The Travesty of the Electoral College

File:Trump speaking in Manchester, New Hampshire.jpg

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.

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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://i1.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.

Referendums on Pipelines?

Northern GatewayThe longstanding “will they or won’t they” dynamic existing between BC premier Christy Clark and Alberta premier Alison Redford took a turn for the depressing recently when they announced they had come to a framework agreement on pipelines. While short on specifics and not making any firm pledges, the deal appears intended to bring Enbridge’s controversial Northern Gateway project, which seeks to transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to BC’s North Coast for export, one step closer to fruition.

With Enbridge and its prospective pipeline gaining momentum, opposition to the plan is not far behind, and proposals abound for how best to defeat this and other fossil fuel-related developments. Political commentator Rafe Mair, for instance, in two recent columns in The Tyee, has challenged the BC government to hold a referendum asking voters the simple question: “Are you in favour of oil pipelines and oil tankers in British Columbia?”

Mair has been a passionate defender of the environment for many years, taking on such foes as salmon farming and private power production (more than making up, in my opinion, for his participation in the Social Credit governments of old), so when he speaks up, it is worth listening to what he has to say.

Yet I cannot help but feel a little ambivalence — a tinge of skepticism even — towards this particular proposal. If the government could be convinced to go down the referendum route, the major advantage — and it’s a big one — would be that Enbridge would probably lose. Fossil fuel boosters may have the ability to outspend environmentalists, but public opinion polls in BC have consistently shown more people opposed to the pipeline than in favour. And it is a truism in politics that negative emotions are more motivating than positive ones, meaning that all else being equal, pipeline opponents would be more likely to show up and vote than supporters.

However, though probable, victory is far from assured. As a general rule, one should not support a referendum unless willing to accept its results when things don’t go according to plan. No electoral majority would be large enough to make me comfortable with the Enbridge project, and I suspect others feel the same way. To say this is not to give in to dogmatism or reject democratic decision-making, but simply to acknowledge that the referendum, though it has its uses, is not the ideal tool for resolving environmental issues. After all, most of the relevant stakeholders — including future generations and non-human animals — cannot possibly be part of any electorate. Then there is the question Indigenous rights, a constitutionally enshrined principle which ought never to be subject to this or that majority whim. Environmental governance by referendum sets a dangerous precedent.

For these reasons, my instinct is to say no to a referendum on Northern Gateway. The sad truth, however, is that pipeline opponents have the odds stacked against them and are not exactly spoiled for choice with respect to winning strategies. Rafe Mair (along with the Dogwood Initiative which, I understand, is considering a similar proposal) is to be commended for contributing to an important debate. A Northern Gateway pipeline would threaten the rights of First Nations communities, risk oil spills on land and at sea, and bring us closer to the edge of runaway global warming. (In the words of Mark Jaccard, “the impacts of climate change are local — everywhere!”)

Concerned citizens would do well to inform themselves and make their voices heard. A series of events under the banner of “Defend Our Climate” (including an anti-Enbridge rally in Vancouver) will be held across the country this Saturday.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Thoughts on the Coup in Egypt

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square in 2011

In the early hours of 12 April 2002, with massive anti-government protests filling the streets, members of the Venezuelan military abducted President Hugo Chávez and, promising new elections, installed an interim leader of their own choosing in his place. Large swaths of respectable international opinion praised the action — which was not called a coup — with The New York Times crowing in a now-infamous editorial that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.”

When Chávez, with the assistance of military loyalists and massive street protests of his own, returned triumphantly to office less than 48 hours after he was ousted, the Times was forced to issue a half-hearted admission of error. The abortive coup became widely acknowledged as a huge mistake, and its numerous defenders around the globe walked away with egg on their faces.

Respectable international opinion will likely take longer to come around after this week’s events in Egypt. President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by his country’s military on Wednesday — “not a coup,” it is once again claimed — but unlike Chávez, Morsi probably won’t be coming back. The military has always been closer to the levers of power in Egypt than in Venezuela, and Morsi’s public support is not nearly as widespread as his late Venezuelan counterpart’s. But the one thing both events have in common — and let’s not fool ourselves here — is that they are both military coups carried out against democratically elected leaders.

None of this is meant to defend Morsi; he has autocratic tendencies and issued a decree last year concentrating excessive power in his own hands. Nor is this meant to dismiss the movement of millions out in the streets protesting against Morsi’s rule; the economic difficulties they face are immense, and they are right to expect accountability from their leaders. But once the immediacy of this week’s events has receded, once the history books are written, Morsi’s ouster will be remembered as a coup d’état not unlike other coups d’état. A tinge of inspiring “people power” perhaps, but more than the recommended dose of old-fashioned authoritarianism.

To spurn the 52 per cent of the Egyptian electorate that voted for Morsi in last year’s run-off presidential election is no solution to the heavy polarization the country faces, just like many other democracies, young and old. Before being overthrown, Morsi suggested the formation of a consensus coalition government in the lead-up to parliamentary elections. Was his offer sincere? Maybe, maybe not. But as his country’s elected leader, Morsi at least had a more legitimate claim to spearhead efforts at national reconciliation than the generals who have given Egyptians nothing but tyranny for decades.

Even if the military does facilitate new elections as promised, it almost certainly won’t allow Morsi, now in detention, to run, and the crackdown currently underway against his Muslim Brotherhood is sure to have a chilling effect. This is not a step forward for Egyptian democracy. Despite Morsi’s many faults, despite the unprecedented size of the protests, despite the celebrations and fireworks among the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, this week’s coup d’état in Egypt is an unequivocal step back.

This post appears in rabble.ca.