The Path to Electoral Reform

Canadians from coast to coast to coast will soon be receiving a shiny postcard in the mail from the Government of Canada inviting them to participate in a new online survey on electoral reform that the Liberals are calling MyDemocracy.ca. The purpose of the new survey, according to Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, is to engage all Canadians on the issue of electoral reform and to gauge the public desire for the kind of change the government should seek regarding electoral reform. During her brief interview on The Agenda with Steve Paiken last week, the minister explained that several Canadians were unable to attend the ERRE committee meetings that were held in every province and territory in Canada and specifically mentioned rural Canadians who did not have a chance to get out to meetings that were more often than not conducted in large urban centres.

On the face of it, there should be no issue with the government in our modern digital age drafting and sending out an online survey to gauge public opinion on any given issue, the problem here comes from the fact that we have already had an all-party parliamentary committee review the issue and engage Canadians and they submitted a report that was well over 300-pages that provided recommendations to the House of Commons on moving forward on this issue. But the report did not detail what the government secretly wants for electoral reform, specifically that there be no national referendum on the issue and that a ranked ballot PR system form the way ahead in Canada (the Liberals support a ranked ballot system because as the traditional centre party, they will almost always capture run-off second and third choice votes). The NDP has been pushing for a RP system for quite some time, as have the Greens and the Conservatives maintain that any changes to our electoral system required a mandate directly from Canadians in the form of a referendum on the question. The report from the ERRE committee was a product of the current lay of the land in the House of Commons, namely that the Conservatives as official opposition were able to secure the position in the report that a referendum is probably the best way forward and the NDP and Greens both were able to secure a mention that PR was probably the best system to use in Canada. It is important to note that this current “lay of the land” in the House of Commons is the result of the democratic will of Canadians expressed in the previous general election that sent the Liberals to the government benches. These conclusions made Minister Monsef quite upset which lead her to outburst in the House of Commons, attacking the committee for not doing the work it was suppose to do. She later had to backtrack and apologize, but the damage was done. It was also one of the first times in recent memory that a majority government has submitted a minority report alongside a committee report in Parliament.

Monsef has stated that the government’s plan all along was to propose this survey to Canadians, which is mind-boggling because they allowed the ERRE committee to continue what was essentially parallel proceedings without once mentioning that they had a plan to do their own thing down the road. But it gets worse, Monsef was clear during her interview with Steve Paiken, that the government believes the positions outlined in the committee report do not reflect the will of Canadians and that the Liberals, somehow, have some greater insight into the electorate that requires going outside of parliament to get to the source of the concerns of Canadians. There are serious democratic implications for the position of her government, namely the richness of claiming that a report compiled by duly elected Members of Parliament somehow does not and cannot reflect the will of Canadians. Does she understand that such a statement is clearly laying bare the fact that this government does not in any way feel beholden to parliament on the issue? What makes electoral reform so different that the government is not required to have support in the House on the file?

I think that an easy way of understanding how the government is approaching the file can be articulated in an analogy of tree shaking. The Liberals stand around the tree of Canadian opinion and shake and shake and when an apple falls that is not to their own particular liking, for example that Canadians support a referendum on electoral reform, they shake and shake some more saying that “well, not everyone was consulted so we have a duty to ask again.” And when another apple that is not to their own liking falls again they put up their hands and say, “we are here to include all Canadians from all walks of life, and this tree is flawed, let’s try again to get their opinion.” And they shake and shake again until an apple of their liking has fallen to their feet all of the while coming up with vague and soft points on why the previous tree shaking was inferior to the next. Never minding the fact that Canadian taxpayers pay hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the institution of parliament running as a means of governing the country and expressing their will between election periods. We have a Liberal government that is committed to the people, and thus committed to circumnavigating parliament on this file— at least until the right apple falls.

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef answers a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec.7, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef answers a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec.7, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Furthermore, the Liberals are becoming extremely dismissive with Canadians on the file. When questioned why her government did not include more specific questions on forms of electoral systems that could be implemented in Canada, Monsef explained that Canadians do not understand FPTP, MMP, PR and STV and that the issue was too complex and too technical to engage the majority of Canadians. I feel as if Minister Monsef might be projecting her own misunderstandings and difficulty comprehending our Canadian democracy and various electoral systems on to Canadians. At best it is government handling an electorate with kid gloves, at worse it is condescending and arrogant. Either way it does not make good politics for a government that is supposed to be sunny-ways and supportive. You cannot, with one side of you mouth, say that you value engagement and then criticize the quality of results from said engagement, that is double-speak. However, if Canadians are in fact not informed on this subject, it does start to beg the question of it’s importance to everyday Canadian at the moment. Is it possible that the government has created a mountain out of a mole hill here on electoral reform? Especially when we consider how many Canadians are currently out of work, how many are looking down the barrel of losing they jobs and how many young Canadians are fearful for employment in the future. Is electoral reform really something that the government should be pushing at the moment?

