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Electoral reform in the Yukon: Why the two-round system won't work

The Yukon legislative building

The Yukon Government is forming a non-partisan commission to study electoral reform in the Yukon. In response to that welcome initiative, I am writing a series of articles examining an array of existing electoral systems worldwide, as well as some unique, new systems that are untried.

In 2016, Yukoners spoke about electoral reform at the Federal Commission on Democratic Reform.  From this, and following conversations with other thoughtful citizens, I have identified several criteria for an effective and fair electoral system.

  1. Make all, or most, votes to count.  All of the Federal Commission witnesses wanted election results to truly reflect the wishes of the electorate.
  2. Maintain regional representation.  All across Canada, regional representation was recognized as a key issue for rural and remote ridings.
  3. Do not significantly increase the number of seats in parliament or legislature.  While having the government increase by a small amount was acceptable, very few Federal Commission witnesses wanted the government to double in size.
  4. Do not significantly increase the costs of elections.
  5. Keep extremists out. Extreme parties, while enjoying minority support, can leverage unfair electoral systems to gain power.
  6. Having an electoral system that people can understand when they go to the polls.

The two-round electoral system, also known as run-off ballot, works by having the top two contenders in the first ballot run against each other in a second ballot.  If one person wins more than 50% of the vote in the first ballot, the second ballot is not required.  Forty-one countries currently use this electoral system.

The last French presidential election is a great example of how the two-round system works.  Here are the election results from the first ballot.  

  • Macron - centrist party En Marche! -  24.01% of votes.
  • Le Pen - extreme right-wing Front National - 21.3%.
  • François Fillon - right of centre Le Republicans - 20.1%
  • Jean-Luc Mélechon - leftist la France Insoumise - 19.58%
  • The remaining seven candidates combined - 15.1%

In the second ballot, rooky politician Emmanuel Macron ran against Marine LePen. Macron won by 66.1% of the vote. LePen, at 33.9%, presumably gained votes from supporters of the other right of centre parties and people worried about Macron’s inexperience. Many others flocked to Macron, terrified by the National Front’s goal of leaving the EU, its anti-democratic leanings and its history of racism.

But is that the whole picture? Absentee voters and spoiled ballots were at a record high in the second round of the 2017 French presidential election, an indication that many voters were unhappy with both choices.

How would a two-round electoral system work in Yukon?

Let’s assume we kept our Westminister parliamentary system (which is very different from the French system). We would still elect the same number of members of the legislature. Regional representation would be preserved. Small fringe parties would be excluded.

In each Yukon riding, unless a candidate won more than 50% of the votes, there would be a second ballot. And like the French electorate in 2017, many Yukoners would vote against their beliefs and preferences in the second ballot. The two-round system merely institutionalizes strategic voting. 

So although the two-round system appears to represent the will of at least 50% of voters, this is an illusion. Like First Past the Post, two-round is a "winner take all" system in which a minority of voters are truly represented.

In fact, the only differences between the two-round electoral system and First Past the Post are negatives. In a second ballot:

  • The dissatisfied would spoil their ballots
  • Exhausted citizens would be more likely to not vote at all
  • Two ballots mean that elections are twice as expensive
  • If, as in the example of the 2017 French election, an extremist party makes it to the second ballot, they could very well get elected

Yukoners can take heart, however. There are other, better electoral systems in the world.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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