Getting Alternative

Yevgeny Shrago

While America was understandably caught up in the news about Osama bin Laden this week, two of America’s closest allies held elections. Canadians went to the polls for the fourth time in seven years to select a new Parliament, and Britons voted on a new method for choosing theirs. The outcome in both countries proved a setback for the non-traditional election methods and a victory for the incumbent conservative party.

Yesterday, Britons voted against instituting the alternative vote (AV), also known as instant runoff voting, the baby of the notoriously underrepresented Liberal Democratic party. Although the Lib Dems receive 20% or more of the vote in every election, their support is sufficiently spread out that they have less than 10% of the seats in Parliament. With the AV, Lib Dems could have gone from irrelevance to holding the balance of power in electoral districts (called “ridings” in Canada and Britain) where neither of the two larger parties can grab a majority. Instead, the referendum’s defeat ensures continued underrepresentation of Lib Dem voters.

In making the decision, British voters undoubtedly considered Tuesday’s election in Canada, in which liberals might have prevailed under the AV. Although the Conservatives, who had governed with a minority for the last few years, finally got their elusive majority, their vote share rose only a few percentage points from the last election. Meanwhile, the Francophone Bloc Quebecois collapsed, the Liberals tottered under the weight of a weak candidate for Prime Minister, and the “far”-left New Democrats picked up the pieces, becoming the official opposition party. Liberal parties took over 50% of the popular vote, while the Conservatives captured around 40%: this led to many majority liberal ridings with a victorious Conservative MP. Although the exact effects of AV in this election are unclear, the heavy liberal bias in the results suggests that it probably would have denied Conservatives a majority or even put some combination of liberal parties back in power.

For American progressives disgruntled with a Democratic party that on many issues seems like Republican-lite, election reform might provide a way to vote for progressive values without a repeat of the 2000 debacle. That’s a plausible lesson to take from the plight of the Lib Dems and Canada’s liberal parties, but I think it’s the wrong one. AV encourages parties to become everyone’s second choice. This leads them to tack to the center and to attempt to cater to many different groups of voters. Although smaller parties can viably receive more votes and public attention, the ultimately successful parties are often broad and centrist, like the Ben Nelson/Evan Bayh wing of today’s Democratic party.

The New Democrats in Canada provide a strong counterexample to the need for AV. After several election cycles of fringe party status, the NDP is suddenly the official opposition. With AV, they may have received more votes in previous elections, but it’s also possible that throwing their second-choice votes to the Liberals would have provided enough cover for the centrist party to hold and keep power without needing an NDP coalition partner. Without the sharp divides, the NDP surge in this election might not have happened. Without the AV crutch, the NDP was forced to broaden its appeal while still keeping itself distinct, and the results are a huge success for Canadian progressives. Would-be American third party leaders might benefit more from a trip to Ottawa than an attempt at electoral reform.


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