Mucking Around with Electoral Reform

With the re-election of Stephen Harper‘s Conservatives to Parliament with a majority of the seats in the House of Commons, a large number of calls for electoral reform are being raised. The old, tired, and inaccurate arguments of “60% of the voters voted against Stephen Harper” are being raised, yet again.

I too used a similar argument against Jean Chretien in 1993 and 1997. By 2000, I’d given up and was involved in other things, however at the beginning of my time of being involved with politics, I too was a champion of Proportional Representation.

The argument that “60% voted against” is fallacious, because by the same logic, 81% of the voters voted against Michael Ignatieff, 70% voted against Jack Layton, and 96% voted against Elizabeth May. Clearly, the argument itself is based on an incorrect premise – that people vote against, rather than for.

While it is true that Canadians tend to “vote out” a government rather than vote one in, a vote for Candidate X cannot be interpreted as a vote “against” Candidate Y. A vote is, by nature, always a positive action, because the vote is TO put someone in the House of Commons.

I have since realized that in our political system, we don’t elect our government, we elect our Parliament, or Legislature. The Prime Minister is appointed by the Queen and then, on the Prime Minister’s advice, the Queen appoints the government.

The House of Commons is rep-by-pop, meaning that the Members of Parliament are elected from geographic regions of varying size, but similar population. (In reality, this isn’t entirely true, but that’s the ideal.) The Senate is based on regional representation. Ideally, the Senate should be equal provincial representation, however instead, right now, Ontario, Quebec, The Maritimes, and the Western Provinces each receive 24 Senators, while Newfoundland and Labrador receives 6 Senators, the Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory, and Nunavut receive 1 senator each.

Many individuals argue in that PR elects a legislature that more accurately reflcts the true wishes of the population. That’s partially accurate – if the legislature wasn’t rep-by-pop. The fact is for a country the size of, say Germany, or Luxembourg, then yes, PR might work, but for a country as vast and diverse as Canada, some form of geographic recognition needs to remain, otherwise we could end up with representation for only certain, select areas where the concentration of votes come from.

A number of PR systems are used around the world. Some use party lists, others use a hybrid FPTP/Party lists sytem. Others use a party list or voter-choice system, and others employ single, or multi-member constituencies with either an Alternative Vote (AV) or Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system.

The party list system is probably the simplest PR system around. The voter selects the party they’re voting for, and once the votes are counted, seats are alloted based on how many votes each party received as a percentage of the total. In this system, the Conservatives would have received 40% of the seats in the House of Commons, or 122. The NDP would have received 31% of the seats, or 94. The Liberals would have received 58, the Bloc 18, The Green Party 12, 1 Christian Heritage, 1 Marxist-Leninist, 1 PC Party, and 1 Rhino Party.

The problem with a party list system is the party, not the voter, chooses who the representatives will be. This can lead to cronyism and corruption, because the party can reward its members for loyalty by placing their names higher up on the list. Additionally, the voter is simply choosing, under this system, a “Trained Seal” as there is no real connection between the MP and the voter other than a name on a list supplied by the political party. We are seeing some of the consequences of this kind of voting right now with the results of our current system in Quebec; where people like Ruth Ellen Brosseau ended up (amusingly) elected to Parliament.

Hybrid FPTP/Party list systems have the voter choosing a member for their local constituency just as we do now, but only for a portion of the members in the House. The remainder of the House is chosen from party lists in a manner designed to bring the representation in line with PR. This system is somewhat improved, because at least the voter chooses a representative through a direct election, however there is still the risk of cronyism and corruption by use of the party lists.

One way to resolve the issue is to break the country down into multi-member constituencies, and then have the PR system applied to the constituency rather than the legislative assembly as a whole. Such a system can produce an approximation of PR. Members can be elected from party lists, a hybrid system as described above, or, perhaps, as some countries do, the voter is given a ballot with the party list printed on the ballot. The voter can then chose to accept the party’s list as-is, or, alternatively, can rank the candidates in any order they wish. The result being that the list is produced through an election, the voters choose the order of the list, and then seats are filled. That system can get cumbersome, confusing, and counting can become time consuming.

