Virtual election lets Ontarians 'vote' under different rules

A group of Canadian researchers would like Ontario voters to experiment with how they cast their ballots as they gear up for the provincial election on Oct. 6.

'This is, in my view, an issue that will not die away'

André Blais, lead researcher in the Three Ontario Votes project, says people don't know a lot about different electoral systems. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

A group of Canadian researchers is asking Ontario voters to experiment with how they cast their ballots as they gear up for the provincial election on Oct. 6.

In this province and at the federal level, voters are accustomed to the parliamentary first-past-the post system. In our current system, you cast a ballot to elect a candidate to represent your riding in the legislature.

The candidate with the most votes then goes on to represent your riding.

But how different would the results of the Ontario election be if ballots were cast in an entirely different electoral system?

That's one of the questions University of Montreal researcher André Blais would like answered. Blais is leading an interactive project — dubbed Three Ontario Votes — where voters can simulate voting under three different electoral systems, our own first-past-the post system being one of them.

"People don't know a lot about electoral systems and this is I think an opportunity to get people to think about how electoral systems work," said Blais, who is also the Canada research chair in electoral studies and a member of the advisory board of Vote Compass, an independent online election issues survey produced for the CBC.

Voting simulation

The "polling period" in the simulation is open from the launch of the Three Ontario Votes site until election night on Oct. 6.

On the site, participants will find information on different electoral systems and an explanation of the projects. To run the simulation, participants cast "votes" in their ridings in the first-past-the-post system.

They then cast ballots according to the rules of the alternative voting system, currently used in Australia, and proportional voting, currently employed in the Netherlands. Participants are then asked to complete a short questionnaire about their political preferences.

A sample 'ballot' from Three Ontario Votes.

After the simulated ballots have been cast, the researchers will tally the vote counts and then determine the results of the vote in each system. The researchers would then examine how those results differ to illustrate the consequences of electoral systems, said Blais.

His team is embarking on the project just four years after a referendum in which Ontarians overwhelmingly rejected a mixed member-proportional model that blended the current first-past-the-post system and the proportional model.

So why run this exercise now?

Blais acknowledged electoral reform is not high on the current political agenda in Ontario, but still believes voters are curious about other electoral systems.

"This is, in my view, an issue that will not die away," Blais said.  "It might disappear from the agenda for ten years or 20 years. But it will re-emerge in some fashion."

7-year research project

Rather than the mixed-member proportional system nixed by Ontarians in 2007, Blais' team decided to use a pure proportional model.  

"Honestly, we don't want to stir controversy about this. We would not want to be attacked for trying to sort of come back with a model that has been rejected," he said.

The Ontario Votes project is just one part of a much larger seven-year research initiative called Making Electoral Democracy Work, which will analyze 27 elections with differing electoral systems in five countries — Canada, France, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland — for party behaviour and voter choice.

"We're basically interested in trying to understand how the context affects voter choice," Blais said of the seven-year project.

If Blais's team thinks the simulated vote in Ontario went well, they plan on using it again in the French presidential election next May.

But the primary goal of the Ontario project, Blais maintains, is education.

"We're not here to sell any kind of system," he said.

"We're sort of providing a very easy way of learning more about it. That's all."

Alternative voting  First-past-the-post Proportional representation 
Also known as preferential voting. Used in elections for the House of Representatives in Australia, where voting is compulsory.

Used in Canadian provincial and federal elections.

Used in elections for the House of Representatives in the Netherlands.

Voters rank the candidates according to their preference. Any candidate getting more than 50 per cent of the vote wins. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, the weakest candidate is eliminated. Voters cast a vote for a candidate associated with a party in their respective districts. The candidate with the most votes is the elected representative for that district. Parties send out lists of their candidates. Voters cast their ballots for the party. The proportion of seats the party gets is roughly equivalent to the number of votes cast for that party.
The people who cast their ballots for the eliminated candidates will have their votes allocated to the candidate they picked as their second choice. The process is repeated

A mechanism known as the d'Hondt formula is used to help allocate the seats.