Approval Voting Pitch to Law Reform Commission of Canada (2003)

by Chris Bradshaw, March 17, 2003


I appeared at the Commission’s November hearing here in Ottawa,
with two written presentations in hand, but found that there was
no provision for speaking to them, so I held back submitting
them, working to improve on them.  It has taken longer than
anticipated, as I have been ill.

Generally, I subscribe to the position of Fair Vote Canada (of
which I am a member) that it is premature to assume, at this
point in the national discussion, which voting system is the best
to replace first-past-the-post, which is significantly flawed.  I
am active in the Green Party and have an undergraduate degree in
Government from a U.S. small college.  I also spent 30 years as a
professional doing community work, mostly on housing and
transportation issues.


My proposal addresses three main concerns.  First, I want a
voting system that allows voters to give more than one preference
simultaneously, similar to the right to make simultaneous
donations to more than one party, or to buy more than one kind of
breakfast cereal in a single visit to the store.  For instance,
the voter may like one candidate’s experience and local
knowledge, but like another’s policy approach, or a third’s
position on a single issue important to them, or want to support
the fourth to whom the voter is related, or be impressed by the
quality of the national campaign of the party for a fifth
candidate.  These choices are very difficult, but, with the
exception of the German-style PR system (a “local vote” and a
“national vote”), they have only one “token” to use.  Second, I
want every vote to count, so that all voters feel they are
represented in Parliament.  Third, I want to get rid of
“strategic voting” in which the voter gives his vote to a major
party he might not otherwise support or like, just to “punish”
another major party he likes even less.  What kind of mandate
does that provide to the “favoured” party?  On the other hand, I
like the accountability that comes with single-member districts
and from the message voters can send to larger, multi-issue
parties by casting votes for single-issue parties.

I am motivated to make a submission because I want to ensure that
a somewhat different voting system is given consideration, one
that, as far as I know, is not in use by any government in the
world.  I offer it because I don’t believe that the ideal voting
system has yet been invented.  Also, I think that Canada might
make a contribution to developing it.


This system, I am told, is used in elections in some NGOs, where,
I understand, it is called “approval voting.”  I prefer to call
it “acceptance voting,” partly because I am not familiar with
experience using it, partly because I think “acceptance” more
accurately describes the choice voters are making, and finally,
because my proposal includes elements that are probably not part
of approval voting.

Acceptance Voting allows each voter to cast a ballot on
which he or she is allowed to mark as many choices as he or she
wants and deems “acceptable.”  The whole ballot would constitute
“the vote” and each mark “an acceptance.”  This varies from rank-
order ballots used in some PR (proportional representation)
systems in that the multiple candidates are chosen
simultaneously, rather than consecutively (some lower on the
voter’s ranking might not even be “acceptable” to them).
Acceptance voting is often assumed to be unfair, since some
voters use more marks than others.  However, it is not, since no
voter can give more than one mark to any one choice, and
therefore each voter is affecting the relative standing of the
candidates by a value of only one.  For instance, in municipal
elections where more than one seat is at stake, voters are
traditionally allowed to marking as many choices at there are
seats, but no more, even though there is no logical reason to
impose that limit.  But voters are allowed to be “strategic” by
marking fewer choices than they can (this is called “plumping,”
which most formal parties coach their supporters on).

Acceptance voting, unlike the other systems, greatly reduces the
chance that at least one candidate/party would not get 50% of the
voters to “accept” him or her.  In fact, several might.  Of
course, the candidate with the most “acceptances” would be deemed
elected. If no candidate were to get an “acceptance” from a
majority of voters, a run-off election, several weeks later,
would be held. [This could happen only if: a) a large percentage
of voters “plumped,” or if b) many voters who showed up marked no
choices, a way to “spoil” their ballot.]

This part of the election would settle the single-member seats
(SMSs), which I propose should be 200 of the current 301 (and 306
under the redistribution now taking place).  This leaves the
remaining seats to be multi-riding regional party seats (MRPSs).
I propose they be awarded by a separate process within one week,
allocated to parties as follows: all “acceptances” received by
unsuccessful candidates would be pooled nationally and used to
allocate MRPSs to parties proportionally.  (The party most
successful in winning SMSs would, logically, get a fairly low
percentage of the MRPS pool.)  Each party would then divide the
ridings they contested into regional “clusters” equal to the
number of seats they are awarded, respectful of provincial
boundaries and of the variability of distribution of the
“acceptances” they received.  Once these clusters are formed,
Elections Canada would declare elected the respective party’s
candidate in that cluster with the highest % of “acceptances” for
their riding’s eligible voters (rather than the absolute # of
acceptances, to accommodate riding pop-variations, but not low
turnouts).  I favour a legislated threshold of “acceptances”: 3%
of the total # that are pooled, or about three seats, so that no
party would have a “free radicals,” but members which are part of
caucuses of at least three members.


