Is AV just FPTP on steroids?

In debates over electoral systems in Canada, one often hears, from otherwise pro-reform people, that a shift to the alternative vote would be worse than the status quo. It is easy to understand why this view might be held. The alternative vote (AV), also known as instant runoff (IRV), keeps the single-seat districts of a system like Canada’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, but replaces the plurality election rule in each district with a ranked-ballot and a counting procedure aimed at producing a majority winner. (Plurality winners are still possible if, unlike in Australia, ranking all candidates is not mandatory. The point is that pluralities of first or sole-preference votes are not sufficient.)

Of course, the claim that AV would be FPTP on steroids implies that, were Canada to switch to AV, the current tendency towards inflated majorities for a party favored by less than half the voters would be even more intensified. This is plausible, inasmuch as AV should favor a center-positioned party. A noteworthy feature of the Canadian party system is the dominance, most of the time, by a centrist party. This is unusual in comparison with most other FPTP systems, notably the UK (I highly recommend Richard Johnston’s fascinating book on the topic). The party in question, the Liberal Party, would pick up many second preferences, mainly from the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) and so, according to the “steroids” thesis, it would thus win many more seats than it does now. It might even become a “permanent majority”, able to win a parliamentary majority even if it is second in (first-preference) votes to the Conservatives (who thus win the majority or at least plurality of seats under FPTP). The “steroids” claim further implies that the NDP would win many fewer seats, and thus Canada would end up with more of a two-party system rather than the multiparty system it has under FPTP.

There is a strong plausibility to this claim. We can look to the UK, where AV was considered in a referendum. Simulations at the time showed that the Liberal Democrats would stand to benefit rather nicely from a change to AV. While the LibDems are a third party, heavily punished by the FPTP electoral system even when they have had 20% or so of the votes, what they have in common with the Canadian Liberals is their centrist placement. Thus, perhaps we have an iron law of AV: the centrist party gains in seats, whether or not it is already one of the two largest parties. An important caveat applies here: with the LibDems having fallen in support since their coalition with the Conservatives (2010-15), the assumptions they would gain from AV probably no longer apply.

On the other hand, we have the case of the Australian House of Representatives, which is elected by AV. There, a two-party system is even stronger in national politics than in the FPTP case of the UK, and far more so than in Canada. (When I say “two party” I am counting the Coalition as a party because it mostly operates as such in parliament and its distinct component parties seldom compete against one another in districts.)

It is not as if Australia has never had a center-positioned party. The Australian Democrats, for example, reached as high as 11.3% of the first-preference votes in 1990, but managed exactly zero seats (in what was then a 148-seat chamber). Thus being centrist is insufficient to gain from AV.

Nonetheless, the combination of centrism and largeness does imply that Canada’s Liberals would be richly rewarded by a change to AV. Or at least it seems that Justin Trudeau thought so. His campaign promised 2015 would be the last election under FPTP. While he did not say what would replace it, he’s previously said he likes a “ranked ballot” and he pulled the plug on an electoral-reform process when it was veering dangerously towards proportional representation.

Still, there are reasons to be somewhat skeptical, at least of the generalization of the Australian two-party experience. The reasons for my caution against the “steroids” view are two-fold: (1) the overlooked role of assembly size; (2) the ability of parties and voters to adapt.

Assembly size is the most important predictor of the size of the largest party, disproportionality, and the effective number of seat-winning parties in countries that use single-seat districts. (It is likely relatively less important when there are two rounds of voting, as in France, but still likely the most important factor.) This is a key conclusion of Votes from Seats. It is thus important not to overlook the fact that Australia has an assembly size considerably smaller than Canada’s. In the book, Taagepera and I show that Australia’s effective number of seat-winning parties and size of largest parliamentary party are almost what we would expect from its assembly size, even if FPTP were used. (See also this earlier post and its comment thread; how close it is to expectation depends on how we count what a “party” is.) The data are calculated over the 1949-2011 period, and the effective number of parties has been just 1.10 times the expectation from the Seat Product Model (which is based only on assembly size when single-seat districts are used). Similarly, the average largest party has been 93% of the expected size (averaging 50.5%  of seats when we would expect 54.2%).

Thus we do not need to invoke the alleged steroids aspect of AV to understand the dominance of two parties in Australia. But this does not mean it would not make a difference in Canada. Consider that the current effective number of parties and size of the largest party in that country, averaged over a similar period, are also just about what we should expect. The multipartism, including periodic minority governments, that characterize Canada are not surprising, when you use the Seat Product Model (SPM). They are surprising only if you think district magnitude is all that matters, and that FPTP is FPTP. But it isn’t! An electoral system using the FPTP electoral rule with an assembly of more than 300 seats is a different, and more multiparty-favoring, electoral system than one with 150 seats. Replace “FPTP” in that sentence with “AV” and it is surely still true.

