Is it time for electoral reform in P.E.I.? The case for ranked ballots

Is it fair to decide an election by coin toss? That’s the question many Canadians are asking following the outcome of last Tuesday’s recount in P.E.I.

We now know that the two leading candidates in Vernon River-Stratford each earned 1173 votes in the May 4 provincial election. Thanks to amendments to the election laws in 2008, this is how ties are decided.

This, of course, drew the consternation of voters and onlookers across the country. “What a time to be alive. Man wins seat…through a coin toss,” tweeted the CBC’s Matt Galloway.

“After all that democracy, seems trivial to decide on a coin toss. Rock, paper, scissors: maybe,” wrote reporter and uprooted islander Thomas Ledwell.

You can’t blame them. With a voter turnout north of 86 per cent, it hurts to see an election decided by something so arbitrary.

Alas, the gods were not smiling upon Progressive Conservative candidate Mary Ellen McInnis, who is now considering appealing the result. In the end, it was tails that won the day, allowing Liberal MLA Alan McIsaac to hold onto his seat in the legislature.

“You know what this tells me? Every vote counts,” said McIsaac.

The only problem? He’s wrong.

Not every vote counts. In fact, 18.6 per cent of votes cast in that riding did not influence the election one way or the other. Thanks to our current first-past-the-post electoral system, voters who supported the Greens or NDP did not have a say in the outcome.

Most provinces hold a by-election following a tie. That P.E.I. puts more faith in a silver dollar than going back to the voters is a problem.

P.E.I. is far from the only jurisdiction to use games of chance to settle electoral stalemates. As we learned last week, there are dozens of jurisdictions across the US and UK as well as Canada that draw straws, pick names out of a hat or flip coins to decide who wins.

But there is a better, more legitimate way to decide these affairs — and you don’t need a costly by-election to do it: preferential voting.

Imagine you and three friends sit down to eat at a restaurant. You order the soup; your friend orders the salad; and the others order the pasta. Now imagine, after taking the orders, your server returns to inform you they are out of soup, but that you can’t order something else “because you’ve already made your decision.” No soup for you.

That’s how elections work under our current system.

Rather than choosing one candidate, preferential voting has voters rank the candidates from first to last. To continue the analogy: “I’d prefer soup, but if you don’t have soup, pasta is just fine.” The benefit is that if your preferred candidate does not win, you still get a say in the matter. Your vote is then transferred to your second choice, and so on, until a candidate reaches a majority and a winner is declared.

As it stands, many voters feel pressured to cast their ballot for a candidate they don’t fully support to avoid “splitting the vote.” By ranking candidates, we virtually eliminate the need to vote strategically so there is no more need to hold our collective nose at the ballot box.

Preferential voting would also discourage politicians from going “negative” in an effort to appeal to voters who would rank them as their second or even third-choice. That’s a good thing.

Much has been written about the failures of our current first-past-the-post electoral system. Nearly everyone believes it should be changed, but agreeing on a new system has been the major stumbling block. Here, however, we have some guidance. In 2005, voters soundly rejected proportional representation in a referendum, so that option should be off the table — for now. This should help pave the way for preferential voting.

A coin toss is not just a deeply flawed method for choosing a politician, but a symptom of a larger problem. The government and opposition should unite behind electoral reform, adopt preferential voting as policy, and show the country it can be done. P.E.I. now has an opportunity to reform a tired and broken electoral system and ensure there are no more wasted votes — and certainly no more coin tosses.

Originally published in the National Post