Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More PR Fun

The recent election in the United Kingdom has brought the concept of electoral reform back to the forefront. So, why not take another look at what proportional representation would mean for Canada?

This exercise uses this site's popular vote projections to determine the distribution of seats.

First, let's look at what would happen with the current projection in the current 308-seat House of Commons, with each region being given the amount of seats it currently has in Parliament. In other words, 106 Ontario seats, 75 Quebec seats, 36 British Columbia seats, 32 Atlantic Canada seats, 28 seats in Alberta and the Prairies each, and 3 seats in the North.The results is the slimmest of Conservative minorities. In fact, it is highly doubtful that with only 103 seats the Conservatives could form a government without the help of another party.

Far more likely would be some sort of rainbow coalition combining the Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens (totaling 169 seats). With 141 seats, the Liberals and NDP could try to go it alone.

The Conservatives win 43 of their seats in the West and North, 37 in Ontario, 13 in Quebec, and 10 in Atlantic Canada. It would be a far more balanced caucus, and while the party would have earned 33% of the vote, it would have gotten 33.4% of the seats.

The Liberals would win 21 seats in the West and North, 38 in Ontario, 18 in Quebec, and 12 in Atlantic Canada. With 28.9% of the vote, they would get 28.9% of the seats.

The NDP would finally get its fair share, with 19 seats in the West, 17 in Ontario, 9 in Quebec, and 7 in Atlantic Canada. That is 16.9% of the seats with 16.5% of the vote. They actually benefit!

The Bloc Québécois would be seriously reduced to 29 seats, but that is 9.4% of the seats in the House with 9.4% of the vote in the country as a whole.

The Greens would get a good sized caucus, with 9 seats in the West, 11 in Ontario, 6 in Quebec, and 2 in Atlantic Canada: 9.0% of the seats with 10.4% of the vote. They still don't get their fair share, it seems.

I gave the other parties seven seats, leaving them the leftovers after making the calculations. I did this assuming that in a PR situation the other parties would be able to get more votes.

In my current projection, the Tories get 40.9% of the seats, the Liberals get 32.1%, the NDP gets 10.4%, the Bloc gets 16.6%, and the Greens get 0%. So, it is obvious how this PR calculation would be fairer.

But it could even be more fair. Some of the provinces are over-represented in the House of Commons, and others are under-represented. So what if we went for a more equitable house, with each seat representing about 100,000 people? I've increased the number of seats to 340, and gave Ontario 132 seats, Quebec 79, British Columbia 45, Alberta 37, the Prairies 23, Atlantic Canada 23, and the North 1.In this situation, the Conservatives get 116 seats, or 34.1%. The Liberals win 98, or 28.8%, and the NDP wins 57, or 16.7%. The Greens win 33 seats (9.7%), the Bloc wins 30 (8.8%), and the other parties take the remaining six.

Oddly enough, the Conservatives unfairly benefit in this calculation, while the NDP and the Greens are closer to their popular vote. But we're really talking about minuscule differences.

The Tories win 49 seats in the West, 46 in Ontario, 14 in Quebec, and 7 in Atlantic Canada.

The Liberals win 23 seats in the West, 48 in Ontario, 19 in Quebec, and 8 in Atlantic Canada.

The NDP wins 21 seats in the West, 22 in Ontario, 9 in Quebec, and 5 in Atlantic Canada.

The Greens win 11 in the West, 14 in Ontario, 6 in Quebec, and 2 in Atlantic Canada.

Again, the Conservatives would be hard pressed to form a government with only 116 seats, when 170 are needed for a majority. The Liberals and NDP would total 155 together, so would require the Greens in order to get to a majority.

This kind of system would force coalitions and compromise. Arguably, that is a more democratic way to run a government and reduce the partisanship in the House. As it stands now, the parties just need to beat the other guy by a few votes in key ridings. Broad appeal is not as necessary.

