Saturday, December 10, 2016

Are US voters really that much smarter than Canadian voters?

There are so many things I found disappointing about the MyDemocracy.ca democratic institutions voter compass site.

Some aspects I found offensive, such as the question "A ballot should be easy to understand, even if it means voters have fewer options to express their preferences".  This leading question suggests the people who created this site think Canadians aren't as smart as people from most other countries already using more advanced voting systems.

Since is is a common Canadian pastime to presume they are better than people south of the US-Canada boarder, we should take a look at their ballots.  People who don't like the outcome of the recent US presidential election may think their system is flawed, but if you ever looked closely at the Canadian system you realize it is purely luck and not design of our democratic institutions that gives the false impression we have something better.

Lets ignore for the moment that the Liberal platform promised to change the voting system from First Past the Post before the next federal election, something that can be done without constitutional change, and something many of us will punish the Liberals for until they honor that promise.

Lets pretend, as the democratic institutions voter compass site suggests, that everything is on the table including discussing how the government is formed.   Lets ignore the fact the vast majority of the questions on that website are off-topic for a discussion on changing our voting system, and that many questions discuss policies that require constitutional changes.

The Canadian System

In Canada in federal elections we mark a single X on a ballot beside a line that has the name of a person. Most often there is also the name of a political party that nominated that person.

From this single X a person who only needs a plurality of votes, not a majority, becomes the MP in the House of Commons for that electoral district.

Once the House of Commons assembles these MPs then decide who the Prime Minister will be. While the convention in a Westminster system is that the Prime Minister is the leader of the party whose members have a plurality of seats (not necessarily a majority), other configurations are possible in a healthy Westminster system. While the formality is that it is the governor general representing the Crown who appoints the Prime Minister, it is actually up to the full membership of the House of Commons who can vote non-confidence in a person that asked and received permission from the governor general to form government.

The Prime Minister controls the appointments of most key positions in Canada's democratic institutions, including the governor general, the Cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, senators, heads of crown corporations, ambassadors to foreign countries, the provincial lieutenant governors, and approximately 3,100 other positions.

The Cabinet is appointed by the Prime Minister out of the membership of both the upper house (Senate) and lower house (House of Commons).  This cabinet along with the Prime Minister form the executive branch of government, with all members in both the upper and lower houses forming the legislative branch of government.  Cabinet members have mixed responsibilities (some suggest conflict of interest) to both executive and legislative branches of government.

While we still have ties to the British Monarchy, it is now the Prime Minister that appoints the Governor General, creating a conflict of interest if it were actually the Governor General that appointed future Prime Ministers.  This is why it is understood that it is up to the membership of the House of Commons to decide who the Prime Minister is.


All of this with a single X which doesn't allow any clarity in what the voter is intending to say.
  • Are they voting for a person they believe is the best local candidate to become part of the legislative branch, or are they voting for the political party they believe would best represent their views in the legislative branch (or a full spectrum between those two extremes).
  • Are they attempting to vote directly for the executive branch (the Prime Minister, who like most heads of executive branches in other countries then appoint the rest of the executive branch), ignoring the formation of the legislative branch?
  • Are they attempting to (by this point very indirectly) influence appointments of Senators, Judges, or other unelected parts of our democratic institutions?

As there is no way to tell what the X means, everyone can (and does) argue endlessly about what a voters intent is.  They will pretty much always be wrong as there is no mechanism to have clarity around voter intent.

Most of the current debate around electoral reform is based on assumptions, not facts, about how people vote.  The whole notion of measuring the disproportionality of a resulting House of Commons based on support for parties presumes that the single X was a vote for a party rather than the person, and that it is the makeup of parliament rather than who forms the executive branch that mattered to the voter. Without knowing the percentage of people who voted for the person despite, and not because of, the party, it is impossible to measure the disproportionality of the house to party support.


The claim our current ballot is "easy to understand" because it has so few words on it and voters make few marks is embarrassingly invalid. The question should be whether the meaning of a marked ballot can be understood. The fact is our current marked ballots cannot be accurately understood by anyone, and if we have any concern about voter intent this critical flaw needs to be fixed.

Attempting to understand a Canadian marked ballot


In my case when I vote I am voting for the person (not the party) who I believe would make a good legislator in the legislative branch.  It's not that I don't care about who forms government, but that I don't believe I have any influence on this as it is too many levels indirected from my ballot for me to have any influence.  When I was younger, involved in party politics, and voted for the leader of "my" party I thought differently, but that time passed. I also don't focus on political parties as I've noticed from meeting sitting MPs that the good legislators have far more in common with other good legislators from any political party than the tribalism I've seen within and between political parties.  I don't believe my views are well represented by political parties, but they can be represented by individuals (and I've been proud to meet many good legislators).

