Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Electoral Reform in Canada

This post is not about the question of what the best electoral system is, or whether we should adopt proportional representation. Instead, I am assuming that part (see here for my clearest exposition on why), and considering the political question of how best to get proportional representation implemented in Canada.


There have been 4 referendums on electoral reform in Canada recently and I sincerely hope that there are some academic types out there studying and analyzing this period in Canadian politics.

In reverse chronological order, they were:

Province / Year / % of eligible votes cast in favour of electoral reform
B.C. / 2009 / 39%
Ontario / 2007 / 37%
P.E.I. / 2005 / 36%
B.C. / 2005 / 58%

The two B.C. referendums were on switching to a Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system, while the Ontario and P.E.I. referendums were on switching to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) type system.

Here is a collection of thoughts in no particular order:

1) The technical details are very important, so for the most part, reform is only likely to happen if the party in power wants it to happen, or if it can be politically outmaneuvered by reform forces. Even if a party is pressured into starting some sort of reform process, constant vigilance and effort will be required to make sure they do not sabotage it in some way, either deliberately or accidentally.

2) If a referendum is held for reform, the most important technical detail is the threshold for support. Reformers need to push back against the notion that countries can declare independence with a 55% vote but it takes 60% support to change the electoral system.

3) It may be better to try and turn the First Past the Post system against itself. Supporters of FPTP argue that it is good because it allows us to 'get things done' without the pesky need to get a majority vote in favour. If a political party could be persuaded to support reform as part of their platform, then they could win election with the usual 35-40% of the vote and simply implement the reform that was part of their platform.

4) Fair Vote Canada may want to emulate the tactics of the Taxpayers Federations in attempting to browbeat party leaders into signing 'pledges' to support reform during the election campaign when leverage against parties is at its peak. These sorts of political promises to at least hold a referendum on reform were key in getting reform implemented in New Zealand.


5) After the question of the need for a referendum and the threshold for a referendum, the next most important technical detail is the wording of the question.

The 2005 B.C. referendum asked the following question:

"Should British Columbia change to the BC-STV electoral system as recommended by the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform?

-> Yes

-> No"

The 2009 referendum asked the following question:

"Which electoral system should British Columbia use to elect members to the Provincial Legislative Assembly?

-> The existing electoral system (First Past the Post)

-> The single transferrable vote electoral system (BC-STV) proposed by the Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform"

I believe it was the change in wording of the question which accounted for the large majority of the drop in support for reform from 58% to 38% from 2005 to 2009. I realize it is perhaps insulting to accuse at least 20% of the voting public of being so irrational as to choose an electoral system based on how the question is posed to them, but nonetheless I believe that to be the case. If true, it certainly casts doubt on the legitimacy of using referenda to decide such questions since there would be such a large percentage of the population seemingly incapable of understanding what they are being asked.

At any rate, a little bit of polling could establish:
a) The impact of the question on people's willingness to support reform
b) The specific wording of the question that would most tend to encourage people to vote in favour (I suspect that the B.C. 2005 question, which framed the question as whether to positively accept a recommendation from a citizen's assembly would be close to ideal, as opposed to the 2009 question which asked people whether to keep the status quo or vote for some strange sounding proposal

I don't know what Fair Vote Canada's finances are like, but my opinion is that this type of research (which would have global applicability and thus could be coordinated through Fair Vote Org) has the best chance of producing concrete results towards achieving reform.

6) In Canada, the failure of 4 referendums in 4 years to achieve reform makes it difficult to pursue further reform in the short term. One solution may be to emulate the Conservative strategy for achieving Senate reform, and try to break the problem down into achievable 'bite-size' chunks.

6 b) One of the best candidates for this gradualist approach might be to support a switch to instant-runoff voting. Although instant runoff voting would not cure problems of disproportionality it would accomplish a few things:

- it would show that changing the way we vote doesn't cause the end of the world (much in the same way that getting rid of the penny would likely lead to increased support for getting rid of the nickel)

- it would eliminate the need for strategic voting

- by eliminating the need for strategic voting, it would weaken the forces working against 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc. parties, reducing the pressure from the FPTP system to reduce us back to two parties - a pressure which is in turn a threat to reform, since the more the party system fragments, the more parties supporting reform there are likely to be, the less power the main parties will have, and the more dysfunctional the current archaic FPTP system will be shown to be

One advantage of instant runoff voting is that, unlike proportional representation which is typically supported by those parties which will never gain the power under the current system to implement it, instant runoff voting tends to support centrist parties which in turn tend to win elections, meaning it may be possible for reformers to ally with a centrist party which would see instant runoff voting as being in their interest which would likely guarantee passage of this reform.

