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Why all the cool kids want a new electoral system

By: | December 7, 2016

Electoral reform might not sound very sexy. But it matters. A lot. Don’t let the footdragging wear you down.

Robin Whitaker
Gadfly asks pesky political and social questions, on the principle that you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

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Individuals and citizens' groups have been pushing for electoral reform for years. Photo by ahblair / Flickr.

Electoral reform is in the news — sort of — with the Dec. 1 report of an all-party House of Commons committee mandated to review Canada’s electoral system and subsequent launch of the government’s latest “consultation” exercise.

Much of the media commentary centres on the Liberals’ evident desire to ditch their 2015 election pledge to “make every vote count.” Back then, Justin Trudeau proclaimed, “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.”

Every Canadian parliament ever has been elected under FPTP, so that was a bold promise. Equally bold, the Commons committee made a clear recommendation: hold a referendum asking Canadians to choose between the current system and a form of Proportional Representation (PR).

In the face of this cross-party agreement, the committee’s Liberals issued a supplementary report saying that 2019 is too soon to introduce something as “radical” as a new electoral system.

What’s wrong with what we have?

A winner-takes-all system, FPTP routinely negates millions of votes and produces governments that most people voted against. Since it also encourages tactical voting — voting Liberal, say, when your heart is Green, because you calculate that the Grits have the best chance of beating the Tories — the true extent of disenfranchisement is likely much larger than the formal result records.

In short, FPTP favours the political status quo. It penalizes small and new parties, often to the point of extinction. It also produces parliaments that are disproportionately white and male. Indeed, depending on the system chosen and parties’ willingness to use it, switching to PR could be the fastest route to increasing the proportion of women in our parliament.

The advantages usually attributed to FPTP include simplicity for voters, a strong link between political representatives and geographically-based constituents, and the ability to produce stable majority governments.

The “PR is hard” objection should be laughed out of court

Surely, simplicity does not trump what is right and just. But also: it’s not that difficult to get to grips with new electoral systems. I lived (and voted) in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the space of one year (1996-97), people there accommodated three different systems: FPTP for the Westminster election, plus two distinct forms of PR — one for elections the peace talks, the other for local council elections.

Do we really think Canadians are too stunned to learn a new way of marking our ballots?

For, despite the scaremongering about arcane formulas — many of which are actually pretty straightforward — voters only need to understand the method of voting and the basic principles behind it. Someone else will do the arithmetic on election day.

As for regional representation, plenty of PR options retain a strong, even exclusive, basis in geographical constituencies. The Single Transferable Vote system used in both parts of Ireland is entirely constituency based. The difference is that multiple representatives are elected from each riding. Mixed-Member Proportional systems combine single member local constituencies like those in Canada with a list system at the regional level.

Finally, the idea that FPTP reliably elects majority parliaments flies in the face of the evidence. Fully one third of Canada’s 42 general elections have produced either minority or coalition governments. Besides, majority government is a debatable good. Wouldn’t a coalition better represent Canada’s vaunted diversity and willingness to compromise?

So what’s wrong with the Liberals? And with us?

Liberal reactions to the Commons committee report are hardly a shocker. It’s been clear for months that the Liberals want an excuse to back away from PR.

The clues range from town halls that avoided core questions to leaked reports that the government’s planned survey would aim to “find” support for the status quo. There was the “I’m too sexy for my shirt™” moment when Trudeau mused that Canadians have lost their zeal for reform since electing a government they like, and comments from Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef in the run up to Commons committee report.

Monsef told CTV’s Evan Soloman that she has not heard enough support from Canadians to introduce PR. So her scorn for the committee was not all that surprising, although her derision was embarrassing enough that she has since apologized. Apparently, Trudeau is also a little embarrassed; he recently restated his commitment to electoral reform.

A  new electoral system must not displace street politics, political education and other forms of activism. But it would add significantly to the prospects for new politics.

