Pro Rep: Infinity War; or, In Defence of Endless Referendums

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Winston Churchill (apocryphally, as it turns out) is believed to have said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” In light of British Columbia’s referendum on electoral reform this past fall, one is tempted to agree. But let’s not let the media, politicians, and third-party campaigners off the hook.

Regardless of where you come down on proportional representation, the referendum was a shameless exercise in fearmongering and misinformation. Confusion was ramped up at every opportunity. Minor quibbles over process were inflated into frothing conspiracy theories. A rigged vote was proclaimed, an NDP/Green Party power grab in the offing. Nazis lurked around every corner. And the inclusion of not one but two ballot questions? The horror!

While the NDP government campaigned for reform, it rarely did the “Yes” side any favours. Premier John Horgan performed abysmally in his televised debate with Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson (who, to be clear, was no better). If only the government had fleshed out a few more details in advance, some of the “No” side’s deliberate mischaracterizations might have been more easily debunked.

Referendums are poor vehicles for nuanced policy discussion. Some electoral reform advocates even take the position that a fair voting system is a civil rights issue — something no less crucial to our democracy than the universality of the franchise — and thus ought to be above the fickle whims of majority rule. Should we really be holding votes on whether to make every vote count?

And yet, valid though this perspective might be, it is hard to shake the idea that choosing an electoral system is the rightful prerogative of the electorate, that leaving the whole thing up to politicians is a fundamental conflict of interest. Referendums are flawed, yes, but elected governments acting on their own initiative, even if guided by ostensible public consultations, face insurmountable incentives simply to preserve their own power. Indeed, how else to explain the perseverance of first-past-the-post?

Hence a proposal that I suspect will be found equally distasteful both by pro rep evangelists and by guardians of the status quo: perhaps the problem isn’t too much voting, but too little.

What if we held regularly scheduled electoral reform referendums every four years? What if, as a matter of course, the task of choosing next election’s voting system was taken up by this election’s voters? Pairing the ballot question with a general election would help to keep the former’s costs down. Plus, serendipitously, the mechanics of voting would already be on the public’s mind. A permanent, repeated exercise of this nature, if properly executed, could infuse our democracy with a spirit of innovation, experimentation, and open-minded inquiry.

So who would be responsible for writing the referendum question? Which variant or variants of reform (plurality, majoritarian, proportional, or otherwise) would make it on the ballot? In order to prevent governments from gaming the system, these matters would have to be determined at arm’s length — perhaps by citizens’ assemblies or by citizen-initiated petitions. The threshold for victory would be a simple majority — anything more rigorous would serve only to stack the deck in favour of the status quo. And lest this idea be perceived as nothing but an underhanded attempt to lock in proportional representation by fluke and throw away the key, a necessary feature for this running proposition would be its permanence. For the sake of fairness, switching back to first-past-the-post would have to be just as easy as abandoning it.

Is there any public appetite for such an exercise? Maybe, maybe not. Here in British Columbia, fresh off the conclusion of our third electoral reform referendum in just over 13 years, many voters are exhausted. But, to put it bluntly, anyone who doesn’t want to vote doesn’t have to. One person’s experience of voting system fatigue should not prevent another from having their say.

Furthermore, the idea of a perpetual ballot question is not wholly without precedent. The City of Vancouver includes capital plan borrowing proposals on every municipal election ballot, which nobody seems to mind (or, for that matter, notice).

Is there something special about electoral reform that makes it uniquely divisive, that wounds our body politic more widely and deeply with each new iteration? It’s hard to say. Voting systems are a wonky and technical subject matter, not what one expects to ignite the public’s imagination. That something so objectively boring would inspire fierce passions on all sides of the debate is not to be feared. On the contrary, this sense of polarization might even signal something positive. The state of public discourse can probably withstand a little extra strain.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

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Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterI have a letter in today’s Vancouver Sun, not so much supporting proportional representation (although I do support proportional representation) as addressing what I consider to be baseless objections to the current electoral reform referendum. My letter is second from the top, under the (perhaps regrettable) heading “Complexity isn’t a real concern.”

