I’m Ready to Have My Say About Our Democracy!

With all this talk of education in the air, is it any wonder I decided to prepare myself for the moment the Canadian government would consult my opinion on electoral reform?

What do you think about our democracy?

What do you think about our democracy?

Folks, I READ THE REPORT.

No word of lie, I played seasonal music, drank coffee and read the Report of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform last Saturday.

I’m not going to claim it was a page-turner but it was surprisingly accessible — and this is coming from someone who could never get her head around the concept of “mixed member proportional representation.”

Only now, by George, I think I’ve got it.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when the government did not call me to say, “Hey, Mary, Condorcet or Borda? Open lists or closed? Proportional or majoritarian?”

Instead, I received a post card inviting me to take an online survey about “our democracy.” A survey that simply made statements then asked if I strongly disagreed, disagreed, was neutral, somewhat agreed or strongly agreed with them.

And SUCH statements:

There should be a limit to the length of federal election campaign periods.

No, there should be no limit to the length of federal election campaign periods. They should be interminable. We should launch new campaigns before the previous campaigns have ended. We should become the Land of the Eternal Campaign.

Canadians should have the option to cast their vote online in federal elections, even if it is less secure.

Canadians should have the option to cast their vote online in federal elections ESPECIALLY if it’s less secure.

Members of Parliament should always support the position of their party, even if it means going against the wishes of their constituents.

Yes.

Members of Parliament should always act in the interests of their constituents, even if it means going against their own party.

Yes.

A ballot should be easy to understand, even if it means voters have fewer options to express their preferences.

Absolutely. In fact, we should have the simplest ballots possible — they should contain one name and it should already be checked.

It should always be clear which party is accountable for decisions made by government, even if this means that decisions are only made by one party.

I think you’ll find this will no longer be an issue once the ballots I’ve recommended above are introduced.

(Okay, okay, I’ve had my fun. Let’s talk about this seriously now. To do so, I must break out of survey mode.)

 

No Canadian Borgen?

I didn’t go to the meeting on electoral reform hosted by MPs Cuzner and Eyking last summer, not because I don’t care about electoral reform but because I had nothing of value to contribute to a discussion of electoral reform.

Breakdown of fictional Danish parliament from TV show Borgen (By Rachimbourg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Breakdown of (fictional) Danish parliament from TV show Borgen (By Rachimbourg, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons)

Nor does the average citizen. The 2015 federal election saw the highest voter turnout in decades at 68%.  If you can’t convince roughly 30% of Canadians that casting a ballot every five years is important, how are you going to get them to a fire hall on a summer Saturday afternoon to discuss the pros and cons of proportional representation?

This is a job for NERDS.  A  job for political wonks. For the kind of people who say, “Oh, why can’t Canada have a television show about parliamentary government like Denmark’s Borgen?” For political science professors and constitutional lawyers and former premiers and ex-chief electoral officers and fans of coalition governments and opponents of coalition governments and closed-list enthusiasts and ballot-design experts. In short, it’s a job for the kind of people who either showed up at the Electoral Commission’s cross-country meetings, or took part in its online survey or testified before it in person.

The Liberal members of the committee, in their dissenting report, argued that there had been insufficient participation by Canadians but maybe this is a case where the quality of responses matters more than the quantity. Also, electoral reform was a campaign promise, and they got elected, so presumably that counts for something.

 

Citizens’ Assembly

As the report explains, there has been talk of changing our electoral system since 1921 — the first year a federal election in Canada was contested by three parties. A Special Committee on Electoral Reform that year stated that First Past the Post (FPTP), the system we currently use, only worked as intended when two candidates ran against each other.

The problem with FPTP, when there are more than two parties in the mix, is that the winner doesn’t have to get a true majority of votes, s/he need only get a plurality (the most votes).

FUN FACT: Since 1921, only three Canadian governments have been elected with both a majority of the seats and a majority of the popular vote — MacKenzie King’s Liberals in 1940, John Diefenbaker’s Tories in 1958 and Brian Mulroney’s Tories in 1984.

