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

File:Guelph Rally on Electoral Reform - National Day of Action for Electoral Reform - 11 Feb 2017 - 02.jpg

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.

Stephane Dion’s Shiny New Voting System

Stephane Dion

Did I read that right? Did Stephane Dion — former head of the Liberal Party, almost Prime Minister of Canada — just come out in favour of proportional representation? Better late than never!

Well, that’s not entirely fair. Dion has shown a willingness to consider electoral reform in the past, as he did by backing the resolution in favour of alternative voting at his party’s most recent convention (not proportional representation but still not bad). Earlier on as party leader, on the occasion of his non-competition agreement with the Green Party’s Elizabeth May in 2007, he promised to explore different electoral options if he became Prime Minister.

But now, in the National Post and, in more detail, in a publication of the Quebec think tank The Federal Idea, Dion is supporting a specific alternative much more forcefully than ever before. One that, on the spectrum between proportionality and plurality/majority, clearly leans heavily towards the former.

So what exactly does Dion propose? What he calls the proportional-preferential-personalized vote, or P3. It would achieve proportionality by enlarging ridings across the country to elect between three and five MPs each. The seats would be distributed to parties roughly in proportion to their respective shares of the vote in each one of these ridings. Sadly, the resulting proportionality would only be partial because of the relatively small size of the multi-member districts. There is a well-known correlation in proportional voting systems between district magnitude and proportionality (although, interestingly, the opposite is true in non-proportional systems). Dion prefers this “moderate” proportionality to the “pure” stuff we see in Israel and the Netherlands (a somewhat confused distinction, but I’ll let it slide).

P3 would also be preferential. In selecting their parties, voters would not simply choose their favourite and leave it at that. If they wanted, they could rank their second and third and fourth choices as well. The smallest parties — those that do not have a large enough share of votes to win seats — would be eliminated and their second-choice votes distributed to other parties. This procedure would continue on to progressively larger parties — redistributing third- and fourth- and fifth-choice votes if necessary — until the only parties left are those with enough support to win seats.

Finally, although voters would primarily be choosing parties, P3 would also be personalized in the sense that they would have the option of selecting a favourite candidate running for their first-choice party. Seats would be distributed to individual candidates on the basis of these selections.

(The faint of heart are advised to please skip the next paragraph.)

To my ear, Dion’s proposal sounds a lot like open-list proportional representation — just with smaller-than-usual electoral districts and a slight preferential element (slight because the vast majority of ballots’ second and third preferences would likely not come into play). I see no reason to prefer P3 to any of the other proportional systems commonly recommended for Canada, such as mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) or the single transferable vote (STV). All three should be just as good at achieving local representation, but MMP surpasses P3 in terms of proportionality and STV surpasses it in terms of preferential and personalized features. In fact, with the institution of the alternative vote for constituency elections, MMP could surpass P3 by all three of its signature criteria. And a simple threshold, something included in most MMP systems, could help it elude concerns about instability due to the proliferation of smaller parties.

Nevertheless, what Dion proposes is in almost every way far superior to the first-past-the-post system Canada is currently stuck with. It is, on balance, a reasonable proposal from a reasonable person. On those few occasions when Dion still makes his way into the news, I cannot help but wonder what could have possessed the Liberals to give him up as their leader. He is green, he is thoughtful, and he is committed to democratic reform. I would take him any day over his right-wing predecessors Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, or his warmongering heir Michael Ignatieff.

How to Win

This is a seating plan of the Canadian House o...

Amidst the cacophony of Harper government threats — seemingly a new one each week — to dismantle what remains of Canada’s proudest progressive achievements, there can be heard a faint buzz of debate in centre-left circles on what to do about it. Some of these voices even dare to suggest that perennial political non-starter — cross-party cooperation. (Don’t they know this is Canada? Leave coalitions to those unholy socialists in Europe!)

The latest timid foray into this territory comes courtesy of youth-flavoured democracy group Leadnow.ca. It has begun polling its members on whether or not it should call on New Democrats, Liberals, and Greens to work together in the next election to defeat select Conservative incumbents and, assuming they succeed, reform the country’s electoral system. This idea of an ad hoc pre-election alliance is far more attractive than the common proposal for a merger of the parties. The NDP, Liberal Party, and Green Party, despite their occasional common ground (and commoner enemy), each have distinguished histories and represent different ideologies and concerns. To permanently paper over these distinctions and create an American-style two-party system would diminish the political choice and diversity on offer to Canadian voters.

