Throughout the discussion on electoral-system reform in Canada, I have seen various social-media posts that purport to compare the percentage of votes that “count” in Canada vs. in existing PR systems. Typically, these posts will cite a figure of 50% of votes counting in Canada and 95% or more in PR countries.
The numbers seemed fishy to me. I do not doubt that votes are substantially more likely to “count” towards election of a representative under PR than under FPTP or other majoritarian systems. But the 95% figure seemed too high.
As I happen to have a dataset of district-level electoral results in many countries at my disposal, it was not too hard to subject the claim to a test. The harder part is knowing how to operationalize “count”. I chose two methods, based on my understanding of the complaint that reform advocates have against FPTP. The problem, it will be seen, as I suspect both methods are being used by these advocates, but different methods for different systems.
The first method is the one that I believe they are applying to Canada, which is: “did my vote contribute to the election of someone in my district?” Guess what–when your district elects one, for many voters the answer is “no”. (And this may be sufficient reason to want to ditch the system!) The second method is one that I suspect the authors of these posts apply when looking at PR systems: “Did the party I voted for win representation?” That is, I suspect a district-level standard is being applied to FPTP, but a national-level one to PR countries. My calculations seem to bear that out.
If we use the first method–district-level count of votes for parties (or candidates) that did not win in the district, we almost nail the 50% figure for the most recent Canadian election for which I have data. In 2011, I get 50.4% of votes across the country “counting” in the sense that they were cast for the winner in the voter’s district.
Across the 25 FPTP elections for which I have complete data, the average figure is 55.8%. The lowest figures are around 47% in several UK and Indian elections, with the highest being 62% or more in the US and Barbados. (What do these latter two countries have in common? Very few votes going to parties other than the top two.)
I then apply that same standard to PR systems. A pause is needed here. Canada is very highly unlikely to adopt nationwide PR, either with a single national district (which I think we can say is politically and constitutionally impossible) or with districts but also nationwide compensation (as in Germany or Denmark, among others). Thus I consider the relevant metric to be those PR systems that employ districts, plural, and no nationwide compensation.
Using the same standard–votes “count” when cast for a party that wins a seat in the district–the mean for (districted) PR systems is 87.2%. That figure is a lot higher than 50%, I will grant. It is also a good deal lower than 95%.
If we look at nationwide (single-district) PR, guess what? 96.5%! A few specific elections come in at 99%, such as the Netherlands, 2002, and Israel, 1951. (Most Israeli and Dutch elections are over 97%, but Netherlands, 1952, was at a paltry 94.7%.) That’s great! However, most PR advocates, unless they are real purists (and not at all realists) do not advocate the adoption of the Dutch or Israeli type of PR.
What about the second standard? Under this one, your vote “counts” if it was cast for a party that won representation somewhere (at least one seat), even if it did not win in your district. As I noted above, I suspect this is the standard being applied, at least implicitly, to the PR countries in the social-media posts I have seen.
By this standard, districted PR systems’ average percentage of votes that count rises to 93.7%. We are almost to 95%! For nationwide PR, it obviously does not change (there’s only one district). What about for FPTP? 97.1%. Canada, 2011, comes in at 99.1%.
I do not actually know if a Canadian voter feels “represented” if she voted NDP but the NDP candidate in her district lost. I suspect many do feel so represented, or else the NDP would not get more than trivial vote shares in districts where it has no chance of winning. Yet it does. Greens can also get votes near or above their nationwide percentage even in many districts that are totally hopeless for them. Perhaps they feel represented by Elizabeth May (the one Green MP) even if they reside in a different district or province. Not as well represented as if their own MP was Green, presumably, but my point is that voters probably tend to think of national party systems when voting, even in districted systems. Yes, even in systems in which districts have one seat apiece.
There may be many reasons to prefer PR over FPTP. I can think of quite a few myself. But the idea of a vote “counting” towards representation may not be one of the more meaningful criteria to use. Or, if it is used, it might be OK not to exaggerate. The difference between 50% (Canada, 2011) and 87% (mean for districted PR) is impressive enough, using the first (district-based) criterion. We don’t need to pretend that twice as many votes “count” under PR as under FPTP. 1.74 times as many is still a lot more!