But what about the centrist party, the Canadian Liberals? Surely AV would work differently in this context, and the Liberals would be a much more advantaged party. Right? Maybe. If so, then it would mean that the SPM would be overridden, at least partially, in Canada, and the largest party would be bigger than expected, for the assembly size, while the effective number of parties would be lower than expected. Of course, that’s possible! The SPM is devised for “simple” systems. AV is not simple, as we define that term. Maybe the SPM is just “lucky” that the one country to have used AV for a long time has the expected party system; or it is lucky that country has the “correct” assembly size to sustain two-party dominance. (Australia is the Lucky Country, after all, so if the SPM is going to get lucky somewhere, it might as well be Australia.)

This is where that other factor comes in. While no one has a crystal ball, I am going to go with the next best thing. I am going to say that the SPM is reliable enough that we can predict that, were Canada to have AV, it would have an effective number of parties around 2.6 and a largest party with around 48% of seats. In other words, just about where it has been for quite some time (adjusting for the House size having been a bit smaller in the past than it is now). Note these are averages, over many elections. Any one election might deviate–in either direction. I won’t claim that a first election using AV would not be really good for the Liberals! I am doubting that would be a new equilibrium. (Similarly, back in 2016 I said my inclination would not be to predict the effective number of parties to go down under AV.)

Parties and voters have a way of adapting to rules. Yes the Liberals are centrist, and yes the Conservatives are mostly alone on the right of the spectrum (albeit not quite as much now, heading into 2019, as in recent years). But that need not be an immutable fact of Canadian politics. Under AV, the Liberals might move leftward to attract NDP second preferences, the NDP center-ward to attract Liberal and even Conservative second preferences, the Conservatives also towards the center. It would be a different game! The Greens and other parties might be more viable in some districts than is currently the case, but also potentially less viable in others where they might win a plurality, but struggle to get lower ranked preferences. The point is, it could be fluid, and there is no reason to believe scenarios that have the largest party increasing in size (and being almost always the Liberals), and correspondingly the effective number of parties falling. With 338 or so districts, likely there would remain room for several parties, and periodic minority governments (and alternations between leading parties), just as the SPM predicts for a country with that assembly size and single-seat districts.

As I have noted before, it is the UK that is the surprising case. Its largest party tends to be far too large for that huge assembly (currently 650 seats), and its effective number of seat-winning parties is “too low”. Maybe it needs AV to realize its full potential, given that the simulations there showed the third party benefitting (at least when it was larger than it’s been in the two most recent elections).

Bottom line: I do not buy the “FPTP on steroids” characterization of AV. I can understand were it comes from, given the presence in Canada of a large centrist party. I just do not believe Liberal dominance would become entrenched. The large assembly and the diversity of the country’s politics (including its federal structure) both work against that.

I agree with electoral reformers that PR would be better for Canada than AV. I also happen to think it would be better for the Liberals! But would AV be worse than FPTP? Likely, it would not be as different as the “steroids” claim implies.

20 thoughts on “Is AV just FPTP on steroids?

  1. In the context of Canada, I’ve looked into the riding by riding results for federal elections, and in short, no the Liberals don’t gain huge numbers of seats under single member majority or AV. They do somewhat, but not a lot, better than under single member plurality (or FPTP).

    The main reason for this is that in a typical election there are a large number of seats where the Liberal candidate comes in neither first or second and is therefore not in a position to pick up second place votes. The main exception are years where the Liberals win by landslides, in which case the current FPTP system gives them an inflated number of seats anyway.

    In late twentieth century, and I suppose this has been the case often enough in the twenty-first century, in federal politics the Liberal Party was not significantly stronger than the New Democrats in the western provinces, which have covered between a quarter and a third of the ridings. Another thing to keep in mind is that there is more than one political spectrum, and on the populism vs establishment spectrum, the New Democrats and Conservatives have been closer to each other than either have been to the Liberals. This is particularly the case when a federal Liberal government is in power, unless it is a minority government that has made a deal with the NDP. There are actually lots of NDP -Tory crossover votes. Granted, commentators in the media routinely treat the NDP as a sort of sickly sibling of the Liberals but that should be taken for what it is worth.

