Friday, July 1, 2016

Electoral Modernization is hard, but worth it!

As a long-time advocate for electoral modernization, I was happy to hear the commitment from the Justin Trudeau Liberals that they "are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system" (Liberal party website).  There is near consensus from those who have given voting systems much thought that First Past the Post (FPTP) doesn't work for votes where there are more than two choices.

While this is true, there are disagreements about what the best alternative would be.  It is useful to be aware of why there are disagreements, and why there is a need for compromise if we are ever to get away from the flawed system we have now.

Criteria for success

I've observed two common ways people evaluate voting systems:

Geographic Representation

The focus is that from each geographic region (riding, electoral district, etc) the candidate that can best represent the views and interests of that region is sent to parliament to represent them.

What matters is if the individual would represent their riding, regardless of any specific political affiliations (parties, etc) , their race, gender, etc.

Demographic Representation

The focus is on the makeup of the resulting parliament, and if it represents the diversity of all citizens regardless of their geographic region.  What matters is not the individuals that make up parliament or what riding they may be from, but their political affiliations (parties, etc), their race, gender, etc.

Compromise needed to move forward

One of the things you will hear from anyone interested in electoral reform is that with reform can come better decisions which take the diversity of citizens into consideration.  Like-minded individuals from across political affiliations are better able to work together for common goals.

While this is an ideal for electoral reformers, it isn't always represented in the way they advocate for their preferred voting system.

You will hear people focused on geographic representation talking about how proportional representation, a system often preferred by those focused on demographic representation, will harm democracy by allowing party hacks into parliament who are only accountable to political parties and not citizens.

You will hear people focused on demographic representation suggesting that any system that doesn't consider large geographic areas (multiple districts, province or country-wide) are inherently undemocratic.

We saw this in both the Ontario and BC referendums on electoral reform.   On the "no" side of each referendum were people who agreed that FPTP is a bad system, but were so unwilling to compromise on their preferred system that they fought against change.

My political story

I became political and started voting in the 1990's.  I quickly became involved in party politics, being a member of the Green Party for many of the years and the Progressive Conservative party in the late 1990's.

I joined the Progressive Conservative party in the late 1990's to support David Orchard as he spoke to the type of conservatism that I felt I belonged in.   While Joe Clark called us tourists in the party, I saw something very interesting in the 2000 election under Clark which was that the PC party platform was much closer to the Green Party platform than it was to the Canadian Alliance Party (what the Reform party had renamed itself at that point).  The elements in the PC party which didn't attract me had been attracted to the Alliance party.

I felt a great sadness when Peter MacKay broke his deal with David Orchard and instead agreed to "merge" the PC party with the Alliance party in 2003.  For many of us this was the unforgivable destruction of a political party, with Progressive Conservatives being spread outward: some joined the Conservative party, some the Liberals, some the Green Party (there was considerable growth at this time, especially with experienced organizers), some formed the Progressive Canadian party, and some disengaged from politics.

Already in the 1990's I was involved in electoral reform, at that time an advocate for Proportional Representation as I was active within political parties.  While I have no respect for dishonest politicians like Peter MacKay, the real villain in the destruction of the Progressive Conservative party was FPTP.  It was vote splitting between the PC party and the Reform party over a few elections that created the "unite the right" movement which eventually created a single Conservative party.  This did not in any way "unite the right", but created yet another big-tent party that had many of the same flaws that made conservatives dislike the Liberal party.

In the 2000's a few things happened to clarify my beliefs on electoral reform.  At the same time as the "unite the right" movement, I became heavily involved in Copyright policy. As I met MPs over that policy I started to realize that outside the high profile partisan issues often discussed in the media that the experiences and beliefs of the individual MPs were more important than their party affiliations. I saw backward facing views and progressive views from different MPs across all the political parties.

While I had been a strong supporter of PR in the past, I came to see that as a lesser system to one that would deliver better individual representatives from each riding.  I also came to the realization that the perfect was the enemy of the good, and that compromise was always needed to move forward positive political change.

British Columbia electoral reform referendum, 2005

A BC citizens assembly chose a hybrid system to recommend to BC citizens.  All voters would make use of a ranked ballot.  In less populated rural areas where the districts would be large a single member would be elected, and areas with greater population multiple members would be elected from districts that would be much larger than previous districts.  They called this BC-STV.

While I wasn't in the province, I was a "yes" supporter that did whatever I could from home.

During the education campaign some advocates tried to reduce confusion by saying that this was an STV system that sometimes returned a single person per district and sometimes returned multiple people.   Unfortunately those who were non-compromising advocates for proportional representation disagreed with any use of single member districts and were quick to try to "correct" the language by saying it was instant runoff voting (IRV) which in their mind was no different than FPTP.  Some of these electoral reformers campaigned on the "no" side, even though for the vast majority of the population they were getting a proportional system (multi-member district).

