PEI·Analysis

Voting options: Preferential ballot

Preferential voting is a system set up to ensure that the eventual winner has the support of a majority of voters.

Preferential ballot has voters ranking candidates, ensuring winner has 50 per cent plus one of the vote

In 2015 only six districts were won with an absolute majority, so there's no way to know how the other districts might have gone under a preferential ballot system. (CBC)

Between Oct. 29 and Nov. 7, Islanders will be asked to weigh in on electoral reform in a provincial plebiscite. This week, CBC explains each of the five systems presented on the ballot.

Islanders might not think they're familiar with preferential voting (also called preferential ballot or ranked ballot), but anyone who's voted at a political party nomination meeting probably understands the general idea.

Preferential voting is a system set up to ensure that the eventual winner has the support of a majority of voters.

The system operates on the same principle as a typical nomination meeting, which can include multiple rounds of voting until a majority winner is declared.

For example, consider the nomination meeting held recently by the Progressive Conservative Party to select a candidate to run in the provincial byelection for Summerside-Wilmot.

Four candidates came forward. Party members voted by marking an "X" on a ballot next to their candidate of choice.

After the first round of voting, no single candidate had won a majority. So the candidate with the fewest votes was eliminated, and party members were asked to vote once again, this time choosing from the three remaining candidates.

This was repeated when the second round of ballots also failed to produce a majority winner, until one candidate received the support of at least 50 per cent-plus-one of voters in the third round of voting.

How a preferential ballot system works

Preferential voting operates the same way, but does away with the need for multiple rounds of voting.

Instead of marking an "X" on their ballot, voters rank the candidates in order of preference.

Under the preferential ballot system, voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference. (Submitted by Elections P.E.I.)

Votes are first awarded to the candidate each voter selected as their first choice.

If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. Ballots for that candidate are redistributed to whoever those voters selected as their second choice.

This process continues until one candidate has 50 per cent plus one of the votes.

Proponents say this system results in a winner the majority of voters is satisfied with, even if it's not their first choice.

No vote wasted: Paula Biggar

Preferential voting isn't widely used around the world to elect legislative assemblies. It is used in Australia to elect the House of Representatives. Other countries, including India and the Republic of Ireland, use preferential voting for presidential elections.

P.E.I.'s Minister of Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy Paula Biggar said she was introduced to preferential voting while involved in organizing the Liberal nomination in 2015 for the federal riding of Egmont, where the system was used.

Liberal MLA Paula Biggar says preferential voting addresses some of the concerns people have with the first past the post system. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

"This particular system I think addresses a number of the complaints we hear sometimes after elections — that candidates didn't get elected with a majority in their district," said Biggar.

"It also addresses the other complaint we have of 'my vote is wasted.' Because you do get to choose more than one candidate."

Biggar also said preferential voting would lead to less adversarial election campaigns, as candidates would require a broader base of support to win seats, and have to appeal to supporters of rival candidates to become their second or third choices.

Impossible to predict what legislature might look like

It's difficult to predict what the outcome of P.E.I.'s 2015 provincial election would have been under a preferential voting system. Only 6 of 27 candidates were elected with a majority. It's impossible to predict what voters' second and third preferences would have been.

But Mark Greenan with the PEI Coalition for Proportional Representation doesn't think the results would have been much different.

Mark Greenan of the PEI Coalition for Proportional Representation says preferential voting wouldn't do much to change the make-up of the legislature. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

He points to Australia, where in the 2013 federal election, 90 per cent of the seats went to the candidate who led after the first round of vote counting — in other words, the candidate who would have won under first past the post.

"The amount of change we're going to get [with this system] is probably oversold," he said.  

"Because it's going to elect the same people, we're going to have the exact same problem with unaccountable governments and lopsided legislatures with preferential balloting that we would under first past the post."

About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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