6 c) Following this train of thought, it might be possible to package reform 'products' that are suitable to different parties. An agreement to support Senate Reform in return for support on Electoral Reform for Right Wing parties, a package to implement PR for parties that normally are disadvantaged by the old FPTP system, a package that includes instant runoff voting for a centrist party with rivals on either side of the left-right spectrum.


7) In terms of gaining support for reform in a referendum, having politicians in an MMP type system get elected based on party lists is a very big weakness. I don't like this aspect of MMP much myself, and I'm as strong a supporter of reform as they come.

It is critical, in my opinion, to find another way to choose the candidates that make up the numbers in an MMP type system

- My favourite option would be to simply take the 'best seconds,' so that if, for example, the NDP was due 5 additional seats under MMP than what it was awarded under the old FPTP system, instead of having the 5 NDP candidates pulled from a list made by NDP party members/leaders, we would simply take the 5 NDP candidates who got the highest percentage of the vote in their riding without being elected under FPTP.

The primary advantage here is that it removes the party list from the equation.

Secondary advantages are that it requires very little modification from the current system and that it is simple, easy to understand, and seems like a fair way to go about things.

The one drawback I see is the notion that some ridings may get more MP's than others, but I think this could be mitigated a bit, and is outweighed by the positives. I imagine the electoral reform experts out there could offer more possible solutions to this dilemma.

8) Reformers need to work as closely as possible with all political parties, and indeed should join parties and try to change them from the inside as well. Situations like the one in 2005 where the B.C. Green Party decided to commit suicide by not supporting reform should be avoided where possible. Parties on a growth curve and likely to have to battle against FPTP's biases could be a particular focus of outreach (e.g. the B.C. Conservative Party)

9) On the communications front, I think that reformers can do more with electronic media. The referendums have proven that the mainstream media is implacably opposed to reform but that media is dying. In the 2005 B.C. referendum I tracked the opinions of bloggers on reform, and, as you might expect given that the more youthful, urban and informed people are the more likely they are to support reform, the bloggers who offered an opinion were overwhelmingly in favour (by a margin of 57-15, i.e. 79% support).

The ideal situation would be for there to be a 'Michael Geist' of electoral reform. i.e. A blogger supporting electoral reform, that focusses on Canada and is written by someone who is respected, tireless, intelligent, read by many, candid, politically savvy, and influential. No, I don't have anyone in mind, but I think that having someone (ideally a few someones) who can serve as a go-to place for information and tactics on supporting reform as well as serving as a focussing device for directing the support of all the reformers out there can be very effective, as Geist has shown.

Of course, there is no point in giving up on the MSM, as even though they are dying, they are still pretty powerful and the people they do reach tend to be the ones who vote. Meetings with editorial boards, consistent letter writing, both 'to the editor' and directly to columnists on the political beat are probably still effective tools in the battle for public opinion.

10) Still on communications, there is a need for consistent framing and messaging as well. You might notice that I almost never refer to our current outdated, outmoded, archaic, antique electoral system without inserting an adjective suggesting that it is past its best-before date. There's probably more scope for this sort of thing, both negative terms for the current system and those who support it, and motherhood-esque terms for reforms and those who support them (sadly, 'pro-choice' is taken - Americans are the experts at this sort of thing and are likely the best source of ideas in this area).

11) One last point on communication, the development of clear visuals, phrases, youtube videos, etc. that drive home key points of the reform message and counteract some of the concerns people have, should be a priority.

For example, in B.C. the videos that explain STV are useful tools in both informing voters and in fighting the notion that STV is 'too complex'.

Another example of a useful graphic might be one showing a map of the world over time, with the various parts of the world changing to some friendly colour as countries around the world adopt various forms of proportional representation (perhaps with titles for major reforms such as the switch to MMP in Germany and New Zealand, the adoption of PR in Wales, Scotland, Norther Ireland, etc.)

This would serve to counter the idea I feel many people have that our current system is 'normal' and that any proposed reform is some sort of aberration that has never been tried before.

It would also help to create an air of inevitability around the notion of reform which is also helpful, in my opinion.

12) Supporters of reform need to get behind whatever reform is offerred rather than quarreling amongst themselves or letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Supporters of MMP in B.C. who voted against STV because they preferred MMP are stuck with FPTP for the foreseeable future.

One way to avoid this problem is to follow the New Zealand example of first having a referendum to decide which reform is best, and then voting on whether to implement it or not. You may still get some people opposing reform, but I think they are less likely to do so when they know their preferred option was defeated in a referendum, as opposed to having been excluded by a citizen's assembly process or by some internal political party policy development process.