    In other contexts, I don’t think you can just add votes for Party A to the total of larger Party B. We just learned in the context of the UK that the Liberals were a lot less close to Labour than had been thought. And for whatever reason, the practical effect of AV in Australia has been to reduce the chances of winning a seat for all but the top two parties/ coalitions. A better argument against AV in practice is that third and minor parties seem to need to be able to win elections by pluralities the first time out until they can build up credibility. And that probably doesn’t apply that much in electoral systems where third parties and regional parties have been factors in politics for some time.

  2. I think the key questions when designing electoral systems for legislatures are:

    1. Do you want minor parties with small but significant levels of support to have any representation?

    2. How much value do you place on there always being a party with a majority in the chamber?

    3. How much value do you place on a party which has not gotten a majority of the vote getting a legislative majority? Side questions are does it make a difference if its a low versus a high plurality, or some other party has gotten more votes.

    4. How important is it for each parties’ proportion of the legislature to match their proportions of the votes?

    5. How important is it that the legislature and electoral system can function without any parties at all, or eighteenth century style weak parties?

    With proportional representation, it should be noted that it is mainly important for item #4. It helps secure representation for minor parties, preventing parties with minority support “coming up the middle” and getting a majority, while in practice they work against both single party governments and independent members. But you can have all these things happen and have a high degree of non-proportionality.

    At the macro level, based on the Australian experience, AV seems to work mildly against minor party representation and have no effect on the other dimensions (maybe it encourages parties to pitch to the center and not rely on getting a dedicated plurality), though at the individual district level it prevents the district from electing a representative who is unpopular with a majority of the district. But a French style run-off system is a single member majority system that does provide for a good deal of minor party representation.

  3. > ” its distinct component parties [outside Western Australia and, in the 1980s, Queensland] seldom compete against one another in districts [with a sitting Liberal or National member].)’

    Slight amendment to be pedantic…

    The usual rule in NSW, Victoria and (before the LNP merger) Queensland is that open seats (Labor-held or when a sitting Coalition MP retires) are fair game for both Liberals and Nationals to contest, but they don’t actually try to defeat each other’s incumbent candidates.

    This is why, eg, Indi in Victoria, moved from National to Liberal and now independent (Sophie Mirabella is a sort of Ann Coulter without the wit and managed to annoy a lot of conservative rural voters with her personal style).

    Re MSS’s main point:

    Most of the “permanently in government under preferential and/or proportional voting” claims seem to assume that voters are thick. I mean, really thick. So thick that, really, following this logic to its conclusion, they should not be entrusted with the franchise. So, yeah, assume the Liberals (UK or Canadian) do manage to hoover up everyone’s second preferences and get an inflated number of seats at the first AV or PR election. but then what? They keep screwing everyone over for decades but still remain in power? The voters never realise this and don’t at any point retaliate by sweeping in one or the other major party with a large majority in its own right? Voters are dumb sheep? Please. See: Clegg, N (Post-2015 Political Career Of).

    The usual counter-examples are the FDP in Germany and the Christian Democrats in Italy. True, the Free Democratic Party does seem nearly as entrenched a kingmaker in Germany’s Bundestag as the New Hampshire & Iowa Party does in the US Electoral College. But there might, perhaps might, be reasons other than the electoral rules explaining why a country historically squeezed between Weimar, Hitler and Walter Ulbricht might consider it not a bug but a feature to have a socially liberal free-market party in its Cabinet. As for Italy, i used to ask whether the complainants wanted the Communist Party (even after it abandoned Togliattism for Eurocommunism) to win absolute majorities under FPTP for five or ten years every few decades under FPTP. Curiously, even the most adamant Thatcherites were not takers for that. the “Italy just needs to adopt FPTP” panacea tended to assume the can-opener of Italy also having a free-market, socially conservative party to replace the Communists and a Gaitskellite-Blairite Labour party in second place.

    • “also having a free-market, socially conservative party to replace the Communists and a Gaitskellite-Blairite Labour party in second place.” – that is, to some degree, what happened after 1994, though?

      • Sure, henry, after 1994. I was thinking more during the actual Thatcher era/ the Eighties when it was DC vs PCI in Italy.
        Mind you, that was also back when the Lady’s loyal disciples were dutifully repeating the mantra “There Is No Alternative” (TINA), to make the point that people shouldn’t bother voting for parties that promise free ponies if free ponies arew not economically viable. This was long before the present BoJo/ Brexit era of British Toryism when the Lady’s latter-day heirs have taken to assuring that British people that, like Green Lantern, they can vote for and get whatever they want as long as their resolve is firm enough and they are not swayed by counter-arguments or objections.

