On the road to electoral reform

It is long overdue. Our democratic health requires electoral change.

Joyce Green

The Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ECCE) is deliberating on changes to Canada’s electoral system. The Committee was created on June 7, 2016, and mandated to identify and conduct a study of viable alternate voting systems to replace the first-past-the-post system, as well as to examine mandatory voting and online voting. Special Committees are created by Parliament for specific purposes, and report to Parliament.

I’m hoping it moves quickly on the matter of electoral reform.  This is not constitutional change:  it is a matter of simple legislation and regulation. It is long overdue. Our democratic health requires electoral change.

Our plurality (or first-past-the-post) electoral system does not produce a sufficient measure of democratic representation. MPs routinely win elections with a minority of the popular vote, while the votes for other parties are effectively lost. The resulting Parliament does not reflect the political diversity among Canadians. The debate in and legislation from Parliament is similarly unrepresentative of Canadians’ political opinions. Our unrepresentative electoral process leads to a reduced degree of electoral democracy and political legitimacy. It leads to citizen apathy and cynicism about politics. That erodes democracy.

The Prime Minister has assured Canadians that the last federal election will be the last fought under the plurality system.  The scholarly evidence is, hands down, in favour of proportional representation (PR) as the best mechanism to secure the best measure of electoral democracy, of representation of diverse populations, and of citizen confidence in electoral outcomes.

The alternative vote (AV) systems have been shown to produce no better democratic outcomes than the plurality system.  AV systems allow people to indicate their first, second, and third choices: if their first choice doesn’t win, their vote moves to the second, and so on. It is worrying that the Prime Minister is understood to favour an AV system. But then: the Liberals stand to benefit from AV, as they are the second choice of many Conservatives, Greens and NDP voters. An AV system would keep the Liberals in power a very long time without having a majority of Canadians choose them as their first choice. It would consign other parties to the political wilderness. That is not good for democracy.

Only a proportional representation system allows people to vote for, and get, what they want. Votes for parties are aggregated and seats awarded on the basis of the percentage of the total vote. Thus, 20 per cent of the popular vote translates into 20 per cent of the seats in Parliament — no more and no less.

The Conservatives in particular want a referendum on changing the electoral system. I disagree with this. Referenda are inherently divisive and are unlikely to produce positive change. Canadians have shown that when faced with voting on matters which they don’t feel well informed about, they vote for the status quo.  The Charlottetown Accord was a good example of this, but the provincial referenda on electoral change have also demonstrated this.  Most Canadians are not well educated about our electoral (and other) institutions: the media don’t provide great political education, and the educational system largely neglects citizenship education.  Further, the provincial governments holding referenda on electoral change have not provided robust public education in advance of the vote.  Opponents have spent heavily to advertize in favour of the status quo.  No referendum should ever be presented without a strong public education program accompanying it.

Canada’s chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has noted that a referendum would cost the country about $300 million and about 6 months’ of Elections Canada’s time and talent — and that’s without the cost of public education.

For those interested, there are two good articles at www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/explainer-everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-electoralreform/article29996105/ and at www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/07/06/maryam-monsef-electoral-reform-referendum_n_10837916.html. If readers would like to delve into the data, I recommend consulting Dr. Pippa Norris’s important Electoral Integrity Project.  The research covers 139 countries on a multi-year basis.  Dr. Norris (Harvard University) presented her work at the Canadian Political Science Association conference in June.  It demonstrates convincingly that proportional representation (PR) produces the best measures of representation of diversity of opinion and population; and the best measures of democracy. In her presentation she noted that PR constrains power of ‘single party executives’ [like our government] and limits rule manipulation; it maximizes the potential numbers of winners, which builds citizen trust in the electoral process; and it attracts more citizens into the political process. See https://sites.google.com/site/electoralintegrityproject4/publications-1/links-to-other-publications and related sites covering Dr. Norris’s work.

Those interested can express their views to the ERRE at ERRE@parl.gc.ca. It would be useful as well to send a copy of these views to our MP at wayne.stetski@parl.gc.ca.

Dr. Green is a political scientist on faculty at the University of Regina; she lives in Cranbrook.