On electoral reform, beware the vested interests

The ongoing debate over changes to Canada’s electoral system — highlighted this week by Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef’s tour of the northern capitals...

The ongoing debate over changes to Canada’s electoral system — highlighted this week by Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef’s tour of the northern capitals — hasn’t done much besides whip partisans and political science nerds into a frenzy.

Outside those wonkish and rarefied circles, most people are stifling yawns. The Huffington Post, reporting the results of an Ipsos Public Affairs poll, notes that just three per cent of the Canadian population are watching the ongoing work of Parliament’s electoral reform committee.

“Those most likely to be following the process were older, more educated, more affluent men,” pollster Darrell Bricker told Post reporter Ryan Maloney. As the basis for a major systemic change, this group is not exactly a representative cross-section of Canadian society.

The rest of us, Bricker says, are largely checked out. It is summertime, after all, and most of us would prefer shotgunning Pilsners and getting a sunburn over weighing the relative merits of mixed-member proportional representation versus first-past-the-post electoral systems.

Understandable as this is, we ought to start paying closer attention. Because as it stands, the debate is dominated by two crowds of committed activists, claiming to represent the best interests of Canadian democracy, while desperately grappling for their own narrow partisan advantage.

Proportional representation, which distributes parliamentary seats directly according to each party’s share of the popular vote, has long been favoured by many on the left. The NDP and Liberals both have lost plenty of seats to Conservatives taking advantage of vote-splitting on the left. Greens view the common PR practice of granting seats to any party that gains at least five per cent of the vote as their ticket to finally getting more than one MP into the House of Commons.

Meanwhile, Conservatives look at PR and see a more or less permanent exile from government. Under such a system, the historical vote shares of the Liberals and NDP would be enough to virtually ensure the blue team is perpetually locked out of power.

Despite the naked self-interest, there are legitimate concerns being raised on both sides (and so far, the debate seems reduced to a yea-or-nay proposition).

The nay argument, as articulated in these pages by Currie Dixon, is that all told, the electoral system we have, in which the candidate with the most votes wins the riding, generally works pretty well. It’s easy for voters to boot out MPs who suck and it provides representation by population, while being flexible enough to ensure smaller jurisdictions get an MP of their own. One thing Dixon didn’t mention is that first-past-the-post ballots are simple: there are some names, and you mark an X next to the person you like best.

Yet the argument for change is also compelling. Parties can now form majority governments with far less than 50 per cent of the vote. Last fall, for example, the Liberals turned less than 40 per cent of the popular vote into 54 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons.

In 1993, which still stands as a case study for political scientists, the Progressive Conservatives, decidedly on the outs with voters, still managed to win 16 per cent of the votes, but lost all but two seats. The Bloc Quebecois, running only in Quebec, turned 13 per cent of all votes into 54 seats and Official Opposition status. These are decidedly warped results and there are models that can reduce these systemic skews that may indeed be worth experimenting with.

This is a highly simplified sketch of the debate’s broad themes and there remains no clear picture of what changes, if any, the Liberals will try to implement. There are numerous other systems to choose from. But the Trudeau Liberals campaigned on a promise to abolish first-past-the-post and the prime minister seems intent on changing the system (likely, it has to be said, to his own party’s immediate disadvantage).

It remains unclear how these changes would affect the North. How, for example, would the territories maintain guaranteed representation under another system? The experts who have weighed in so far have had little to say about that.

Meanwhile, critics, including the Conservatives, are demanding a referendum, and while the government may be within its rights to proceed without one, it seems like there’s a moral case to take such a change to the electorate. The Ottawa Citizen reported that one Quebec activist suggested allowing voters to experiment with different systems before asking them to choose which one they prefer in a referendum.

It’s not exactly clear how this would work, but it’s an idea worth pursuing. The experts and activists who’ve spent years studying and advocating for various voting systems have chosen their horses. The rest of us might want to choose based on actual, real-world experience, not just the theories of a self-selected elite.