Introduction to EasyPR

While we call our electoral system by its unaffectionate nickname of “first past the post” (FPTP), it’s more properly described as single member plurality (SMP). Under this system one person is elected in each riding (hence “single member”) and you don’t need a majority of votes, the largest plurality of votes is good enough (hence “plurality”).

I’d like to introduce a variation that I call EasyPR. It takes the simplicity of first-past-the-post, but makes it proportional. EasyPR introduces a high degree of proportionality, with a minimum of change to how we vote or how those votes are counted. It includes a “Leader Seats” wrinkle that will make it a lot more interesting to voters, and encourage supporters of smaller parties not to strategically vote for someone else. I am proposing EasyPR as a replacement for first-past-the-post in BC’s provincial elections. Let me show you how it works:

Each riding elects multiple members. In theory each riding could elect 3 or more representatives, but for all my examples I’m going with 2 and all further comments on EasyPR in this article make that assumption. Also I will be referring to both federal and provincial elections in this article, because my proposal is to take BC’s 42 federal seats, and convert them into 42 identical provincial seats that each elect the top two candidates. This means that I’ll be giving some examples based on how we voted federally in those ridings, but understand those examples are meant to show how the system works, and the argument is to use those ridings in a future provincial election.

Voting is the same as FPTP, walk into the booth, mark an X on a ballot beside one name, and you’ve done your civic duty for another four years.

However, under FPTP only the top finisher is elected. Under EasyPR, the top two finishers are elected. For most elections this means that two candidates, together representing a majority of the votes cast, are elected. In the 42 BC ridings of the recent 2015 federal election, the winning candidates averaged 43.76%, and the second place candidates averaged 30.52%. Add them together you get 74.28%, so had the top two finishers been elected in those seats about 3 out of every 4 votes would have gone to a winning candidate. The top two candidates together receiving about 70-80% of the vote seems to be pretty typical of both federal and provincial elections in our province.

Those 42 BC seats in the last federal election contained a lot of three-way, and even some four-way, races. So the fact that electing the top-two finishers in each riding meant that about three-quarters of voters were directly represented shows that the system counts the majority of votes in each riding towards electing a candidate even when there are a lot of candidates. (This part of the system will be familiar to those who have read up on SNTV, but we’re not done quite yet.

Now, we add the “+ Leaders” component I mentioned earlier, borrowed from a system proposed for the recent PEI electoral reform referendum (called First Past The Post + Leaders). Under “+ Leaders”, party leaders wouldn’t run in ridings; instead any party that crossed a threshold of the popular vote would have their leader added to the provincial legislature. PEI proposed 10%, but I recommend 5% of the vote (a common threshold for earning top-up seats used in many Mixed Member Proportional Representation systems). Even getting 5% of the vote means strong province-wide organization and significant voter support, so having that party’s leader in the legislature makes sense to me.

The lower that threshold goes, the more proportional it is as well, and the more supporters of that party are likely to be emboldened to vote for it rather than to “strategically vote”, because by sticking to their guns they would at least be likely to get the leader of their preferred party into the legislature.

The more I thought about this “Leader Seats” component of that system, the more sense it made to me. Party leaders have a name recognition advantage that disadvantages the candidates they run against, but party leaders also often spend very little time in their ridings (both during elections and afterwards) so they’re not always very good representatives for their constituents. Their responsibilities are province-wide too, and their job is to lead their parties across the province (and hopefully become the Premier and all the province-wide responsibility that entails), so having to look over their shoulder at what the 100K people in their riding think of each decision is arguably inappropriate for a leader who’s supposed to be articulating the best policies for millions of British Columbians. Having a premier who represents a riding, is a bit like having a mayor who is supposed to represent the whole city, but also represents just one small neighbourhood of the city, it simply makes no sense.

“Leader Seats” are a fundamental part of EasyPR. The majority of votes (about 75% in the example above) count directly to the election of a candidate, but a strong percentage of the remaining votes are going to third-party candidates who may winning few, if any, seats province-wide. They will, however, contribute to sending their party leader to the legislature. So with the majority of votes going to the direct election of a candidate, and a majority of the votes that remain contributing to the election of a party leader to the legislature, almost every vote counts to shaping the legislature in EasyPR. I believe Leader Seats would significantly reduce strategic voting amongst supporters of smaller parties that have a chance of making the threshold, whatever the threshold is set at.