A.   Voter Comfort:

a.   Unlike ranking of choices, every “acceptance” counts
(even if the ballots is spoiled by making all choices)
and has equal weight, either in deciding the MP or the
distribution of MRPSs.  Voters will all have an MP
(perhaps more than one) with whom they will have a
“constituency relationship.”

b.   “Acceptances” are far easier for voters to decide on
than to rank-order the choices.  It is also, for voters
with “more than one mind,” easier than having to decide
which one candidate to favour. Voters will not be left
with the angst that comes with making only one vote
serve to designate several preferences, including
“strategic voting,” since each voter can mark as many
choices as they want.  (E.g., a voter who wants to help
rid the country of party A can vote for both their own
party (C) as well as the party (B) which is considered
as having the closest chance to topping party A in that
riding.  The voter could be wrong about this prediction
— which strategic voting unfairly requires — and the
candidate for party C will be elected; this is never a
possible outcome with other voting systems).

c.   Negative voting will still be possible (by favouring
all choices but the unfavoured one), but will allow the
voter to indicate, through their other “acceptances,”
their broader preferences to the one that ultimately
prevails, rather than the current practice that leaves
the winner with no positive mandate for action from
those negatively favouring them.

d.   “Spoiling” can be done in two ways, neither of which
need be deemed illegal: i) marking no choices, or ii)
marking all choices.  The former shows displeasure with
the choices offered or the way the election was held,
and reduces the chance that any candidate will get a
clear majority; the second increases the chance that
very small parties will exceed the threshold for
getting seats, and increases the chance that a run-off
election will be avoided in that riding.

e.   On the other hand, any voter who is clear about
favouring only one party (“plumping”) will continue to
be able to do so without losing any rights connected
with voting, unlike rank-order ballots which require
ranking several choices in case the first choice is
eliminated after the first, indecisive ballot.  The
effect of “plumping” is that i) it increases the chance
that no candidate in that riding will get a majority,
and ii) the voter will be aware of a penalty for
exercising the extra power of a “plumped vote”: they
are foregoing the influence they might have in
allocating the 106 “pool” seats.

B.   Parliamentary Make up:

a.   All seats would be tied to one or more ridings, unlike
pure or mixed PR systems.  Thus each voter would have a
“local MP” for regular constituency matters, and one or
more party MPs for their policy issues (e.g., “John P.
is the Green Member for Northern and Western Ontario”).

b.   It would overcome the FPTP shortcoming   which
undercuts parliamentary legitimacy — where large
numbers of elected Members are not acceptable to a
majority of their voting constituents.

c.   Parliament would be protected from the exaggerated
“loss of talent” after an election, when a small shift
in voter sentiment sends as many as 1/3 of sitting
members into “retirement,” replacing them with a very
large number of “rookies.”

d.   The country would also be protected from a Parliament
that is characterized by i) large parties that rotate
between having more power that they have earned
(“hubris”) and much less (“humility”), ii) small parties
that are shut out entirely, and iii) an “opposition”
that is left with no more a role than that of critics,
rather than colleagues who can offer much through
consultation and collaboration.

C.   Party Powers:

a.   The role of each party to do the clustering for the
MRPSs will allow it to ensure that each MRPS MP will
have about the same number of constituents to serve,
ensuring equal constituency workload, but still have an
MP serving parts of the country where the party is
especially weak.  (There is no guarantee that the # of
acceptances received by MRPSs will be the same as
received by the average MP; in fact, the # for the
former might be several times higher, depending on
extent of “plumping” and no-acceptance “spoiling”).

b.   Parties will have the most accurate indication as to
where its support (“acceptance”) lies, since there is
nothing preventing a voter from indicating their true
sentiments.  The decline in “strategic voting” will
help smaller parties, who are not in a competition with
larger parties for a scarce resource, and larger
parties who will have a better idea of what voters

c.   Unlike with “list seats,” senior party “hacks” would not
get “safe” seats by being far up on the list, and thus
be protected from swings in the national level of party
support.  Under acceptance voting, all 306 MPs would
need to run in — and vigorously campaign in — local
ridings, although senior officials would have the
ability to choose seats that are “safer.”
d.   Parties will act less strategically.  Although excess
votes in ridings they win will be “wasted,” votes
received in a losing cause (even by the party that
eventually becomes the government) will still count.
This means that parties will treat all races seriously,
meaning that their supporters in all ridings will be
equally important.

