Quagmire of electoral reform

The government is sticking a timid toe into tepid waters to gauge the country's mood on reform.

Carolyn Grant

Democracy is a confusing business. There are systems where a guy (or girl) can lose the popular vote by over two million votes — I’m looking at you, ‘Murica — and still win the presidency. Sidebar: POTUS-Elect Donald Trump this week said that he won by a landslide. I will refer you to the famous line from the Princess Bride — I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

In any event, the U.S. system appears to have some flaws.

But so does the Canadian first past the post takes the riding system. Before Justin Trudeau and his Liberals rushed past the post first in a majority of ridings, he was quite keen to change the system. He had an appetite for electoral reform. That appetite appears to have somewhat waned after a majority win.

But he promised electoral reform and so the government is sticking a timid toe into tepid waters to gauge the country’s mood on said reform. Trudeau has indicated he could possibly, maybe, sorta, kinda lean towards a ranked ballot system.

Under a ranked ballot, voters mark their first, second and subsequent choices. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped from the ballot and his or her supporters’ second choices are counted. That continues until one candidate emerges with a majority.

It’s complicated, but certainly no more complicated than proportional representation, which is really difficult to explain.

There’s a survey on line at mydemocracy.ca where you can tell the government your thoughts on electoral reform, but it has come under fire for phrasing questions in such as way as to make electoral reform look unappealing.

It was quickly mocked on Twitter — yes, here we go again — under the hashtag #RejectedERQs (I assume ERQ is electoral reform questions):

• “Would you prefer a slightly more complex ballot that meant a more representative government, even though it’s covered in bees?”

• “Would you like to keep the status quo OR let democracy as we know it burn in a hellfire of chaos?”

• “Which statement do you identify most with?: I’d like to have ranked ballots OR I am a paedophile.”

It was also likened to a Buzzfeed quiz and Buzzfeed helpfully added one of their own with questions such as:

Voting rights should be extended to:

• Anyone 16 or older

• Dogs, but just the smart ones

• No one, in fact let’s repeal this a bit

• Literal children

• Ghosts

Meanwhile in PEI, an interesting thing occurred. Voters were called to a referendum on electoral reform this year. There, 52 per cent of voters opted for a mixed-member proportional representation system. At least that was the result when votes were counted using a mixed-member proportional representation system.

However, only 32 per cent of the population actually voted in the referendum, causing Premier Wade McLauchlan to question the validity of the results. Over 80 per cent vote in provincial elections, he said, so the populous was not very engaged in the process — the aforementioned tepid waters. Now, the government had stated ahead of time that the results of the referendum were non-binding, so you can see why people may not have bothered to vote. What’s the point? But this is the old if a tree falls in the forest question. If only 32 per cent had the will to vote, is the will of those who voted heard?

The problem with all these other systems is their complexity. With first past the post, it’s easy to explain. You get the majority of the votes, you win the riding.

The other systems have many advantages over that, but they are hard to explain. So the first test of any new system should be, can it be explained in a 140 character tweet? Or perhaps a Haiku?

Wikepedia has a nice succinct 485 word explanation for pro-rep. That’s not going to fit in a tweet.

The ranked ballot system comes in at 53 words. Much shorter, but you still can’t tweet it.


“Election reform

Complicated and messy

We won the old way”


Carolyn Grant is Editor of the Kimberley Bulletin