And while we're thinking about the British election, if Canada had 650 seats like the House of Commons in London, a PR distribution based on my current projection would give 215 seats to the Conservatives, 188 to the Liberals, 107 to the NDP, 68 to the Greens, 61 to the Bloc, and 11 to the other parties.

Compare this to a British electoral result with PR: 235 Conservative, 189 Labour, 150 Liberal Democrat, 7 Green, 19 nationalist seats (Scottish Nationalist Party, Plaid Cymru, and Sinn Fein), and 50 "other".


  1. The proportional representation in this model assumes that seats are allocated by regional votes. This will result in winners and losers not only between parties, but within parties.

    As Éric observed, the Conservatives would have "a far more balanced caucus" with fewer seats in Alberta, but many more in Ontario. This would arguably be a good thing for the party and the country. It would not necessarily be greeted with joy by today's Tory caucus.

    Today we have a country governed by a Conservative minority controlled by a Western sub-minority. In the PR system outlined Alberta would have much less sway at the national level, even under a Tory government.

    Other proportional representation systems (such as party lists with no requirement for regional representation) might give a faction within a party more control. Whether that's good or bad depends in part on who you are, where you sit and your understanding of fairness.

    Proportional represention is a class of electoral systems, not a single system. This posting nicely illustrates why we need to carefully select our system.

  2. Éric: I gave the other parties seven seats, leaving them the leftovers after making the calculations. I did this assuming that in a PR situation the other parties would be able to get more votes.

    This sounds questionable. The Christian Heritage Party drew 0.19% of the national vote in the last election. Double that and they might get a seat. The next-place Marxist-Leninists won 0.06% of the vote. Would they really increase that by a factor of five? If so, that's still five seats short of the seven, and the odds for each fringe party get worse from there.

    If the seats are allocated regionally some parties might do better. Others might do worse. Additionally, PR systems can have minimal thresholds below which no seats are awarded. For instance, the threshold was raised from 1.5% to 2% for the 2009 Israeli election.

    Overall, though, this has minimal effect on the analysis.

  3. Perhaps new parties would form, independents would have enough regional support, etc.

    But, really, I just didn't know what to do with the leftovers and figure it would be better just to leave it to the others, since it is impossible to know how they would do in a PR situation.

  4. John wrote:

    "Proportional represention is a class of electoral systems, not a single system."

    Indeed. There is an unfortunate tendency to conflate what is (sloppily, in my view) referred to as "proportional representation" with different variations of a Party List system. There is never any attempt, for example, to model STV with multi-member constituencies (such an exercise is of course much more difficult).

    A second issue is that analyses like these proceed from the rather problematic assumption that people will vote for political parties in the same proportion as they vote for a party's candidates in our candidate-based system (not party-based system).

    Eric's analysis includes comments such as

    "The NDP would finally get its fair share,"

    I have difficulty with remarks like this. Our current system does not elect parties, it elects members. There is nothing clearly "unfair" about our current system. The NDP does not get an "unfairly" low number of seats in the West, nor does the Bloc get an "unfairly" high number of seats in Quebec. Claims about "unfairness" of our current system proceed from the premise that electors ought to be denied voting in a particular candidate and should instead be forced to select a party list.

    Some people think Party List voting is a better system but it is by no means obviously true.

  5. Here's a thought - instead of attempting to elect people who didn't have to set foot on a doorstep in order to get elected, why don't you advocate abolishing the party whip or the party system altogether.

    In the North, people are elected as individuals, and cabinet and premier are selected by the elected representatives FROM the elected representatives. That will have the effect of making sure that no one "faction" has more power than they really should have.

    Second alternative to PR - switch to a 2 party system. That way lunatics on both side of the spectrum hold their noses and vote for their closest alternative or they don't use their voice at all.

  6. Second alternative to PR - switch to a 2 party system.

    One look south of the border shows how bad that idea is.

    There are other systems beside PR to look at. The AV comes to mind. Plus the concept that the winner has to get 50%+1 of the votes cast. Which is basically the run off system. All of these are worth exploring before we make the big step of changing from our current system.