In my opinion the BC Liberal government of the day rigged the election to fail by requiring a super-majority: 60% of votes cast, and a win in 60% of the districts.  While the initiative received 58% "yes" votes, the system was not modernized.   There was a second referendum in 2009 with the same rigged super-majority requirement, and with awareness of the referendum low few were aware of the question until they saw the ballot.  Given "no change" is an obvious answer when no time was given to the question, FPTP was kept.

Ontario electoral reform referendum, 2007

An Ontario citizens assembly chose a hybrid system different than BC for Ontario.  Ontario voters would cast two votes: one for the local representative of their choice, one for the party of their choice. 70% of the legislature would be allocated or riding representatives using the existing FPTP, and then 30% based on province-wide party votes with those MPPs coming from party lists.  This system is called Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP).

The Ontario Liberal government was accused of rigging the campaign by causing confusion on education.  Funding for education was promised, but not delivered (at all, or not in time).  There were also reports province wide of misinformation or uncertainty being spread by elections Ontario staff, such as claims in Northern Ontario that the existing over-representation they have would be abolished by MMP (There are more ridings in Northern Ontario provincially than there is federally, where most of the province has the same ridings provincially and federally).

While the appeal for supporters of Proportional Representation is obvious, the appeal for for those who were looking for geographic representation isn't.   On the surface the system retains the FPTP voting system for the vast majority of seats (IE: no improvement), and then allocates 30% of the legislature to "party hacks".

In Ontario I was still a strong advocate on the "yes" side, even though I was most interested in geographic representation and didn't want to retain FPTP for any seats.  While I didn't believe that MMP was a good system, and wished Ontario had proposed BC-STV, I strongly believed this was a major improvement over the existing pure-FPTP system.

  • There were two ballot questions: Those who were only interested in parties could be encouraged to only vote for the party to influence the 30% of the seats, leaving the local riding to those focused on the local riding
  • There would no longer be a "unite the X" movement in Ontario, as vote splitting would not impact the party vote (even though with FPTP being kept it would impact riding representation).
  • I saw this as a "foot in the door" to further enhancements to democratic institutions.  Unlike those who believed that we only had only one chance to get it right, I felt that moving away from pure-FPTP allowed Ontario and Canadian citizens to become more informed on the benefits of electoral modernization generally.

Cancelling my Fair Vote Canada membership/donation

Since some time close to its founding in 2000 I had been a member of Fair Vote Canada, including having a $10/month automatic donation. In January 2013 I cancelled by membership and donation. I felt a need to distance myself from FVC for the sake of the electoral modernization movement in Canada.

While I believed they were agnostic to voting system alternatives to FPTP, it became clear that they had no interest in representing or even respecting those of us who believe in geographic representation.  In their mind any system that wasn't proportional wasn't democratic, and they were opposing municipal electoral reform movements such as 123 Ontario,  Merging and making larger wards in a municipality in order to have multi-member districts, or allowing political parties for some sort of MMP top-up is entirely inappropriate for municipal elections, making proportionality inappropriate.  Unfortunately FVC is so stuck on proportional representation that they ignore any other considerations and are unwilling to even discuss the harm that their proposals would cause.

This can be seen in some of the language.  The phrase "making every vote count" means ranked ballots for someone looking for geographic representation, and it means proportional representation (PR, MMP, STV only in multi-member districts) for those looking for demographic representation.

This is not to say that collaboration isn't possible at a provincial or federal level between those who have different criteria for success, but that it is increasingly important to ensure that politicians and citizens only starting their research realize that FVC does not represent everyone who believes in fair voting, electoral reform, or even "making every vote count".

Skeptical but optimistic about Liberal promise to rid us of FPTP

During the 2015 federal election I was campaigning against the Liberals via social media (Harper promoting Liberal Brand as: A vote for the Liberals is a vote for Harper, Why I don't consider what most call "strategic voting" to be strategic).  This was largely because of electoral reform.  Provincial Liberal governments had rigged referendum votes, and the Liberal party has generally been the only beneficiary of the vote splitting (and thus "strategic voting") feature of FPTP.

I was also disgusted by the self-called "unite the left" movement who seemed to want to destroy the left-leaning parties (more accurately, anyone not Conservative) the way the "unite the right" movement had already mangled the right-leaning parties.

This brings me to some of the more ludicrous claims from some of the PR supporters, as well as from the current Conservative party.

Claim: a ranked ballot in single member districts would benefit the Liberals the most (CPC, FVC)
Response:  While it is true that the Liberals are many peoples second or third choice, they are currently unfairly winning seats based on fear of vote splitting and people giving them their only ballot.