Speaking of strategic voting, many people may have a notion of who might win their riding, but fewer would think they could accurately predict who would come second in their riding. Add in the ability for their vote to at a minimum send their leader to the legislature, and I see voters feeling much more comfortable voting their conscience.

Independent candidates would also fare drastically better. There are relatively few examples of independent candidates coming first in recent decades, but there are more examples of them coming second (including examples in BC’s May 2017 election, as happened in the riding of Delta South). And voters would be more likely to believe that they could vote for an independent candidate and push them into at least second place, emboldening them to support strong independent candidates.

But how proportional is EasyPR? I ran the results of the last five federal elections in BC. Here are the results. A reminder that these are federal election results to save me redistributing the provincial election results into the federal ridings, but that we’re proposing EasyPR for provincial elections, and I think running these results give us a very good sense of how the system works (and apologies if these numbers don’t line up perfectly on all devices).

2015 % of % of
votes seats
1st 35.2 39.8
2nd 25.9 23.9
3rd 30 33.0
4th 8.2 3.4
Gallagher Index = 5.33

2011 % of % of
votes seats
1st 45.5 46.1
2nd 32.5 42.1
3rd 13.4 9.2
4th 7.7 2.6
Gallagher Index = 8.2

2008 % of % of
votes seats
1st 44.4 47.4
2nd 25 31.6
3rd 19.3 19.7
4th 9.4 1.3
Gallagher Index = 7.7

2006 % of % of
votes seats
1st 37.3 36.8
2nd 28.6 31.6
3rd 27.6 30.3
4th 5.3 1.3
Gallagher Index = 4.0

2004 % of % of
votes seats
1st 36.3 38.2
2nd 28.6 31.6
3rd 26.6 27.6
4th 6.3 1.3
Ind. 2.3 1.3
Gallagher Index = 4.4

That’s an average Gallagher Index of 5.92 (a scale of proportionality where 0 is perfectly proportional and 100 is absolutely terrible). FPTP elections in Canada under the Gallagher Index often earns a score of 12 or even worse, so all of these results exceed FPTP. However, remember that we’re translating FPTP results to EasyPR. I believe using EasyPR in the real world would result in a Gallagher index that averaged below 5. Why? Because once you change the system, voters and parties would behave differently. Under FPTP parties largely ignore ridings where they don’t believe they can come first. But the number of ridings where a party could come first *or* second is much higher, so parties would distribute their resources differently. So I’m very pleased at the proportionality (especially 2006 and its Gallagher Index of 4.0!), and believe it would be even more proportional in real-world conditions.

Even in the worst-case scenario above of 2011, I think voters would be a heck of a lot more satisfied than they were with the provincial election results we’ve been having.

Keep in mind that these proportionality results aren’t far off what we might see with STV or MMP in BC. Treating the province as one big region, MMP or STV could be nearly perfectly proportional, but that’s not likely to be how they’d be implemented. More likely, they will break the province down into regions so that every MLA is representing a part of the province (the North, the Kootenays, the Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, etc.). The more regions we get, the higher the threshold required for a small party to win a seat. I’m willing to be surprised, but it’s probable that any system we are likely to get offered in a referendum will be similarly proportional (on average) to what I have proposed here.

These numbers slightly over represent the party in second place, and I believe that is created (or at least made worse) by the fact that we’re translating votes from one system into another. In real world terms it wouldn’t consistently happen that way, because:

– there may not be a strong second-place finisher (perhaps we have two parties vying for second)

– third parties would be strategic in targeting second-place finishes and do a better job of winning them away from the bigger parties

Overall, EasyPR represents parties and seats very closely until they drop into single-digit support in the popular vote, and then they tend to get their leader into the legislature but few other seats. But again, that’s translating FPTP results to EasyPR, and in reality that’s likely to change because a minor party would:

A) have an easier time coming up with stronger candidates (and a full slate of candidates, come to that) because there would be many fewer ridings to contest (42 vs. 87 in my proposal for BC), and

B) would target ridings where they think they have a chance at second place, and many of these would be ridings that they largely ignore now, which would improve their performance vs. the above examples.