  7. There is a lot of speculation that if we had PR, people would vote differently than they do. Which might be the case, but a few points should be made.

    1. If Canada ever did adopt some form of PR, we would probably do what the vast majority of countries with PR do and have a 5% cut-off - that would tend to heavily discourage people from wasting their votes on fringe parties like the Christian Heritage Party or the Communists.

    2. Its worth looking at the example of New Zealand. They used to have a Canadian-style FPTP system and switched to MMP a few years ago. Contrary to what many people predicted, this has NOT led to any particular growth in support for smaller parties and in the last few NZ elections over 80% of all votes cast have been for the two big parties - National and Labour. There is a small party to the right of the NP - but it typically only gets 3-4% and the Greens are stuck at about 6% despite the fact that with PR there is no "wasted vote" argument to be made. There is teeny party to the left of Labour that gets 1-2% and then there is a Maori rights party that gets low single digits.

    Its actually very interesting that switching to PR has NOT made the NZ parliament more diverse.

  8. Blech - PR is simply not appealing. It's interesting to see the results, but this so-called "balance" doesn't make me feel any better about it.

    The beauty of FPTP is that it can deliver strong governments, which is an important thing. Coalitions are fine, but they're also unwieldy and they take in too many special interests in exchange for political support. David Cameron might be an idiot, but he was right when he said that backroom negotiations - almost on a constant basis - aren't wanted. And really, as a Liberal, I don't want to be in a government with the Green Party.

    Why can we not change the FPTP system to something that can deliver the same sort of strong mandate, like AV or instant run off? All votes carry a lot more weight and it's a helluva lot more fairer than FPTP. Everyone wins!

  9. Its actually very interesting that switching to PR has NOT made the NZ parliament more diverse.

    But it has had an effect in that they have had a steady succession of (gasp) coalition govts.

    That obviously won't fly here !

  10. Peter,

    For one, that "steady succession" is because there are only two parties that end up in support above 10% - Labour and National. All they need to do is grab one or two smaller parties and they can get a slim majority.

    That's different in Canada. We have three, four, and maybe even five parties with above 10% in the popular vote, which obviously takes away from the two leading parties. That means governments are not going to be strong, but they will be more diverse.

  11. In essence what you are saying Volkov is that we will experience a steady succession of coalition govt's as no party is able to achieve the elusive majority.

    I think you are quite correct. Which ought, if my thinking is correct, keep us roughly in the centre at al times?

  12. Germany has had nothing but coalition government since the late 1940s and they have one of the world's strongest economies - so its hard to argue that PR causes countries to be governed less well.

  13. Peter,

    No, not at all. NZ's politics allows for near majorities, so much so that you might as well call them majorities. The two major parties have a much greater lock on popular support than do the Conservatives and Liberals here.

    If we transfer the system here, then we'll end up with a much more unstable situation, due to the fact that it'll end up the two largest parties can't even reach majority territory by allying themselves with the third party, even under PR! As well, NZ doesn't have anything like the Bloc - that throws a wrench into the entire idea of coalitions based on popular support.

    We're already pretty much in the centre at all times. Our two largest parties are too afraid to go anywhere else. We can strengthen votes and give fairer representation without sacrificing a strong government. I say we do that.

  14. DL,

    Germany doesn't quite have a PR system. I think half the seats are FPTP, while the rest are state party lists decided by PR. This allows for a party to lose popular support and still gain seats. Like NZ, MMP isn't a true form of PR.

    Also, for most of Germany's existence, there have been two major parties with a good lock on the popular vote. That's changed in recent years, however.

  15. Volkov:
    If we transfer the system here, then we'll end up with a much more unstable situation,

    Precisely why I am absolutely against the PR system.

    We can tinker with the current FPTP but to go to some proportional system would be a disaster.