At the end of the day, Justin Trudeau made a promise to Canadians that the 2015 election would be the last under first-past-the-post in Canada, it is arguable whether or not this promise and his election victory earned his government a solid mandate to move forward on the file unilaterally. Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose has handed the government an out in saying that they should drop 2019 as a goal line and should focus on more pressing issues in the country. I am inclined to agree with her, it is time for the Liberal government to drop electoral reform, at least during this current parliament.

Electoral Reform and Electoral Systems

The Library of Parliament has published a wonderful primer on electoral reform in Canada and around the world that scratches the surface of the various options before Canadians. I’ve decided to cut some snippets from the publication to share here with links to the original document so that you may follow-up on your own.

You can access the document here or a PDF copy here.

Plurality or Majority Systems

Description: In plurality or majority electoral systems, the winning candidate is the individual who garners the most votes in an electoral district. Depending on the particular rules of the system, the winner may need to receive a plurality (or more votes than the other candidates) or a majority (over 50% of the votes cast).

First Past the Post (FPTP): Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides. Candidates must gain a plurality of votes to be elected.

Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides.
Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides.

Alternative Vote (AV): Also used to elect a single candidate per electoral district, this system is often called preferential voting. On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast. Should no candidate garner a majority on the first count, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes (lowest-ranked) is dropped, and the second-preference votes on the ballots where that candidate ranked first are assigned to the respective remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate receives the necessary majority.

Two-Round: Also known as the run-off system, the two-round system has elections with not one but two election days, generally weeks apart. The system used for the first round of voting is largely similar to FPTP, except to win, a candidate must take a majority of the votes cast and not simply a plurality. Should no candidate garner a majority after the first round of voting, a second election is held with only the top two candidates from the first election results. The candidate with the higher number of votes in the second round is elected.

Block Vote: In essence, this system is FPTP but with multi-member constituencies. In each electoral district, voters may cast as many votes as there are seats. For example, if three seats are available in an electoral district, the three candidates with the most votes will be awarded seats.

On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast.
On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast.

Origins: Plurality or majority systems can be traced back to historical British parliamentary practice. FPTP continues to be employed to elect members to the United Kingdom (U.K.) House of Commons, and is also the system used today in most countries that were once part of the British Empire or have historical connections to England.

Advantages and Disadvantages: Plurality or majority systems are easy to use and understand, favour the formation of stable majority governments, maintain a geographic link between constituents and members, and encourage broad-based parties. Critiques of plurality or majority systems include that the seat allocation is disproportionate to the popular vote, and the system exaggerates regionalism and wastes votes. Further critiques of the two-round system are that it is the most expensive electoral system, and voter turnout may decrease between the first and second rounds.

Current Use: Australia – Lower house (AV), Canada (FPTP), France (Two-Round), U.K. (FPTP) and the United States (FPTP).

Proportional Representation Systems

Description: As the name suggests, proportional representation (PR) systems seek to closely match a political party’s vote share with its seat allocation in the legislature. Unlike in most plurality systems, in PR systems, voters elect more than one representative per constituency or geographic area. PR tends to be varied and flexible, and the method for calculating seat distribution can be quite complex, with some systems requiring that a minimum threshold of vote share be earned in order for any seats to be allocated. Citizens generally vote for several candidates, or a party, and the results determine which individual members will sit in the legislature, as well as the overall distribution of seats belonging to each party.

List PR systems are very flexible and have been adapted by the countries using them.
List PR systems are very flexible and have been adapted by the countries using them.

List Proportional Representation (List PR): There are two main forms of List PR: closed-list and open-list. Both forms use a regional or national list of candidates in each constituency drawn up by each party before election day.

In closed-list PR, the party ranks the names on the list, and citizens vote for a party, not a specific candidate. Once all votes have been counted, each party is awarded seats in proportion to its share of the national vote. Individual seats are then allocated to candidates of each party in the order in which they are ranked on the party list.

In open-list PR, voters choose a preferred candidate (or candidates) from the list of the party for which they wish to vote. This means that voters effectively determine the order in which the candidates on the list will be awarded seats.

List PR systems are very flexible and have been adapted by the countries using them.

Single Transferable Vote (STV): Citizens in multi-member electoral districts rank candidates on the ballot. They may rank as few or as many candidates as they wish.

In this system, as in FPTP and unlike in block vote, each voter selects one candidate only. However, the system differs from FPTP and resembles block vote in that several members are elected per electoral district. The candidates with the highest vote totals are elected.
In this system, as in FPTP and unlike in block vote, each voter selects one candidate only. However, the system differs from FPTP and resembles block vote in that several members are elected per electoral district. The candidates with the highest vote totals are elected.

