t true. San Francisco used to elect its Board of Supervisors using Block Vote, which meant that the white majority got to elect everyone. When they switched to single-member districts, the geographic variations in ethnic mix let minorities win some elections. I go into this in more detail in my blog article at http://wp.me/p18Zxl-cQ.
These topics are not simple. AV is superficially appealing so that it’s easy for an enthusiastic advocate to sell it to people who aren’t well versed in electoral reform issues. In the real world however, its “benefits” are at best unproved and most likely don’t exist. There are good reasons to believe that AV will be harmful to the cause of electoral reform.
Toronto needs real change, not just a cosmetic fix.