But wouldn’t a limited electoral alliance do the same thing — albeit on a smaller scale? Wouldn’t there be some ridings in which voters are denied the full range of progressive options? The short answer is yes, but only as a temporary measure. If the three parties manage to form a coalition government and put in place a new electoral system that eliminates vote-splitting, then they can go back to fully competing against each other in all subsequent elections without handing victory after victory to a Conservative Party voted against by a consistent 60 to 70 percent of Canadians. And let us not underestimate the lack of voter choice represented by our first-past-the-post electoral system and the incentives it provides to “strategically” ignore parties we may agree with the most in deference to those we hate the least.

The major hurdle on the way to cooperation will be convincing those involved. The Greens will probably be the easiest, considering Elizabeth May’s history of openness to such ideas, as in her 2007 non-competition agreement with then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion. In the current NDP leadership race, however, only second-tier candidate Nathan Cullen supports joint nominations with the Liberals and Greens in some ridings, a crime for which his fellow contenders, normally loathe to criticize each other publicly, have attacked him (although not too harshly — they are still brothers and sisters after all).

I can understand NDP hesitancy towards any rapprochement with the Liberals. As is often noted, the latter have a long history of campaigning like New Democrats and governing like Conservatives. But just as commonly observed is the uncharacteristic good behaviour of Liberal governments held to account by constructive partnerships with the NDP. Canada’s health care and pension systems are testaments to the positive influence that progressive parties can have on the Liberals, just as the Harper government’s current moves to turn the clock back on these very accomplishments are testaments to the effects of division in the centre-left ranks.

The Liberals will likely be hardest of all to sway. To convince the people only recently considered Canada’s “natural governing party” to cooperate with those most responsible for their downfall is like asking Americans not to resent the growing economic might of soon-to-be-superpower China.

Moreover, at their recent convention, Liberals endorsed the alternative vote electoral system, whereas Greens and New Democrats have a long-established preference for proportional representation. How do they find common ground on this front? Ideally, in the event that they form government, the three parties could hold a national referendum asking voters to make the choice between electoral systems for them. And even if the Liberals succeed in convincing Canadians to choose the far inferior reform of the alternative vote, it would at least be just as effective as proportional representation at eliminating vote splitting, and would thus vindicate the NDP-Liberal-Green alliance.

So what are we waiting for, progressives? Why are we so afraid of cooperation? Just one pre-election deal to work together, form a coalition government, and ditch first-past-the-post; and Harper’s Conservatives are history. We have nothing to lose but our chains. We have a world to win.

(New Democrats, please explain that line to the Liberals.)

Update 09/02/2012: Leadnow.ca has now moved beyond internal polling, and has set up an online petition open to the public. Please sign it!

Electoral Reform — the Wrong Way

Distributing copies of the Canadian Charter of...

The Quebec-based group l’Association pour la revendication des droits démocratiques is nearing the end of the legal battle it started in 2004.  After early losses in the lower courts, it is taking its case against Quebec’s (and by implication Canada’s) first-past-the-post electoral system to the nation’s Supreme Court, with the backing of Fair Vote Canada and Green leader Elizabeth May.  It will argue, with some justification, that first-past-the-post violates the “democratic rights” and “equality rights” provisions (sections 3 and 15) of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I am reluctant to admit this — both as a strong supporter of proportional representation and as a Green Party member — but I think this is the wrong approach.  While it is true that there is evidence in some opinion polls of vague support for electoral reform in Canada, every time a concrete question is placed on a referendum ballot, proportional voting systems seem to lose their popularity.  I understand that this is frustrating, but it would be unfair for proportional representation advocates, having failed to convince the public, to turn around and sneak their changes in through the judicial back door.  Societies have a right to any electoral system of their choosing, and at the very least, ours has not yet made up its mind.

In 2003, a small number of Quebec sovereigntists proposed the abandonment of their longstanding call for a referendum on independence, preferring instead to read the election of a Parti Quebecois majority government as a sufficient mandate for secession.  The mainstream of the sovereignty movement swiftly rejected this idea, understanding that the principle of independence by referendum had always been at its heart.  There is something admirable in this recognition that there is a right way to go about achieving change, and a wrong way.

I never thought I’d say this, but electoral reformers could learn a thing or two from Quebec separatists.