Building a better ballot

The Yukon Party received 40.5 per cent of the popular vote in the Yukon's 2011 general election. Yet, thanks to our electoral system, it received 11 of 19 seats - enough to rule with a majority.

The Yukon Party received 40.5 per cent of the popular vote in the Yukon’s 2011 general election. Yet, thanks to our electoral system, it received 11 of 19 seats – enough to rule with a majority.

Something similar happened on the federal level. During the 2011 election, the Conservatives received 39.62 per cent of the vote and ended up with 166 seats – again, enough to form a majority government.

To boosters of electoral reform, such numbers illustrate why our current, first-past-the-post electoral system needs to change. But there’s a question that many electoral reform advocates would prefer not to dwell on: if their cause is so just, why do so few people care about it?

British Columbia, Ontario and P.E.I. have all held referendums to consider rejigging their electoral system so that it produces more equitable results. In all cases, voters rejected these schemes.

In the Yukon, David Brekke has carried the torch for electoral reform for years, but there are no signs of this issue catching fire any time soon. How come?

Part of the answer is that electoral reform is boring. It doesn’t touch voters’ lives in a direct, tangible way, as, say, being unable to find a family doctor in Whitehorse. It’s goopy and abstract.

People are usually only excited by electoral reform when they despise the government in power. Partisans who enjoy power, meanwhile, rarely have a problem with how the current system works. There’s plenty of motivated reasoning on both sides.

Consider this. Jean Chretien’s long-lived Liberal government in Ottawa and Piers McDonald’s NDP government in the Yukon both enjoyed so-called false majorities, with popular vote percentages similar to that of the Pasloski and Harper governments. Funny how those electoral outcomes weren’t declared to be massively unfair by the same left-leaning promoters of electoral reform we often hear from today.

Yet, at the time, electoral reform probably sounded like a decent idea to a fair number of conservatives. It would be tough to find a supporter of Harper or Pasloski who is warm to the idea today. Certainly, both leaders have no interest of entertaining electoral reform while the leftward vote is split.

Opposition parties are almost always happy to entertain the idea of electoral reform, and the Yukon’s NDP and Liberals are no exception. But such enthusiasm usually wanes once you have your clutches on majority control. That’s why it’s been said that electoral reform is for losers.

Electoral reformers are fond of noting that their preferred systems are big in Europe. They seem to assume that’s a selling point, but we suspect otherwise. A considerable number of Yukoners seem repelled by anything that seems too European. To wit: Whitehorse’s much-maligned traffic circles. Sure, they’re rational and efficient. But they’re apparently too strange and foreign to many residents, who would prefer to see them paved over and replaced with traffic lights.

None of this is to say that electoral reform isn’t a good idea. But it will probably always be a tough sell, and, in the Yukon, David Brekke and his backers don’t do themselves any favours by promoting a scheme that is dreadfully complicated. We don’t dare go near his detailed models without first being braced by a strong coffee. (You may want to grab one before proceeding.)

The system has two main parts. The first is an instant run-off ballot. Rather than simply mark an X beside your first choice, you’d rank candidates in order of preference on ballots.

If no candidate receives a majority of the votes upon first count, then the bottom-ranking candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed to voters’ next choices. This process continues until a candidate holds a majority.

Such a system resolves vote-splitting. Let’s say you supported the Green’s John Streicker in the last federal election, but you would have much preferred to see Liberal Larry Bagnell remain in power to having the Conservatives’ Ryan Leef win. With an instant run-off ballot, you could rank Streicker first, safe in knowing that your ballot would revert to Bagnell if he stood a better chance of winning. You’d be free to vote your conscience.

Brekke’s system has other bells and whistles to ensure that each party receives a proportional share of the seats in the legislature, and that’s where things truly get ugly.

Half of the legislature’s seats would be assigned to MLAs representing ridings, as usual. The other half of the seats would be divvied up among the election’s runner-up candidates, with each party receiving a top-up of seats proportional to their share of the popular vote.

The resulting system is fair and equitable. It also requires a lot of complicated math, an overhaul of our electoral map with expanded ridings, and the introduction of an entire new category of MLAs without ridings. In other words, it’s nearly impossible to explain on the doorsteps of voters without having people tune out. We’re afraid that Brekke’s project, however admirable, is doomed in its current form.

Our humble suggestion would be to drop the second half of the system, and to simply focus on pushing the merits of the instant run-off ballot. The idea of requiring winners to secure a majority vote is already familiar to anyone who’s followed political conventions. (If it still seems confusing, we’d recommend an amusing YouTube video dug up by Brekke, named “Is your cat confused about the alternative vote?”) Anything else gets too complicated.

The reality remains that our voting systems won’t change before the next territorial and federal elections. That means, for now, that voters unhappy with their current governments need to continue to grapple with the question of how to best vote strategically.

If you feel like throwing your lot in with Brekke’s gang, Fair Vote Yukon’s quarterly business meeting is on Tuesday, April 23 at the Whitehorse public library, starting at 7:15 p.m.

Clarification: Our March 22 editorial cut a few corners in its explanation of the Teslin Tlingit Council’s electoral system. In it, clans appoint delegates, and these delegates vote for the chief.

The inner workings of clans remain murky to our understanding, but the First Nation contests our assertion that it boils down to elderly clan leaders picking a delegate. They say there’s a lot of talking and consensus-reaching involved.

However, we continue to think that the First Nation’s members would be better off if they could all cast votes directly, especially in light of the fact that not all members belong to a clan. 

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