It’s still possible for a party to win a majority of the seats under this system. A party that routinely gets 60% or more of the vote in a riding may consider running two candidates there in the next election, in the hopes of winning both seats. Right now there are two provincial ridings in the Peace country, Peace River North and Peace River South, and the winning party routinely runs up the score there (in the 2017 provincial election the winner got 66% of the vote in Peace River North and 76% in Peace River South). Once those two ridings were replaced with a federal riding that covers approximately the same area, that party would be well advised to run two candidates, and the party would likely have the two candidates divide up the riding between themselves. They might split it North and South, they might divide it East and West… whatever made sense to them given the parts of the riding each candidates had connections with (where they live, where they work, etc.). It may not work, they may not win both, but they’d probably at least still win one of the two seats up for grabs in the riding so they’d likely not lose anything in the attempt.

So let’s look at some Pros and Cons:

– a big pro is that every MLA would represent a specific riding

– voters would typically have two MLAs, in most cases of different political stripes, to approach with concerns; this may even introduce an element of competition between the two MLAs to see who can better represent their constituents, in the hopes of helping guarantee their re-election (as they’ll be in competition again in each election)

– party leaders would be freed to travel and represent the entire province and focus entirely on province-wide issues (even leaders of minor parties who under our current system often feel compelled to engage in a “beachhead” strategy of an all out attack on one riding in a desperate attempt to elect at least one person to the legislature)

– about 75% of votes would directly elect a specific candidate, without the need for top-up seats or another kind of compensatory system to take a non-proportional vote and try and make it proportional after the fact (aside from party leaders being added after the vote, of course)

– voters would be free to vote for any party they believed would get at least 5% of the vote, knowing that at a minimum they’d probably be sending at least the party leader to the legislature

– minor parties would be rewarded for running a strong province-wide campaign with the election of their leader, plus the possibility of some second-place finishes, neither of which would be likely to occur under FPTP; right now parties are punished if their support is broad but not deep, but “Leader Seats” changes that (and having their leader in the legislature could help a minor party grow in strength for future elections)

– the overall quality of candidates would improve, as parties would need about half as many as they do now, meaning a higher percentage of candidates would be “star candidates” who were strong, well spoken, and well-vetted against scandal, and more candidates would receive strong financial and logistical support from their party

– fewer ridings would be out of reach, putting most (perhaps all) ridings in play, a drastic improvement over the status quo where a small number of “swing ridings” are targeted by parties in elections and the rest are largely ignored

– because ridings aren’t single winner take all, the tenor of debate may be improved; a candidate who is pretty sure they’ll at least come second may be more civil to their opponents than one who feels they are in a winner-take-all dogfight for coming first or getting nothing

– every vote for a party that gets at least 5% of the vote would count towards putting someone in the legislature, and 70-80% of votes would additionally count directly to the election of a specific additional candidate

– more voters would feel empowered to vote their conscience

– this system is extremely easy to “explain to your grandmother”, a test Andrew Weaver has put forth as an ideal for a new system

– this system may be popular with fiscal conservatives who appreciate that Elections BC is saved the significant costs and other challenges that come from the redistribution of ridings, as required after every second BC election; Elections Canada would effectively perform that function for Elections BC going forward, with the federal government paying for it as a bonus to BC taxpayers.

CONS:

– parties that get over 50% might get under represented, unless they anticipate that result and run multiple candidates in some of their strongest ridings (however, parties getting over 50% is exceedingly rare in Canada)

– parties that get single-digit support tend to be under-represented vs. a purely proportional system (though this is not a unique problem for EasyPR as it’s likely to be true for STV and MMP, the way they would be implemented in a regionally diverse province such as BC.

So there you have it. Proportionality, simplicity, efficiency, and accountability, in one easy to understand and explain package.

(Note: Earlier versions of this document referred to the system as M3, M3L, M3+L, or Multi-Member Majority + Leaders. Some of the articles linked to from this one may still refer to the system under one or more of those names.)

I responded to some comments and questions about EasyPR here. And then I did it again with more questions and comments about EasyPR here.

Then I looked at ways EasyPR could be further improved, if there was willingness to reduce simplicity in exchange for improved proportionality, or other enhancements.

I discuss a bit more about the “Leader Seats” part of EasyPR here..

Then I discuss an another suggestion on improving EasyPR, and this one is particularly interesting and easy to implement (with pluses and minuses to doing so).

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