    • “… Australia essentially has what political scientists call a two-party dominant political system, with the Liberals and the Nationals generally acting as one…”
      – Kate Crowley, “Working together, living apart: Are Labor and the Greens divided by their common ground?” Review of Whitlam’s Children: Labor and the Greens in Australia, by Shaun Crowe. Inside Story (19 December 2018), https://insidestory.org.au/working-together-living-apart/
      While the normal presumption is that the singular includes the plural, Kate Crowley is a distinct entity from Kate Crowle, a former ALP staffer in Canberra. Nor is her surname the past tense plural of Dr Crowe’s. This must be confusing to Russian-speakers.

  4. What strikes me in developed countries with parliamentary systems that use FPTP is that options for reform are always presented as systems that will conjure up additional third party seats out of nowhere, even if nobody votes for them. It does not seem to matter if this third party is on the left (as in the case of the NDP) or the centre (as with the Lib Dems). This gives the impression in the minds of wavering voters who are predisposed to the main two parties that the voter would under this proposed method be in less control of the make-up of the legislature rather than greater control. The fact that New Zealand now has entrenched MMP is, in this regard, utterly remarkable.

    One mistake of the AV referendum in the UK – other than calling it ‘AV’ instead of the more self-explanatory IRV, ranked ballot or OPV – was to hold it at a time when the Liberal Democrats had just made themselves deeply unpopular and the other third-party options of UKIP and the Greens had yet to surge. A feeble attempt to link FPTP to the expenses scandal (already fast fading from memory by spring 2011) and claims that Greece used FPTP (it, of course, doesn’t) and that this was somehow related to that country’s economic woes didn’t help either.

    • “…options for reform are always presented as systems that will conjure up additional third party seats out of nowhere, even if nobody votes for them.”

      In the PR campaigns with which I am familiar, the argument has been that voting for third parties is suppressed by the winner-takes-all feature of FPTP – that a switch to PR would allow the expression of pre-existing demand, rather than creating a demand out of nothing.

      MMP party votes in New Zealand in the last dozen years show 1 voter in 5 supporting a party other than National or Labour. FPTP elections in the early 1980’s had similar levels of support for minor parties. Such voters would not have felt that FPTP gave them more control over the make-up of the legislature.

      The voters most likely to prefer FPTP are those whose party is positioned to obtain a majority of seats under that system. Typically they will be fewer than 50% of voters (a “feature” of FPTP) and so a majority of voters see no advantage in FPTP. Continuing support for MMP in New Zealand should not surprise us.

      • You are quite correct that pro-PR campaigns rightly point out “a switch to PR would allow the expression of pre-existing demand”, but it is dishearteningly easy for opponents to convince less informed voters that under other voting and counting methods that extra third-party ‘losers’ will just magically appear.

        Continuing support for MMP in New Zealand should not surprise us, but the initial decision (and that it was even put before the Kiwi electorate) still ought to do so. There are parallels with the early elections using MMP there and in Scotland, where the number of parties represented in Parliament initially ballooned before settling down to a more manageable 5 (of which all but the Greens can – arguably – routinely win FPTP seats anyway).

      • Oliver has a good point. Anecdotally, a lot of people seem to look only at the seat totals (probably because it is more interesting to personalise the election as a horse race among a few dozen political identities) and not the votes actually cast. I have come across three or four Australians over the years who seem to think that Ronald Reagan actually won 90%+ of the vote in 1984 and that the Tories under Margaret Thatcher polled two-thirds or so.
        The media tend to reinforce this. Can anyone imagine, say, a 40% to 35% plurality of votes that nets the largest party around 60% of seats *not* being described as a “landslide victory”? And in Australia, people are more often than not surprised to learn that the National/ Country Party usually polls fewer first-preference votes federally than the DLP in the 1960s, the Australian Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Greens today. The Nationals usually win 10-15% of House of Representatives seats, and so have well-known faces on the 6 o’clock news from parliament (hello Anthony dynasty! hello Barnaby!), whereas the DLP and ADs won none and the Greens win very few.
        I sometimes wonder if PR gets less traction than otherwise because people assume that 60% of seats in a single-member system represents a genuine 60% of votes and that PR is some kind of plot to give each minor party with 0.5% or 1% support a bonus 10 or 20 seats or something – like how smaller States get in the Senate? Not sure how one would design survey machinery to test for this, but very little about public and media ignorance of electoral systems still surprises me…

