There's these five guys, see. They're short on cash, so they pool their resources to buy a pizza. They can only afford one topping.
Two of the guys love anchovies. The other three hate anchovies, but can't agree on pepperoni, ham or mushrooms.
Guess what - everyone gets anchovies.
That, in a pizza shell, is our electoral system. It goes by various names - winner take all, first past the post, pluralityâ€¦ Whoever has the most votes wins the election.
Which sounds as though it makes sense. Unless you're allergic to anchovies.
Three federal by-elections happen tomorrow - in Victoria, in Calgary and in Durham, Ont. I haven't heard much about them. Perhaps that's because their outcome won't change the balance of power in Ottawa - the only thing that seems to matter to our mass media.
Victoria has six candidates - all men - representing the Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic, Green, Libertarian, and Christian Heritage parties. It's theoretically possible (although unlikely) that all six could win approximately the same number of votes. If so, a candidate with just 17 per cent of votes cast could represent all 110,000 constituents of the Victoria riding.
In fact, if voter turnout is low, the winner might go to Ottawa with fewer than one in 10 constituents actually supporting him.
Like it or not, though, all 110,000 get anchovies.
The winner-take-all system works reasonably well when voters have only two choices - and when the process is not complicated by arcane institutions such as the U.S. Electoral College. Automatically, the person with the most votes has a majority.
It doesn't work as well when voters have more than two options. To cite just one example, in 1970 to Ontario government amalgamated the cities of Fort William and Port Arthur, at the head of navigation on Canada's side of Lake Superior. The twin cities had long been known, collectively, as "the lakehead."
A referendum offered three names: Lakehead, The Lakehead, and Thunder Bay. Although 60 per cent preferred one of the two "Lakehead" variants, they split their vote. "Thunder Bay" won, although endorsed by barely 40 per cent of voters.
When voters face multiple choices, it's almost certain that the majority will be stuck with anchovies they didn't vote for.
Relatively few votes can have remarkable effects. Eduard Hiebert, who's much better at this kind of thing than I am, analyzed the results of the last provincial election in Quebec.
Pauline Marois's separatist Parti Quebecois came out of that election with a minority government. Hiebert found that just one-tenth of one per cent of Quebec voters - 4,144 votes, suitably distributed in nine ridings where the PQ came second - would have given Marois a clear majority.
Even more startling, had the Quebec Liberals managed to get out 21,371 additional federalist voters - about half of one per cent of the electorate - in 13 ridings, premier Jean Charest would have won a third majority instead of a third-place finish.
In only three ridings, Hiebert notes, did candidates achieve a majority of the electorate. Another 26 candidates won a majority of votes, if not of constituents. The remaining 98 all eased into office with minority support.
That's why countries like France hold run-off elections for president. If no candidate gains a majority on the first ballot, the two leading candidates go into a second round of voting.
Preferential ballots integrate the run-off principle within a single election. Voters mark their first, second, and third choices. On the first round, only first choices are counted. If any candidate wins a clear majority, second and third choices are ignored. But if there is no clear majority, then the lowest contender's second choices get counted and distributed among the remaining candidates. And so on, until a majority winner emerges.
It's equivalent to a run-off, without needing a second - or third, or fourth - vote.
Some political analysts argue that winner-takes-all voting promotes a two-party system by penalizing smaller parties, making it harder for them to gain representation. Others claim it encourages voters to do their own run-off before they enter the ballot box.
Either way, the system works against dark horses and innovative approaches.
Interestingly, no Canadian political party uses the first-past-the-post system to choose its own leaders. Not one. Not federally, not provincially. If no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot, the parties dump the lowest candidate and vote again. And again. Until someone actually gathers enough votes forÂ a majority.
Â If political parties consider that kind of system necessary for their own elections, I wonder why they don't consider it suitable for the rest of us. Or do our elected representatives not trust us to handle a system that requires us to count as high as three?
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at