D.   The National Political Culture

a.   Acceptance voting will favour parties that work on
their “acceptability,” that i) work hard during
elections and between them, ii) have policies that are
reasonable, meaning that they are both workable and
innovative, and iii) work hard during the election and
don’t cater to the “politics of resentment” (to work as
a countervail to the votes lost to parties that do).
Parties on the extremes   as is common in Israel and
Italy   would be discriminated against under
acceptance voting, not just because their policies are
extreme, but because they appeal to the darker side of
voters, which many voters will want to “punish.”  It is
important to our political culture that parties support
diversity and seek broad-based constituencies.

b.   Likewise, parties that have a regional appeal will be
hurt, mostly by getting very few if any MRPSs with
which they can serve the rest of the country, where
they did not win single-member seats.  Their propensity
to incite regional loyalties will also translate into
appearing unreasonable, and therefore unacceptable, not
only in other regions, but in their stronghold region.

c.   Voter turnout will increase.  This will occur  because
i) the voting process causes voters less angst than
both the FPTP and rank-order voting, ii) voters will
not need to do fact-finding in order to find out which
choice to make in “strategic voting,” and iii) voters
will see their votes count, such that if none of their
“acceptable” choices prevail locally, they have a
chance they will help elect a “cluster” MP for all
other parties they found acceptable.

d.   The number of women and minority MPs will grow, not
only through continued party prerogative with regard to
nominations   as with PR systems   but through the
lower competitiveness between candidates in ridings,
and the emphasis on acceptance.  Under Acceptance
Voting, women candidates and minority candidates of any
party might well attract extra “acceptances” from
voters supporting the value to Parliament   support
they would not get under FPTP and traditional PR
which would stand these party candidates in an
advantageous position when MRPSs are allocated by ER to
their party’s cluster seats.
E.   Effect on Elections Canada

a.   The balloting process, although slightly more complex
than FPTP, will be far less complex than rank-order
balloting.  This will reduce staff work on voting day
and require less advance education of voters.

b.   Acceptance voting will eliminate the need to make
“spoiled ballot” rulings.  Voters who inadvertently
mark choices they did not intend will not have created
a spoiled ballot (the use of electronic “readers”
should be expanded to provide each voter with a
“picture” of how their ballot will be tallied   before
they drop it in the box).  And those who want to
purposely spoil their ballot will have two options to
indicate that they accept no responsibility for the
outcome: they can mark none of the choices or they can
mark all choices; both will count as a ballot without
affecting the relative standing of the candidates.

c.   There will be higher voter turnouts, which will mean
more work, but it will also result in additional voter
feedback and information.


Note 1: It should be noted that the process used by all political
parties in Canada to elect their leaders and candidates,
sequential ballots, is in some ways ideal.  First, it encourages
more candidates to enter (increasing the total # involved and
available during the subsequent general election).  It also drops
candidates only if they finish dead-last on the previous ballot
— in contrast to France’s use of a run-off election.  However,
as parties increasingly allow direct elections by members not in
attendance, the advantages don’t apply equitably.

Note 2: Acceptance voting is somewhat similar to the allowance
for abstentions in voting between only two options, e.g., the
United Nations Security Council.  The “strategic” tendency
doesn’t always direct each delegate to vote either “yes” or “no.”
Sometimes an abstention is better.  This is similar to the Green
Party practice of giving delegates three voting cards: green
(“yes”), red (“no”), and yellow (“abstain” or “send proposal to
workshop so it can be improved”) and, in the case of elections,
to the inclusion on the ballots of “NOTA, “none of the above,”
which has sometimes prevailed  These are real and important
choices and lead to cooperative efforts, as required.

Note 3: I have made no mention of Senate reform.  I considered
and rejected using the Senate seats for the MRPSs, since I feel
that those seats should reside in the same chamber.

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