Another option for multi-member constituencies is the Single Transferrable Vote. In this system, the voter will rank the candidates in order of preference. The number sequence must start with 1 and must be unbroken (1,3,4 is invalid), but the voter may rank as many candidates as they wish. When the ballots are counted, a “Droop quota” is determined, which is one, plus the total number of votes divided by one plus the number of seats. 1+( (valid votes)/(seats+1) ). The Droop Quota is always truncated to the nearest whole number. Any candidate receiving more than the Droop Quota is deemed elected, and their extra votes (that is, votes exceeding the quota) are then shared amongst the other candidates, often pro-rated based upon the differential between the votes used to meet the Droop Quota and the number of votes the candidate actually received. If nobody reaches the Droop Quota on a round of counting, the last-placed candidate is eliminated, and their supporters’ second-place rankings are shared out amongst the remaining candidates and process is repeated until all the seats have been filled. If there is only one seat, then the Droop Quota simply becomes 50% of the ballots+1.

STV is quite complex and difficult to understand. It is time consuming and cumbersome to implement. This was the proposed system rejected in a referendum by BC residents recently.

A simpler alternative to STV is the Alternative Vote. It works well for multi-member constituencies, as well as for single-member constituencies. The voter ranks the candidates in order of preference with the same conditions applied as with STV above, however the process of electing candidates is far simpler. AV is akin to the method in which most political parties choose their leaders, except instead of multiple ballots, only one ballot is needed. When the votes are counted, the last-placed candidate is dropped and their second-placed rankings are shared out amongst the remaining candidates. The process is repeated until the number of seats and number of candidates remaining is equal. In a one-member constituency, this system ensures the winner receives a true majority of support, while simplifying the counting process quite drastically from STV.

If Canada were to consider a switch to PR, personally, I prefer AV with single-member constituencies, the switch is an easy one to make, simple, and understandable.

However, I do not believe a switch to PR would solve the problems Canadians have with the political system, because we would still be electing a House of Commons charged with an acramonious and partisan atmosphere. PR systems also tend not to produce majority governments, so without major changes to the system of forming a government (gaining and holding the Confidence of the House, etc) we would likely be having elections every 18 months to two years.

Changing how the business of the House is carried out is much easier to do than change how our Members of Parliament are elected. These changes can include reducing partisanship, free votes, ratifying the Cabinet by supermajority, and electing Senators to a EEE senate.

Partisanship can easily be reduced. Members of Parliament are elected to represent their constituency in the House of Commons. Too often this has been reversed – and the MP ends up representing their party to the constituency. MPs are not paid or employed by the party or caucus to which they belong, but by the taxpayers in their riding. A quality MP will have a good sense of the attitude of their constituents, and will work to represent their constituents in the best capacity they can.

Free votes also reduce partisanship and increase an MP’s ability to represent their constituents in the House. If a bill is presented to the House of Commons (excluding the budget, the failure of which could immediately trigger an election), then it should be left to pass – or fail – on its own merit. Each MP should read and research the bill and then vote accordingly. MPs have, in the past, got lazy, and simply voted as directed by their party’s leadership. Again, the MP doesn’t work for the party, the MP works for the constituents.

Constitutionally, nothing says a Cabinet Minister or the Prime Minister must be sitting MPs. Let the Legislature do its job in passing legislation, and let the Cabinet Ministers do their jobs in managing the various departments of government. Cabinet Ministers (whether they’re MPs or not) could easily be ratified by a 2/3 majority of the House of Commons, and then the Prime Minister can take the will of the House to the Queen so she can appoint a Cabinet Minister. This ensures Cabinet is approved by the House of Commons rather than appointed as patronage positions by the Prime Minister. It would ensure that the best person for the job gets the job, and the quality of government would likely improve.