In his Toronto Star column Bob Hepburn didn't state it, but it is clear from his argument that he is only concerned about the executive branch of government and the executive's legislative agenda.  In his mind the only thing that matters is the leader of one of the two parties most likely to be named the Prime Minister, and he demonstrates no consideration for the workings of other branches of government.

It isn't surprising that we couldn't agree on a voting system as our criteria for success is different as we are focused on trying to have influence on entirely different branches of government. I can think he is naive for believing he has any influence on who the Prime Minister will become, and he can think me naive for being focused on the makeup of the legislative branch of government.


But...

What if we were able to talk about more than the voting system, and fix the obvious problem between Mr. Hepburn and I which would be to have separate ballot questions for separate democratic institutions?

The United States system

The US system was derived from the Westminster system, but with many improvements.

The two most obvious improvements:
  • Separate ballot question for Executive Branch (President, rather than Prime Minister)
  • Elected Senate, which along with an elected House of Representatives forms their Congress which is their legislative branch.

As a compromise between the President being elected by Congress and being directly elected by voters, the Electoral College concept was created.  Instead of using popular vote across the country, which would have meant the larger cities would be choosing the President, the allocation of vote to each state was based on the number of seats they had in Congress.  As each state has 2 Senate seats regardless of population, and a minimum of 1 House of Representatives seats which is otherwise based on population, each state has a minimum of 3 electoral college votes towards electing the President.

We can and they should discuss whether it is a good idea that how Electoral College votes are allocated is up to each individual state, or whether it should be required to be allocated proportionally according to popular vote within each state.  I wouldn't suggest that the US system is perfect, but I am suggesting I believe it is better than what we currently have in Canada.   I am not one of those people who would want to abolish the Electoral College rather than reform it to become proportional, but believe it is embarrassing that so many Canadians' are focused so much on the US electoral college that they don't even notice that they aren't able to vote for the equivalent position in Canada.


At the Federal level Canada's vague single X was improved by the US into 3 different votes for 3 different institutions within those two branches of government in the US.  Even while they still use single-member plurality for these votes, and have considerable room for improvement, this is still far more advanced than the Canadian system.

While US Supreme Court judges are still appointed by the executive branch like Canada, some states elect rather than appoint judges, and some states us a "bipartisan commission" for appointing judges. Like the discussion about the electoral college, people tend to change their opinions about whether judges should be directly elected or nominated by elected officials depending on whether the "right choice" according to their own political views is made with the current process.  This will be an ongoing debate within the USA, but it is a conversation that has barely started in Canada. Some Prime Ministers have been seeking HoC advise on appointments, but this is not yet codified in law that can't be ignored by a future Prime Minister.

While Canadians may see a handful of referenda their entire lives, US citizens have a few initiatives to think about on most ballots.  The process and biases of campaigners is something they have experience with, including the fact that an initiative that passes at one time may be repealed in a later initiative.  It is all part of the ongoing legislative process which US citizens have far more direct influence over than Canadians.

If you are a Canadian who has never done a quick image search for sample US ballot, then you should do so now.

Technological Assistance

I have yet to meet someone who is both an expert in technology and in the features of voting systems that believe that online or paperless voting is a good idea.  Unfortunately we have to fight so hard against corruption being introduces by ballot-less voting that we technologists aren't able to easily simultaneously encourage the introduction of accountable assistance for voting.

Rather than having voting machines invalidly trusted to do count votes without voter verifiable ballots, we can introduce technology to do two very different things.

  1. Assist voters in filling out their ballot.  In fact, one obvious advancement is to have voters use well designed technology to form and print their ballot in the voting booth.  Voters can then verify that the ballot is correct, and then bring that newly printed piece of paper to the person running the polling station.
  2. Count, and possibly use other brands to re-count paper ballots

When I vote in municipal elections in Ottawa we already use machines of the second type.  A pre-printed ballot is marked by the voter and then inserted into a vote counting machine that keeps the ballots (for potential re-counts, which could even be done by hand if there were technical problems). The process is far quicker than provincial or federal elections.

Introduction of technology to print ballots at polling stations might not be cheap, and needs to have a backup in the face of technical problems, but it solves any claim that more accurate ballots are too complex.  Compared to many other things governments spend money on, this would be money well spent.



For instance, ranked ballots become trivial:  you slide the names on a screen into the order you want from top to bottom, remove the names you don't want, and you are done.  If the number of names grows it might be easier to first choose names you want from the larger list, and then sort the list of candidates you accept after.  User interface design is something that has experts who can make it easy for any voter.   While I don't consider counting to be hard, having assistance makes an easy thing trivial.

The same with having more than one ballot question for different branches of government, as well as ballot initiatives for when capturing information directly from voters with an accountable process is needed.


It would be great to live in a country that uses a proper mechanism for ballot initiatives to get a clear idea how Canadians are thinking on specific issues.  When I think of US ballot initiatives and compare it to a voter compass falsely claiming to be part of a government consultation I am embarrassed by how far behind other countries Canada's democracy really is.


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