Sunday, December 18, 2016

A few Straw Men of Canadian electoral reform

straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent. (Wikipedia)

It is hard to engage in electoral reform conversations in Canada without having one of the two top straw-men thrown at you.  Which one you are thrown depends on which of the most common perspectives you hold.

This is massive generalization, but Canadians could be divided into 3 groups.

  1. Everything is fine, leave it alone.
  2. Our voting system is broken, and the problem is a lack of proportionality (See Gallagher index)
  3. Our voting system is broken, and the problem is plurality


When it comes to choosing an electoral system, there are a number of interesting variations.

  • People who believe that plurality is a feature, not a problem, in that it forces a "consensus" to form between the top two opposing visions of how to run the country.  The "spoiler" effect is seen as a need to better "educate" voters to stop voting for third parties.
  • People who note there is no consensus on this issue, and who believe we should leave the system alone until there is consensus.
  • People who believe that any solution to the proportionality problem also solves plurality, so do not consider plurality to be a legitimate issue to be concerned with.
  • People who believe that any solution to the plurality problem also solves the proportionality problem, so do not consider proportionality to be a legitimate issue to be concerned with
  • People who believe the only "fair" system is one that recognizes that proportionality and plurality are two separate problems that need to both be solved.
  • People who vote along party lines, believe there is only one right choice, so don't see any value to ranking choices on ballots.  Voters who might have a second choice just need to be better educated about the "one true choice".
  • People who don't vote along party lines, and who if they vote for a party nominated candidate voted despite, not because of, the party affiliation.
    • They will most often see more than one candidate they think can represent them and want to rank them rather than be forced to pick only one.
    • They will sometimes oppose any attempt to take votes for party nominated candidates, presume they were support for the parties, and put them into formula in order to make claims not supported by the actual marked ballots.
  • People who don't trust political parties, and believe parties already have too much control over Canadian politics, so oppose proportionality.


The Straw Man for Proportionality supporters

The proponents of a system that solves the proportionality problem have to deal with this Straw Man all the time: that they are proponents of the most controversial form of proportional representation which is "pure PR" where an entire country or province becomes one single district and all the MPs are allocated based on party lists.

Not only has Fair Vote Canada never made that proposal themselves, I'm unaware of any other organization or serious electoral reformer who has advanced that proposal in Canada.

There is always the "thin edge of the wedge" claim, which is that any introduction of PR into Canadian politics will be abused as a way to eventually push Canada to abolish local districts.  Any introduction of at-large members or larger districts is seen as negative not because of the merits or flaws of specific proposal in front of them, but because of their fear of pure PR.

Engaging in this "thin edge" argument is as fruitless as arguing against the more direct Straw Man as it is based on a presumption of dishonesty on the part of PR proponents.  This presumption of dishonesty isn't helpful for having healthy debate.


The Straw Man for Proportionality opponents or skeptics

The opponents of proportionality, as well as those who don't think solving a lack of proportionality alone can solve the major problems with our voting system, are eventually claimed to support abolishing political parties.

Not only have I never made this proposal myself, or support abolishing political parties, I'm unaware of any organization or serious electoral reformer who has advanced that proposal in Canada.

There is always the "thin edge of the wedge" claim, which is that any regulation of political parties or reduction of the influence of political parties over Canadian politics will be abused as a way to eventually abolish political parties.   Often, any discussion that suggests that votes for party nominated candidates can't be presumed to be support for the party itself are taken as an attack on political parties, rather than a simple recognition that not ever voter votes along party lines.

Engaging in this "thin edge" argument is as fruitless as arguing against the more direct Straw Man as it is based on a presumption of dishonesty on the part of PR opponents or people who don't consider PR to be the greatest voting system problem.  This presumption of dishonesty isn't helpful for having healthy debate.

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