Remember to vote and mail your ballots in before November 30!

The Travesty of the Electoral College

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Of the myriad outrages that define last week’s United States presidential election — namely, the elevation of scandal over policy, of demagoguery over competence, of unabashed sexism and racism and conspiratorial paranoia over reasoned debate — perhaps the most egregious is the fact that the winner of the popular vote will not be the one occupying the Oval Office.

Votes are still being counted. As of this writing, however, Hillary Clinton appears set to win approximately two million votes more than President-elect Donald Trump, which gives lie to the all-too-common characterization of Trump supporters as a “silent majority” — a blatant numerical (not to mention auditory) falsehood if ever there was one.

The culprit responsible for this anti-democratic upset is an arcane body known as the Electoral College, which owing to Clinton’s landslide victories in California and New York and her razor-thin losses in Rust Belt swing states, cooked the books in favour of Trump. Historically speaking, Republicans do not have anything like a permanent Electoral College advantage, but given the still painful memory of Bush v. Gore in 2000, as well as other splits between the electoral and popular votes that benefited the GOP in 1876 and 1888, don’t expect the party of Trump to see the light and embrace reform anytime soon.

The rules for changing the Constitution are practically insurmountable. To formally abolish the Electoral College, proponents would need the support of two-thirds of the members of each house of Congress plus three-quarters of the states. Only slightly less improbable is the workaround known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would have signatory states pledge their electors to whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote.

The compact has so far been signed by ten states and the District of Columbia, which together represent 61 per cent of the 270 electoral votes needed for it to come into effect. The only problem is that all the states to have officially signed on are blue ones. The agreement will never reach the requisite 270 without swing states, which are understandably reluctant to give up their disproportionate power, or red states, which must be blisteringly aware, even after this month’s election, of the Republican Party’s growing popularity problem.

From 1992 onwards, there have been seven presidential elections. A Republican candidate has won the popular vote only once in those 24 years. As the GOP continues to alienate women, people of colour, Millennials, and those with higher educations, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Electoral College represents their only shot at victory. Far from negating this trend, last week’s results further corroborate it.

So get used to hearing Republican operatives sing the praises of a system that distorts election results and subverts the will of the people. Get used to hearing them profess their solidarity with smaller, more rural states — currently over-represented in the Electoral College — against the large urban centres that threaten to overpower them come election time. As if people aren’t just people no matter where they live. As if voters should not all be counted equally.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country, which according to one recent survey wants to eliminate this 18th century anomaly by a margin of 55 per cent to 27 per cent, will go on echoing the luminary who famously described the Electoral College as “a disaster for a democracy.”

That luminary? Donald J. Trump.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

National Post Letter

LetterYou will find a letter of mine in today’s National Post enumerating the many benefits of proportional representation. In order to read it, please click here and scroll down to the second last entry (or see the last entry in the print edition) under the heading “PR delivers the goods.”

Toronto Star Letter

letter to the editorGreetings loyal blog readers! I am happy to report that today’s Toronto Star contains a letter of mine (the first of the two on this page) about the Ontario Court of Appeal decision on expat voting rights. Rather than address this issue directly, I briefly examine the related matter of extending the franchise to non-citizens who live in Canada. Enjoy!

On the Benevolence of Slippery Slopes: Women Taking the Lead

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/KimCampbell.jpgI had the pleasure last week of attending a public talk called “Women’s Voices: What Difference Do They Make?” featuring Canada’s first and only female prime minister, Kim Campbell.

Appearing at Vancouver’s Harbour Centre campus of Simon Fraser University, the former PM sat down with Shari Graydon of Informed Opinions to discuss women’s participation in government, business, and the media. She spoke with ease and humour about her time in politics, relating such anecdotes as the aura of stunned silence which prevailed when, having recently been promoted to cabinet, she disrupted the old boys’ atmosphere by launching into a graphic elucidation of some of her own personal struggles with birth control; or the way the press hammered her during the 1993 election over such irrelevancies as her choice of earrings, or whether it was wise for her to have made a proclamation she never actually made (i.e. “an election is no time to discuss serious issues”).