In most variations of this system, winners are declared by first determining the total number of valid votes cast, and then establishing a minimum number of votes that must be garnered based on the number of seats to be filled (the “vote quota”). Candidates who receive the number of first-preference votes needed to reach the quota are elected.

If there are still seats to be filled, a two-step count occurs. In the first step, any votes in excess of the quota for elected candidates are redistributed to the second choices indicated on the ballots of the elected candidates, using a weighted formula (this is called “excess transfer”). Candidates who then reach the quota are elected.

If no candidates reach the quota in this way, a second step takes place in which the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes (lowest-ranked) is dropped, and the second-preference votes on the ballots where that candidate ranked first are assigned to the respective remaining candidates.

Such extra counts continue until enough candidates reach the quota to fill all available seats.

Some variations do not involve excess transfer, but only the elimination of the lowest-ranked candidate and the reassigning of the second preferences on the ballots for that candidate. Nonetheless, the counting process still fits the definition of a single, transferable vote.

Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV): In this system, as in FPTP and unlike in block vote, each voter selects one candidate only. However, the system differs from FPTP and resembles block vote in that several members are elected per electoral district. The candidates with the highest vote totals are elected. For example, in a constituency where 20 candidates are vying for five available seats, the five candidates with the most votes will all be elected.

Compared to FPTP or block vote, SNTV can facilitate the representation of minority parties and independents, because the minimum number of votes needed to be elected decreases as the number of seats in the constituency increases, giving parties that normally receive a lower percentage of votes a better chance of electing a candidate.

Origins: Discussion of proportional representation can be traced back to the late 1700s. Its first public use was in 1840 during an election held in Adelaide, Australia.16 Some observers have suggested that the implementation of PR systems, especially throughout Europe, was a response to unrepresentative electoral results, with others suggesting economic transformations and the growth of social democratic parties were driving forces.

Advantages and Disadvantages: PR systems produce results most closely matching the actual proportion of votes garnered by parties, permit greater representation of smaller parties, provide for greater choice, and can encourage power-sharing within a Parliament. Critiques of PR systems include that they can be difficult to understand, they tend to create coalition governments, the geographic link between constituent and member is less prominent, they increase the possibility of electing parties with extreme views, the ballots can be long and complicated, and the counting of results time consuming.

Current Use: Australia – Upper House (STV), Austria (Modified Closed-List PR), Belgium (Modified Closed-List PR), Denmark (Open-List PR), Finland (Open-List PR), Ireland (STV), Netherlands (Modified Closed-List PR), Norway (Modified Closed-List PR), Russia (Closed-List PR), South Africa (Closed-List PR), Sweden (Modified Closed-List PR) and Switzerland (Open-List PR).

The modified closed-list PR systems listed above essentially give electors some ability to influence which candidates on party lists are elected by stating preferences on the ballot. The countries use different methods and set different thresholds of vote share needed for election.

Mixed Electoral Systems

Description: Mixed electoral systems combine elements of a plurality or majority system with proportional representation. Citizens in a constituency cast two votes: one to directly elect an individual member to serve as their representative, and a second for a party or parties to fill seats in the legislature allocated according to the proportion of the vote share they receive.

Mixed Member Majority (MMM): Citizens in single-member electoral districts cast two votes: one for a candidate to represent their constituency according to the FPTP system, and one for a party. Each party presents a previously established list of candidates, similar to the List PR system. A predetermined portion of the legislature’s seats are filled using the plurality vote, while the remaining seats are filled by the party list vote.

The two votes under MMM are fully independent of one another; the party seats will not compensate for any disproportionate result in the constituency elections.

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP): This system operates in the same way as MMM, except that a citizen’s second vote, which allocates seats to parties according to List PR, is used to attempt to compensate for any disproportionate results in the FPTP constituency part of the election.

There are variations among the various MMP systems in how this allocation is made.
There are variations among the various MMP systems in how this allocation is made.

Additional seats are awarded to qualifying parties18 where the number of constituency seats that they won fails to reflect voter support shown in both components of the election.

There are variations among the various MMP systems in how this allocation is made.

Origins: Mixed electoral systems can be traced back to Germany’s adoption of an MMP system following the Second World War. Observers have noted that the system represents a compromise, or third way, between plurality or majority systems, and proportional representation.

Advantages and Disadvantages: Mixed electoral systems provide for fairly proportional outcomes, maintain the geographic link between constituents and members, provide for greater choice, and allow the opportunity for smaller parties to be represented in Parliament. Critiques of mixed electoral systems include that they may be difficult to use and understand, and they create two classes of members (electoral district versus list).

Current Use: Germany (MMP), Japan (MMM), Mexico (MMP), New Zealand (MMP), Philippines (MMM), Scotland (MMP), South Korea (MMM) and Wales (MMP).