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Yukonomist: Voting for change

The Yukon is now following where our Alaskan friends are already breaking trail: fixing the historic but dysfunctional first-past-the-post election system that we inherited from what people used to call our “mother country”: Great Britain.

The Yukon is now following where our Alaskan friends are already breaking trail: fixing the historic but dysfunctional first-past-the-post election system that we inherited from what people used to call our “mother country”: Great Britain.

In 2020, Alaskan voters approved a landmark new voting process. Out goes the old system, where political party primaries selected candidates for an election in which the candidate with the most votes won, even if they got nowhere near a majority.

Future Alaskan elections will work as follows. The first stage will see a public run-off vote between as many candidates as want to run for each position. You might see a couple of Democrats, a few Republicans, an independent, a Green and a Libertarian throw their hats in the ring. The top four candidates coming out of this vote will advance to the next stage. Then, on election day, voters will rank the candidates from Number 1 to Number 4. Election officials will count the votes for all four candidates. They will eliminate the fourth-place candidate, and redistribute all their votes to those voters’ second-choice candidates. And so on, until someone’s total of first, second and third-choice votes cracks the 50 per cent plus one threshold.

The idea is to find candidates that have broad citizen support, while minimizing the distasteful gaming and oddball results that are a feature of first-past-the-post voting. For example, a Green voter in Juneau might want to vote for the Green candidate, but knows if they don’t vote Democrat they might end up with a Republican winning the seat. Or you might have two moderate candidates for governor each win 30 percent of the vote, and be beaten by an extremist with 31 percent.

The Yukon’s voting system would be instantly recognized by a politician running in England in 1840. And it reliably produces results that puzzle high-school civics students and undermine the credibility of our democracy. For example, in the last territorial election, the party that came in second in popular vote with just 32 per cent of the votes ended up with 42 per cent of the seats and 100 per cent of the cabinet positions. Had they managed to get another 136 votes in just two ridings, they would have had a five-year majority.

Meanwhile, had their main competitors managed to get just 65 more votes across two ridings, they would have won a five-year majority with less than 4 votes out of every 10 cast.

These knife-edge results may add some fun volatility on election night for political pundits, but it’s no way to run a democracy.

Supporters of first-past-the-post argue that the system is more likely to deliver good government since it is more likely to give majority power to parties to implement their platforms. It does indeed deliver more majority governments, but in recent decades we’ve seen minority governments in Canada deliver the goods too. You might even argue that the need to negotiate with rivals is a welcome brake on the growing power of premiers’ and prime minister’s offices.

If we implemented the new Alaska system here, this is what it would look like. First there would be a wide-open run-off election. You would get lots of choices. Based on current and past political parties here, the first stage might include a few Liberals, Yukon Party and NDP choices, as well as Greens, Christian Heritage, Freedom Party and First Nations Party. Looking at the national voting results, you might even end up with candidates for the Communists, Animal Protection Party, Libertarians or Maverick Party.

Then the top four candidates in each riding would campaign for a few more weeks before election day, when Yukoners would rank them all from Number 1 to Number 4 and the candidate with the most first, second or third votes would win.

You might ask why this is better than proportional representation. Some advocates of pure proportional representation believe that an objective of the voting system should be to ensure parties have a share of seats in the legislature proportional to their first-preference votes. If some future Yukon Trump Party gets some political momentum and gets 15 percent of the vote, they should get 15 percent of the seats. This usually works with party leaders choosing lists of candidates, and the top names on their lists getting seats if the party gets enough overall votes.

There are two benefits of an Alaska-style system over proportional representation. First, you keep a close connection between representatives and their ridings, rather than choosing from a territory-wide list selected by party leaders. Second, you also keep fringe parties out of the legislature.

Proportional representation’s aim to see all vote-getting parties in the Legislature seemed reasonable five years ago. But with the significant, and apparently continuing, rise in extremism and factionalism I’m not sure this is wise for us. Such voting systems encourage extremism. The lesson politicians in other countries have learned is that the best way to get elected is to stake out extreme positions and use social media to vilify the enemy and get attention, money and votes.

So, to me, the way Alaska-style ranked-preference voting encourages centrist candidates with majority support at the expense of extremists is a feature of the system, not a bug.

Another benefit of Alaska’s system is the way it weakens the party leader’s power. In our current first-past-the-post system, you don’t know how many good candidates your preferred party’s leader skipped over to select a friend or close supporter to run in your riding. In Alaska’s system, multiple candidates from the same party can run in the first stage.

A committee of the Yukon Legislature is now looking at options. The government has opened a survey on its consultation webpage.

This is nice. But it is no substitute for a binding voter plebiscite on whether to adopt a new system or not.

The vote in Alaska was close, with 50.6 percent in favour.

Yukoners may decide to stick with first-past-the-post, as voters in other jurisdictions have done in the past. So be it. Changing our current voting system is important, but the only thing worse than our current system would be a system cooked up by our current politicians and foisted on Yukoners without a citizen vote to approve it.

There is lots not to like about Alaskan politics. But on their new system and having a citizen vote to approve it, they got things right.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.