The moment I had been waiting for, however, came towards the end when, in response to a question from the audience, Campbell talked about a proposal for electoral reform she had outlined some weeks earlier at a women’s conference in Prince Edward Island. The proposal goes like this: every federal riding would elect two members of parliament — a man and a woman — instead of just one. Thus, the perennially out-of-reach goal of gender parity in the House of Commons would finally be achieved.

The plan is not without its difficulties. It would require either an increase in the number of MPs, a decrease in the number of ridings, or, most likely, some moderate combination of the two. I also worry that with the reintroduction of multi-member districts under what is still a plurality voting system, the problem of disproportionality would be exacerbated. In fact, Campbell herself admitted that gender parity might fit more easily with proportional representation, under which parties could simply be required to alternate female and male names on their party lists.

But it was not minor quibbles such as these which captured the attention of Canada’s newspaper commentariat. By way of critiquing Campbell’s scheme, the National Post’s Kelly McParland writes:

Once a law was passed requiring a woman MP in each riding, there would inevitably be pressure to expand the mandate. Gays have as much right to demand more gay MPs, as do transgendered Canadians, and all the colours of the Canadian sexual rainbow …¬†And if we are to introduce gender quotas, should we not also be making provision for aboriginals, the handicapped or any of dozens of significant ethnic blocks?

Trying to be cheeky, the Toronto Sun’s Adrienne Batra takes it a step further:

Create a special case for female candidates and where does it end?

Special seats for the left-handed? Dog owners? Those suffering from male pattern baldness?

The common thread seems to be that any proposal for gender parity in parliament will open the floodgates to other traditionally oppressed groups demanding fair representation of their own.

And this is a bad thing how, exactly?

Why shouldn’t our elected institutions reflect the broad demographic spectrum of Canadian society? Why shouldn’t we expect our representatives to be, you know, representative? Marginalized communities tend to bring with them lived experiences which differ from those of the rich white males who still largely hold sway. To bring about the greatest possible diversity in public office would benefit not just this or that group, but everyone.

Later on during the question-and-answer session at Campbell’s event, somebody mentioned the recently unveiled Up for Debate campaign, put forward by a coalition of more than 100 organizations calling for a televised leaders’ debate on women’s issues leading up to the 2015 federal election. The proposal has a precedent in the form of a similar debate held 30 years ago, and already, both Elizabeth May and Thomas Mulcair have accepted the challenge to give it another try.

Media coverage has been minimal, but once attention starts to pick up, it is easy to imagine the objections. Why a debate on women, the opinion page contrarians will crow, and not First Nations, LGBT issues, poverty, immigration, or the environment? Won’t other groups expect equal attention? Taken to its logical conclusion, this well-meaning proposal will produce an unstoppable proliferation of televised debates the likes of which a Canadian election has never seen.

As before, I fail to see the downside.

Leaders’ debates are some of the most substantive policy discussions that take place during elections. This is not to say they are perfect — their choreographed, over-rehearsed nature makes them about as stimulating as a Stephen Harper piano recital — but compared to the usual fare of self-congratulatory press conferences and BBQ photo-ops that constitute modern-day electioneering, the debates are practically paragons of intellectual vigour.

We need not fear efforts to raise the political profile of women. To pursue gender parity in parliament, to bring to the electorate’s attention issues like childcare and violence against women — these are just causes in and of themselves. But if these priorities also help to embolden others in their struggles for justice, all that does is make a strong case even stronger.

More than 20 years have passed since Canada’s singular experiment with having a female prime minister. Perhaps the time has come for us to think about giving it another shot.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Globe and Mail Letter

letter to the editorPlease, dear readers, take a gander at today’s Globe and Mail for a letter I wrote urging the establishment of recall at the municipal level of government. For the record, I also favour such a mechanism at the provincial and federal levels, but in this particular case, I was responding to an op-ed by Preston Manning that argued for municipal “responsible government,” which I consider to be the wrong approach.

My letter is fourth from the top.