It is naive to believe that the political parties would remain the same under any type of electoral modernization as there would no longer be fear mongering around "vote splitting" to keep big-tent parties or "unite the X" movements together.  We would end up with more parties that would more closely represent the views of Canadians.  While there may still be a "Liberal" party with seats in the house, we may also have parties with seats in the house such as: Reform Party, Progressive Conservative, Wildrose, Green Party, Pirate Party, Canadian Labour Party, etc.

I believe that the Liberal party federally and provincially has the most to lose from ranked ballots. Obviously their coalition in BC would end and conservatives provincially would be able to vote for candidates that better represent their views (with their own party or parties).  People would be able to vote *for* something rather than against something.

Why would the Liberals propose such a system if it wouldn't specifically beneficial to their party?

It is the simplest modernization to explain to that majority of voters who haven't given voting systems much thought, and thus more likely to be supported by those fearful of change.  Nearly every other alternative requires the shape and size of ridings (multi-member districts) or the number of representatives in parliament to change (top-ups for MMP).  The simple change from FPTP to instant runoff would eradicate some of the worst flaws in FPTP without other harder to explain changes.

A ranked ballot changes a single "x" to being the same question but now with numbers -- as simple as 1 2 3.

Claim: ranked ballots in single member districts would be worse than FPTP (FVC supporters)
Response: This is an even more angry and emotionally driven version of the above, with the suggestion being that Alternate Vote (Instant Runoff, whatever name you want to use) would guarantee only a Liberal government could ever form.

This is a problem I've seen with too many electoral reform advocates: they have been so focused on how votes are counted that they start to believe this is the only change that would happen.

I've seen so much change in Canadian politics in the last 25 years that I've been politically active that has roots in the failings of FPTP (and I don't just mean changes to the parties on the right).  I know that under any type of electoral reform system that other changes would happen, and that it is simply not reasonable to believe that the political parties as we see them today would remain intact for long. While this may be a bad thing for those skulking in the back rooms of those parties who gain power from the fear that vote splitting offers, I consider the changes to the political landscape from any movement away from FPTP to be positive.

I've never been comfortable with the "how parliament would look if PR were in place" charts done after every election.  The presumption some incorrectly make is that people would vote the same regardless of voting system, and it is only how they are counted that would change.  I don't understand why anyone would believe this to be the case as there is no logic in it.  Those charts are a good tool to clearly demonstrate how flawed FPTP is, but are pretty useless for predicting what the makeup of parliament would be under any modernized electoral system.

Claim: electoral reform will ensure successive Liberal governments for years to come (CPC)
Response: Without vote splitting and the harm the "unite the right" movement had on the Canadian conservative movement, I wouldn't be surprised if most Federal governments would be a coalition of conservative parties.  I suspect the current Conservative party knows this and is far more concerned with keeping their coalition party intact (and keeping their supporters stifled) than in keeping the Liberals out of office.   Like the current big-tent Liberal party, it is most likely that the big-tent CPC party will be greatly diminished with any type of electoral modernization.

Claim: referendum the only legitimate way to reform the electoral system (CPC)
Response:  On the surface this sounds good, but doesn't hold up to any scrutiny.

  • The fact the system can be changed with legislation is proof that fixing any flaws in the future will be equally easy to do.  A change to the electoral system made via simple legislation does not lock us in.
  • Governments, even minority governments, make decisions all the time which are far harder to change. Trade agreements are an obvious example.  It is dishonest for the Conservative party to claim that the Liberals don't have a mandate to make comparatively minor changes to our voting system even though the Conservatives were actively negotiating the TPP during the election period when they should have been a caretaker government.  The TPP is a massive omnibus treaty where many (some say most) of the clauses have nothing to do with or even oppose what people might traditionally call a "free trade" agreement.
All the arguments I've heard on why a referendum is the only legitimate way to change the electoral system applies far more to trade and other multinational agreements than they do to the electoral system. I'll take those comments seriously only once I've seen passed irreversible legislation that states that Canada cannot ratify a trade agreement or treaty without a binding referendum.

I'm definitely on the "yes" side to saying that controversial policy such as we saw in CETA or the TPP should require a super-majority (60% of votes in 60% of the regions across Canada).

All evidence I've seen is that those who are pushing for a referendum have observed how previous referendums in Canada have been gamed, and they are using it as part of their campaign for the status quo.  There is nothing legitimate about this dishonesty.


Happy Canada Day

Today is a great day to not only think about what makes us proud to be Canadian, but also ways to make Canada even better in the future.   You owe it to yourself and fellow Canadians to give electoral reform some time in your thinking.  Please don't just blindly trust what some lobby group, political party, or individual like me has to say.  Learn about the alternatives and the countries that use them. Canada is one of 4 remaining democracies still using FPTP for federal elections, and it is well past time for us to grow out of that horse-and-buggy past.


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