Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Block Voting

Block Voting

In muncipal elections, we actually use two different voting systems to elect candidates. For races where one seat is at play (Regional chair, mayors, ward councillors) we use first-past-the-post (FPTP). For Regional council and school board trustees we elect candidates to multiple seats, and use a system called block voting.

At first glance, block voting seems pretty similar to the FPTP system we all know and hate: a series of candidates is presented to us, and we check off the candidates we would like to see elected. Unlike FPTP, we have the option of selecting multiple candidates. For example, Kitchener is entitled to four regional councillors, so voters for that race may check off anywhere between one and four names.

This does not seem like a big difference, but it has serious ramifications: it heavily favours incumbents and those with name recognition, to the point where incumbents almost always win.

To illustrate why this happens, let's consider the regional council race for Kitchener. Each voter can mark up to four candidate names for this race. Many voters have some candidates they support strongly, which I will call primary candidates. However, many voters do not have four primary candidates in mind. Say that the voter strongly supports two candidates. That voter now is entitled to two other votes, and now has to make a choice:

Many voters prefer to mark secondary candidates rather than using only some of the votes they are entitled to. Who gets chosen for these secondary candidate positions? Most often, it is people who have good name recognition, which (in municipal elections, at least) tend to be incumbents.

The problem is that -- unlike voters -- the block voting system makes no distinctions between primary and secondary candidates. All votes are weighted equally, so incumbents accumulate secondary votes, and win election after election after election. At first glance you might think that block voting would make it easier for challengers to win seats (because there are more seats at play), but in reality it makes it harder.

In some sense, every time you choose an incumbent candidate as a secondary candidate to "complete the ballot", you cancel out the votes you made for challengers and help ensure those challengers do not win seats.

Block voting has other weird effects, which I will explore by foolishly making predictions about the Kitchener and Waterloo races for regional council.

Kitchener candidates for Regional Council

This race is interesting because two of the four seats were vacated prior to the election, so in principle two challengers should win seats. However, two candidates (Karen Redman and Wayne Wettlaufer) are both well-known politicians who have held office before. So in effect, four of the seven candidates can be considered incumbents.

Does his mean that Tom Galloway, Geoff Lorentz, Karen Redman and Wayne Wettlaufer are guaranteed seats, and that Cameron Dearlove, Elizabeth Clarke and Greg Burns should just give up now? Maybe, but there is something else that is weird about the election, and that is the imbalance in the candidate profiles. Wayne Wettlaufer is an outlier. He is the only candidate who clearly identifies with the right wing of the political spectrum, he is by far the most fiscally conservative candidate (I am sure other candidates would quibble with this, but I doubt any of them read my blog) and he is the only one who is not strongly in support of the LRT.

It is clear that Wettlaufer will get a good fraction of the vote, from people who don't like government spending getting out of control and people who want to stop the LRT. Will this be enough to get him a seat? Maybe not, because there are two factors working against him.

The first factor is that Wettlaufer may get few to no secondary candidate votes. Almost any voter who disagrees with Wettlaufer's views has lots of candidates available to spend their four votes on, because the other six candidates running for the position are much more similar than they are different.

The second factor is that voters who choose Wettlaufer as a primary candidate will probably fill out their ballot with secondary candidates, all of whom are on the left side of the spectrum and some of whom may be incumbents (or Karen Redman). This is the thing that could sink Wettlaufer. If all of his supporters selected him and only him on their ballots, then I think it would be likely that he would win a seat. But I think they won't, because they don't read this blog either.

What about the challengers? Cameron Dearlove and Elizabeth Clarke are in similar positions: they have reasonable name recognition, and (unlike Wettlaufer) stand a reasonable chance of being secondary candidates on people's ballots. However, I think many of the people who support them as primary candidates will choose incumbents as secondary candidates, so they are in trouble.

Waterloo candidates for Regional Council

This is such a weird race. There are two seats available, and depending on how you count there are either two, three, or four incumbents jockeying for that spot. Sean Strickland and my favourite politician Jane Mitchell are the incumbents, but Karen Scian is trying to make the leap from Waterloo city council, and former federal MP Andrew Telegdi threw his name in the ring as well.

Telegdi has huge name recognition, and unlike Strickland, Mitchell and Scian he is opposed to the LRT. But he is in a much better position than Wettlaufer, because there are fewer seats at play and because there are two other candidates in his camp: Bob Oberholtzer (anti-LRT, fiscal conservatism) and Ed Korschewitz (fiscal conservatism, LRT position unclear, but probably open to cancelling the project). I think Korschewitz and Oberholtzer have lower profiles than Telegdi (although Korschewitz is trying hard). If it seems counterintuitive that having more competitors sharing your ideological views can improve your chances of election, you're right: that's block voting for you.

Meanwhile, there are no clear winners in the Strickland/Mitchell/Scian race, so they might be fighting each other in the minds of voters. Certainly, the candidates really do not split that cleanly (Scian may have support with some fiscal conservatives because she was finance chair at the City) but I think it is not a bad estimate.

Let's play with this scenario. Say there are 12000 voters, and voters in Waterloo are split 50/50 on the LRT issue. Here's one possible scenario:

Then Telegdi gets one seat and one of Strickland/Mitchell/Scian gets the other. Under this model, Telegdi continues to get a seat until over 2/3 of the voters support LRT (and vote for Strickland/Mitchell/Scian) and under 1/3 of voters oppose it. If my assumptions are correct that (1) Telegdi has the most name recognition of all anti-LRT candidates and (2) there is significant opposition to the project that will be expressed at the ballot box, then it seems likely that the block voting system will favour Telegdi for a seat.

How to Vote

If you think that a challenger candidate should be elected, then you are probably best off taking Jason Hammond's advice and voting only for challenger candidates.

If you believe incumbents are doing a good job, then vote for those incumbents.

If you want Wayne Wettlaufer to win in Kitchener, then you are probably best off voting only for Wettlaufer.

If you support some incumbents and some challengers, then you are in trouble. There is no effective way of expressing that preference on the ballot.

Fixing Block Voting

Here are two ideas for fixing block voting. In 2010, I suggested that we replace block voting with Single Transferable Vote (STV). Since the province will now allow municipalities to use ranked ballots, this is a real possibility. There will be a big difference between block voting and STV, however: in block voting you help several candidates get elected, and in STV you are helping only one candidate get elected. In an election such as this one, this means that there would be a roughly proportional number of anti- and pro-LRT candidates elected (if that is the issue that people are voting about). In block voting you can have a sweep of votes even if there is a significant minority that disagrees (which is what might happen in the Kitchener regional council seats).

There are also voting systems where you rank candidates and still have each ballot count multiple times. This might help the problem of incumbency advantage but won't fix it, because incumbents are still likely to be peoples second or third choices.

In short, I am not sure how to fix block voting, or even whether we should try. Given people's propensity to vote out of ignorance (and the looming disaster in the regional chair race) I am growing less and less enamoured of democracy. Endless incumbency may not be very democratic, but it has worked well for us in the region so far, and now that it is threatened it looks like we are in big trouble.