  16. DL wrote:

    "1. If Canada ever did adopt some form of PR, we would probably do what the vast majority of countries with PR do and have a 5% cut-off..."

    While some countries employ such cut-offs, not all do.

    For example, the Netherlands uses Party List for their lower house. To get at least 1 of the 150 seats, a party needs only meet the hurdle of 1/150th of the vote (i.e. 0.67%).

    Further, I'm not sure what the justification would be to create an arbitrarily higher threshold. It would seem odd that if "fairness" to parties is the excuse for making a change, that we then arbitrarily exclude small parties.

  17. If our choices for government reform are MMP or a preferential ballot, I'm fine with either and I think that both work fairly well in other nations that use them.

    MMP allows smaller parties in government and works out fine, 9I suspect the two biggest parties may come to learn that they may have to work together sometimes) while the preferential ballot often works out like FPTP. (But there's the safety valve of requiring a majority or support beyond a plurality)

    I think Ontario rejected a proposal similar to MMP recently, so I think a simpler preferential ballot may go over better, though I'll admit that these systems are not designed with the same democratic intentions.

    I would prefer the preferential system myself.

  18. Alternative vote would be a good step, as it would ensure that each riding is represented by someone who 50%+1 of the voters want rather than the current system where it is possible to win ridings with under 30% of the vote.

    The 'local rep' idea was a fine one in the 1800's but nowadays it is so easy to contact anyone on earth it seems a bit silly to hold a system up thanks to that idea. However, it was a big argument during the Ontario referendum. The biggest complain against any new system I hear though is 'more politicians'.

    I suspect we are stuck as is for awhile. Alternate vote might come (rank the people 1 through 5) and I hold out hope that the senate might be a place for PR by province (pick a party, that party picks its reps based on getting a high enough % to get a senator) as it could, in theory, be done without constitutional change - but that would require all senators and parties to trust whoever is PM to appoint the voters (and other parties) choices.

  19. Volkov: The beauty of FPTP is that it can deliver strong governments, which is an important thing.

    I'd hesitate to call the current government "strong". It doesn't have a mandate to administer unpalatable medicine--unlike, say, the newly-formed UK coalition.

    Coalition governments actually provide both strength and stability. A minor swing in vote percentage is unlikely to throw the levers of power from hard left to hard right or vice versa. This reduces that uncertainty that businesses hate so much.

    There are obviously examples and counter-examples of strength and stability in both PR and FPTP systems. However, any assertion that FPTP is either necessary or sufficient for stability is clearly false. And in the Canadian context, it's irrelevant pining for the old days.

  20. I'm having a bit of trouble figuring out the methodology and assumptions being employed here.

    Could you elaborate a little, Éric? Did you use a threshold? What regions did you employ?

    I think we're clear that you've assumed people would have voted the same way as before, but as to the other issues it would be interesting to learn about your approach.

  21. I used my current projection for the popular vote numbers, the regions being the same that I use for my projections.

    I used no threshold.

    On the basis of 100,000 people per seat, I divided up the 340 seats among the 6 regions according to population.

    I rounded up or down as required.

    This was really very simple, nothing too complicated.

    I want to look at preferential voting eventually, whereby each riding has to be decided by 50%+1, with those at the bottom of the list being dropped off and their votes being distributed to the other parties.

    That will take a little while to do, however.

  22. John,

    I said it can deliver strong governments, but it doesn't mean it always will. But PR doesn't always necessarily mean you'll get proper coalitions, either. Or that you'll even get fair representations of people.

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  24. Volkov,

    MMP *is* proportional. If you're equating proportional representation with party list system only, then I can see the misunderstanding.

    In Canada, most advocates of proportional representation consider Mixed Member Proportional and Single Transferable Vote (*if* the number of seats per district is sufficiently high enough) proportional. AV on the other hand is not proportional, as shown by this blog post: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/blog/?p=36 . AV/IRV eliminates split voting, but just like FPTP it still exaggerates regional tendencies and doesn't restore representation.


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