Canadians may be sceptical. The MyDemocracy.ca survey is a dog’s breakfast. The questions feel like traps. If you support the idea of online voting, for example, don’t think you can simply say so. Instead, you’ll be asked whether you support it even if it’s less secure. More critically, you will not be asked whether you support Proportional Representation or a referendum on the issue.

Having so often benefitted from FPTP, the Liberal ambivalence about change is at least understandable. The only thing better for them would be the Alternative Vote (AV) system, sometimes called “instant run-off” or “ranked” voting.

In case anyone tries to fool you, AV is not a form of proportional representation. It can easily produce results even more skewed than FPTP. AV asks voters to rank candidates in a single-member constituency, with low-polling candidates eliminated until someone gets a majority. To the extent that NDP and Conservative supporters are both more likely to transfer to the Liberals than each other, the Liberals emerge the winners.

Liberal self-interest is one thing. Why are so few Canadians agitating to make their votes count? Apparently, while expert testimony to the parliamentary committee was overwhelmingly for PR, most people haven’t thought much about the issue at all.

Understandably, many people are preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues. Given everything else going on, even the deeply politicized may feel that electoral reform is not exactly a storm-the-barricades cause.

But we should care. A new electoral system must not displace street politics, political education and other forms of activism. But it would add significantly to the prospects for new politics.

Why the cool kids want PR

People making the case for electoral reform often use graphic illustrations of how parliament would look if party seats matched their share of the popular vote.

That’s a compelling argument. It appeals to our sense of fairness. But what excites me most about PR is that it makes it possible to campaign and vote in entirely novel ways and have a snowball’s chance in hell of making an impact.

Given the widespread disenchantment here and abroad with politics-as-usual, that prospect is more than a nice idea. Given the increasing threat of planetary disaster, it may even be a matter of survival.

I know firsthand the difference an electoral system can make. I was an activist in the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, a party formed to contest the election to the Northern Ireland peace talks. Organized around the core principles of equality, inclusion and respect for human rights, the Coalition ran to ensure that women would help negotiate the future of Northern Ireland. The Coalition only made it into the talks because the electoral system was designed to allow some small parties to get to the talks. Without it, every voice saying yes to the ultimate peace agreement would have been male.

Of course, opponents will point out that PR can also facilitate the election of fringe parties on the far right. That may be true. But unless they convince a strong majority of the electorate to vote for them — and political progressives must fight hard to prevent this — it will also prevent them from majoritarian domination.

Once elected, the Women’s Coalition punched way above its weight, putting issues on the agenda that would have been absent or marginal if left to the traditional parties: gender equality, new approaches to human rights, and alternatives to the sectarian headcount approach that dominated politics there.

More recently, another new party, People Before Profit (PBP) has won seats in Ireland, north and south. An anti-austerity coalition rooted in a socialist-environmentalist alliance, PBP topped the poll in the Irish republican heartland of West Belfast earlier this year. In Derry, their candidate Eamonn McCann ended his victory speech by singing the Internationale.

In short, when people disaffected with establishment politics have real options they will act. We should remember this when contemplating how much Donald Trump’s victory rests on results in U.S. American states where Bernie Sanders easily beat Hilary Clinton in the primaries.

Time to get your skates on

Whether you are motivated by a straightforward sense of fairness or by a desire for thoroughgoing change, now is the time to hold federal Liberal feet to the fire. Here’s how:

  1. Sign Fair Vote Canada’s Declaration of Voters’ Rights;
  2. Visit the Liberal Party site and rate their promise on electoral reform;
  3. Write to Maryam Monsef and tell her you strongly support Proportional Representation. Make it clear that you want real PR, not AV. Complain about the MyDemocracy.ca survey. Copy your message to the Prime Minister and your MP;
  4. Start fighting for electoral reform in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Once that’s done, start mobilizing to take advantage of the new opportunities. By itself, electoral reform may not bring revolutionary change, but it does create space for new politics. And these days, we need to seize every opportunity we can get.

Robin Whitaker teaches political anthropology at Memorial University. She finds herself increasingly disgruntled.

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