Often, with FPTP, when you add up all the votes cast for other candidates, it turns out that more people voted against the winner than voted for him/her.

As I said, it’s a problem we’ve acknowledged since 1921; moreover, it’s a problem we’ve actually attempted to fix. And what’s interesting to me is that many of those attempts at reform happened out West, on our supposedly conservative prairies: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia have all experimented with proportional or majoritarian voting systems (the last is also called “ranked ballot,” it’s a system where you mark your first, second, third, etc  preferences on a ballot and use them to make sure the winning candidate has 50% of the votes).

There have been eight attempts to reform federal electoral law since 1921, including the 2004 Law Commission of Canada report which, as the result of three years of study, recommended we adopt proportional voting.

Breakdown of (real) Canadian House of Commons following 2015 election. (By DrRandomFactor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Breakdown of (real) Canadian House of Commons following 2015 election. (By DrRandomFactor, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition, New Brunswick, British Columbia, Ontario and, most recently, Prince Edward Island have attempted electoral reform, but any recommendations for change were either tabled or voted down in referendums. And you may say, “Well, that proves it, people don’t want electoral reform,” but it’s not that simple. Consider what happened in British Columbia:

In 2004, the province established a group of 160 citizens, selected at random throughout the province, to form a Citizens’ Assembly. Its task was to recommend improvements to the province’s electoral system. It met almost every other weekend for a year and ended by recommending the province’s FPTP system be replaced by a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system (a form of proportional representation, and I realize that this group of ordinary citizens is not the group of experts I earlier suggested, but I would argue that after a year researching electoral reform, these people were experts).

The question was put to British Columbians in 2005 via a referendum which needed 60% of total votes and 60% in each of 79 districts to pass.

And it almost did: it was approved by 57.7% of voters and won simple majorities in 77 of 79 districts. Voter turnout was over 60%. Critics said the bar for approval was set too high and, to put it in perspective, Quebec could have separated from Canada with a lower “yes” vote.

And here’s a really interesting bit: Diana Byford, who was part of that Citizens’ Assembly, said that most people who voted in favor of the change did so because they knew something about the system — but in some cases, all they knew was that 160 of their fellow citizens had spent a year considering the matter and they trusted the conclusion the assembly had reached.

 

AV? SVT? FPTP?

This may be controversial, but I’m going to say that the most important thing about an electoral system is not that voters understand it but that they trust it.

Stop howling and let me explain.

How many Canadians know the successful candidates in our elections win a “plurality” not a “majority” of votes?

Why, every four years, do US media outlets have to explain the Electoral College to American voters?

Electoral systems are complicated, even First Past the Post systems have their quirks — do you know what happens if, after an official recount, the top two candidates in a federal riding are tied? (Since 2000, it means a by-election, but back in the day, the Returning Officer could settle it anyway he saw fit — drawing straws, flipping coins, I’m totally serious.)

Rather than asking voters what specific system they want, maybe we need to ask them what outcomes they want that system to produce. Say you asked:

  1. Should a candidate need at least 50% of the votes to win?
  2. Should the number of seats a party  holds in the House of Commons be in line with its share of the popular vote?

If the answer is “yes,” to one or both, then people are saying they want electoral reform, because you can’t achieve those outcomes under a FPTP system. We could then turn the matter over to the experts and let them come up with the best system to achieve what voters have decided they want.

Then, presuming Parliament can approve the system without modifying the Constitution — we’re probably going to have to ask the Supreme Court about that  although, interestingly, the Constitution doesn’t say anything about what electoral system we’re to use — we give it a try. Maybe we run a couple of elections under the new system. Those elections, assuming we’ve opted for some form of proportional representation, will probably produce coalition governments. We can see how that works. We can see if the system results in the election of “extremist” or “fringe” parties (something that can usually be avoided by imposing thresholds for entry to parliament, like you must win 5% of the vote or at least one seat). Once we’ve experienced the new system, we could hold another referendum to see if people want to stick with it or go back to FPTP.

And that, Government of Canada, is what I think. Are you sorry you asked?

Got ideas of your own about “our democracy?” Tell me about them!