    • ‘In 1988, Austrian philosopher Karl Popper argued in The Economist that the two-party system is the most democratic: Proportional representation, which encourages minority and coalition governments, gives undue power to small parties, who can threaten to leave and destroy a ruling coalition if their platforms aren’t prioritized.
      Nearly three decades later, the greatest political event in recent British history, Brexit, would be orchestrated by a party that hardly made it into Parliament – all while two-party rule remained virtually intact.
      ‘The hard-right Eurosceptic UK Independence Party only ever managed to elect one Member of Parliament in the Commons, even though it commanded 12.6 percent of the vote in the 2015 national elections. (The UK’s electoral system grants a district’s Parliament seats to the party with the most votes in each district, favoring the two largest parties, Labour and the Conservatives, and keeping small parties like UKIP at bay. Popper would have approved.) ‘And yet, UKIP is arguably the party with the greatest political impact in recent British history: The threat it seemed to pose to the Conservative party in the 2015 elections was widely believed to be the deciding factor in David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. […]’
      Alexis Papazoglou, “A Small Party Started Brexit. Is a Small Party the Antidote? The Independent Group is, in many ways, the anti-UKIP,” The New Republic (8 March 2019), https://www.newrepublic.com/article/153225/small-party-started-brexit-small-party-antidote
      Yep, the political history of Britain since 2010 definitely confirms K-Pop’s argument that minor parties will unfairly dominate if they get any Cabinet seats, but that FPTP is a very effective way to stop minor parties holding the balance of power, that the leaders of the two biggest parties are the most likely to be responsible statespersons with the long-term national interest at heart, and that FPTP produces clear-cut parliamentary majorities that reflect the popular will.

      • Now, now, Tom you are getting far too carried away. Your comment reads as if FPTP sometimes produced inflated majorities and we all know only IRV can do that.

  5. > “Typically they will be fewer than 50% of voters”

    Unless there are two big parties each drawing the firm allegiance of 35-40% of voters and who both think they are better off with FPTP – clear majorities if they come first in the most districts, official opposition status if they come first in the second-largest number of districts, no pesky challengers on left or right to steal their supporters away if they get lazy. Then a referendum to keep or restore FPTP could well poll 70-80% if those parties manage to persuade their supporters to vote their traditional partisan allegiances.

  6. I agree that the leadership of the two largest parties prefer FPTP: no need to negotiate with a junior partner, no worry that the junior partner might supplant you. This preference seems to hold even if one of the two parties is in power only 25% of the time, as for the NDP in British Columbia.

    What is true for party apparatchiks may not apply to voters The prospect of shared power 50% of the time may look better than nada 75% of the time and switching allegiance to an allied party not a problem. That said, there probably are enough hard-core supporters in the #2 party to provide a majority for FPTP under ordinary circumstances.

  7. You might want to look into the BC general elections of 1952 and 1953 (which were run under IRV), and compare the share of seats under those to the share of seats in the preceding several elections, because it proves that your “iron law” is not only incorrect, but it is precisely the opposite of what actually happened.

    You seem to be under the impression that it would be good for centrists, but that doesn’t seem to be the case; the actual results are that they suffer from something called the “Center squeeze effect”

    • The number of seats held by the two largest parties in BC was:

      1949 FPTP 46 of 48
      1952 IRV 37 of 48
      1953 IRV 42 of 48
      1956 FPTP 49 of 52

      The only Centre squeeze effect to be observed in those figures is that, at least to a small extent, the IRV elections squeezed in a bigger crossbench. Although those elections are described as IRV there were actually multimember districts in urban areas.

      And to quote MSS original post: ‘Assembly size is the most important predictor of the size of the largest party, disproportionality, and the effective number of seat-winning parties in countries that use single-seat districts.’

      • In 1952 the CCF was the dominant party on the left in BC, but the governing coalition of Liberals and Conservatives, well past its best-before date, was broken. In the IRV election the Social Credit party came out of nowhere, drawing preferences from (and giving them to) the CCF and, to a lesser extent, the parties on the right. The coalition parties dropped from 39 seats to 10. In the 1953 election Social Credit won a majority, reduced the Liberal and PC parties to 5 seats and thereafter was the dominant party on the right.

        Rather than a squeeze _of_ the centre, it was a squeeze _from_ the centre.

        The 1952 and 1953 IRV elections in BC give us snapshots of parties at a time of rapid change. A similar upheaval took place under FPTP when a re-invented Liberal party roared up in the centre, displacing and then replacing a long-in-the-tooth Social Credit party of the right. The top-two parties held 69 of 69 seats in 1986, 68 of 75 seats in 1991, 70 of 75 seats in 1996 and 79 of 79 seats in 2001.

        Care is needed if we extrapolate the BC experience to the Canadian federal parliament. The IRV years, 1952 and 1953, are not typical in terms of party stability. The larger federal parliament is predicted to be more hospitable to third parties than the smaller BC legislature: you need three parties to have a centre party.

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