Lastly, changing the Senate to equal representation from each province, elected, and “effective” would be a major improvement as well. Equal provincial representation provides a check and balance on the rep-by-pop House of Commons. Too often, the House of Commons caters to areas where the votes are concentrated; and it’s understandable, because the MPs want to be re-elected at the end of their term! However, sadly, too often as well, legislation benefits one highly populated area of the country to the detriment of another, such as the NEP, Stephane Dion’s proposed Green Shaft Shift or the proposed Cap-And-Trade system which came out during this last campaign. A senate where each province has equal representation balances things out and can stop harmful legislation from becoming law.

An elected senate builds upon the base of an equal senate, because an appointed chamber becomes the personal puppet of the current Prime Minister. Brian Mulroney, to get the GST passed, actually increased the number of senators, and then asked the Queen to appoint enough senators to ensure the GST was approved by the senate. This, despite the quality of the GST, was a gross abuse of the Prime Minister’s power, and has all but completely destroyed the Senate’s credibility. Stephen Harper has, yes, asked the Queen to appoint a number of Senators, which does seem to contradict several statements he has made in the past, however to reform the Senate, the reforms must be approved by the Senate, and until the Senate is made up of people who want to reform it, the changes will never happen.

It think that the changes I’ve outlined above are a far better way to improve the system than tinkering with how we elect our Members of Parliament. We need to remember that we do NOT elect our government, we elect our legislature, which is made up of individual representatives from across the nation. A general election is not one big election, but, in fact, 308 individual elections.

I suppose we could consider switching to the AV system as I outlined above, however implementing the other simple changes I’ve outlined is far easier and far more effective. FPTP may have its flaws, but it is simple, easy to understand, and, quite frankly, good enough.

About Steven Britton

Steve is a freelance programmer, partial billionaire, dad, Recovering Atheist, Conservative, and occasionally prolific blogger.
  • After the UK referendum it is going to be much more difficult to introduce a preferential system such as AV or STV into the UK. PR, simple voting and counting, and single member constituencies were key themes as they seem to be in Canada. I think a consequence could be a shift towards systems more akin to AMS (additional member system), versions of which are in use in Scotland and Wales, as well as Germany and New Zealand.

    The main objections to AMS focus on the additional members elected from the party list.

    DPR Voting is a variation of AMS caricatured as the Addition Member system without the additional members.

    The Electoral Reform Society lists five objections to AMS. The main four objections do not apply to DPR Voting. The fifth – some people are confused as to what to do with their two votes – seems a bit feeble.

    Remove the disadvantages and you are left with an impressive set of advantages which may be just as relevant in Canada as elsewhere.

  • AB Patriot

    Why have RP or any other method? Neither serves regional interests. The best approach is to make the federal government completely irrelevant, eliminate it ideally, and transfer all powers to the provinces. I can see the potential for regional interests to not only be protected by to flourish. I would even like to see defence transferred to the provinces, that way all the provinces will be able to defend themselves if need be from each other’s conflicting interests. Personally, I think it will do Alberta considerable good to be able to destroy another province (or gang of provinces) if they choose to get out of line.

  • David Weber

    In your analysis of what the results from our last Federal Election would have been if votes were counted under PR, it is very different than the results under the First Past The Post system we actually have. With PR, people have a voice in government that otherwise would not be heard. We need all values represented in proportion of the people that hold those values, or there is no democracy, only elected dictatorships such as our current one.

    • As I said in the original entry, there are ways of accomplishing your goal without going through the incredibly complex process of changing the way our Members of Parliament are actually selected. A shift to PR may elect far more minority parliaments, and, when you’re in opposition, that’s probably a good thing, but without a basic change in attitude of those we elect – like an actual willingness to listen and engage in meaningful debate – then a shift to PR will accomplish nothing. In fact, it would be a step backward, because it would make Parliament far more acrimonious and dysfunctional.

      No, a change to PR is not the solution.