Saturday, September 25, 2010

A better way to elect a mayor

Today, let's take a hard look at the system we use to elect our Mayors, who will become the leader of our municipal government for the next three years.

The Mayor is elected in a poorly named first past the post system, prevalent in most countries with heavy British colonial influence. There is no 'post'. It's just a question of who gets the most votes. No nuance, just mark the candidate you hope to have win.

With two candidates, it's just that simple. With more than two, however, making your selection gets complicated. If you think your candidate has a good chance of winning, you can still vote for her, but if you think she's unlikely to win, you might be better off voting dishonestly.

For example, assume you really want candidate Asparagus to win but would be satisfied with candidate Bagel. You can't stand candidate Doughnut. If Bagel and Doughnut are neck and neck in the polls, votes for Asparagus would be wasted. Bagel might need that vote to beat Doughnut, and by voting for your favourite candidate, you would end up electing someone you like even less.

Asparagus would be a spoiler in this type of election.

In the US, the Democratic party points to Ralph Nader's participation in the Presidential Election as spoiling the election for Al Gore, particularly in Florida and handing the election to George W. Bush instead. Exit polls showed twice as many Nader supporters preferred Gore to Bush, but by voting for Nader, they elected a candidate further from what they wanted.

'Alternative Vote' is more complicated, but avoids this spoiler problem. Electors would rank the candidates in order of preference. The number of first place votes would be counted. If there's no majority winner, the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated, and instead are counted for their second preference.

This continues until one candidate has an absolute majority of support and is declared elected.

In this system, everyone is encouraged to vote for their true preferences, rather than playing a guessing game around who others might vote for.

The First Past the Post system wastes a tremendous number of votes, and voters have learned that their vote is unlikely to matter, and therefore it's easy to justify staying home on election day.

The Alternative Vote solves this problem by making each vote matter more, and should elect a candidate more broadly acceptable to the majority of the public.

Admittedly, the Alternative Vote strategy requires an understanding of the system, but with a broadly educated and literate public like we have in Canada, that shouldn't be a problem.

This isn't going to change for this election though. For now, unless your mayor is acclaimed, you're stuck with the First Past the Post guessing game.


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1 comment:

  1. Well-said. AV has a long history in Australia, as one example. It has lots of candidates running, presenting their views, but majority winner in each race in its house of representatives.

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