I'll end this rambling post on a point of optimism for the future of reform. As I mentioned earlier, the results in B.C. and Ontario both showed the highest support for reform in the most urban ridings which also tend to be the youngest ridings. This suggests that support may rise naturally over time as the population becomes more urban and as the opponents of reform die off. There is a common expression that science 'advances funeral by funeral' and it might be the same sort of long term battle that is required to get electoral reform adopted in Canada.

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9 Comments:

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Greg, at 8:19 AM  

  • Seriously, I think your third point is the best option at this point. Use FPTP against itself. Though, you can bet if it ever happened, every MSM outlet in this country would suddenly say that a "majority government" is not good enough to pass electoral reform. So, God help us, if someone like Bob Rae ever becomes PM , because arguments like that one, robbed Ontario of public auto insurance.

    By Blogger Greg, at 8:21 AM  

  • Great post, Declan. A few responses:

    1. As long as parties remain in charge of the process, they can easily sabotage it with relative impunity. A case in point - the STV campaign tried hard to persuade the government to distribute an updated version of the Citizens' Assembly report for the 2009 referendum. The government refused and the NDP and the MSM made no fuss.

    2. I agree with the need to get rid of a 60% threshold, but that takes significant resources to fight - maybe a court case? It's probably better to contemplate approaches that avoid the need for a referendum altogether (eg, by building a consensus across so many groups that it becomes politically impossible to resist implementing the consensus solution).

    3. Turning FPTP against itself - it's certainly true that a government has the right to make changes to voting laws through simple legislation (and has done so many times - that's how BC lost both multimember districts and the alternative vote, but also how it gained the alternative vote in the first place, along with many extensions to enfranchisement. Federally, Chretien implemented finance reform), but we know that a government that wins power on 35-40% of the vote won't bring in any form of proportional representation. This approach may get us the baby step of the alternative vote, however.

    4. FVC does try to extract pledges, but it doesn't yet have critical mass or widespread media exposure. If it could work to pull together a broad range of organizations on a particular set of principles and perhaps even a proposed process, then these organizations could lend it the weight it would need to extract pledges.

    5. The question of the impact of the wording of the question is undetermined. A poll conducted by UBC political scientists (http://thetyee.ca/Views/2009/07/08/WhoKilledSTV) shows that the main reason STV lost support this time around was that Liberal supporters abandoned it in droves (support dropped from ~50% to ~20% amongst Liberal party voters). I suspect the wording was less important.

    6. Totally agree - IRV/AV/Choice Voting is a useful and achievable advance. Making a change will, in my view, whet people's appetite for more.

    I'll try to respond to your other points later. Thanks again for writing.

    By Anonymous Tony, at 9:07 AM  

  • If true, it certainly casts doubt on the legitimacy of using referenda to decide such questions since there would be such a large percentage of the population seemingly incapable of understanding what they are being asked.

    I'd edit this to apply to *any* mildly complicated questions. Indeed, I wonder whether the Secession Reference could be cited in support of ending the practice of producing "primed" referendum questions.

    By Blogger Josh, at 2:00 PM  

  • Sorry for the slow replies, busy week/weekend!

    Greg - please don't remind me about the debate over public auto insurance in Ontario, I'm trying to stay positive these days.

    Tony - yes, I agree completely on point #1, that is perhaps the biggest obstacle that reform faces.

    on #2/#3 - I agree also.

    on #4 - I'm glad to hear that Fair Vote is on the case. I guess just more pressure and publicity is what is needed here.

    On #5 - saying that Liberal support dropped is interesting, but there's no good reason *why that support should have dropped so much. My conviction that the question was influential was due in large part to my own instinctive reaction to reading the question. The way it was written, it would be hard for anyone conservative by nature (including most Liberal voters in BC I suspect) to check the 'lets change the status quo' box.

    Josh - yeah, I think electoral reform is probably the worst case for people not having an opinion, but you could extend the same reasoning to other cases as well, for sure.

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:56 PM  

  • "I sincerely hope that there are some academic types out there studying and analyzing this period in Canadian politics."

    For one:
    Matthew Søberg Shugart, “Inherent and Contingent Factors in Reform Initiation in Plurality Systems,” in To Keep or Change First Past the Post, ed. By André Blais. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    I think your point 1 is mostly right, and I build much of the paper around the notion of point 3: reform advances as far as it has in Canada (and elsewhere, including NZ where it obviously has advanced a lot farther) only when FPTP has turned against itself, so to speak.

    As for Alternative Vote, I would argue that it is worse than FPTP for those of us who advocate pluralism in our legislatures. Its use in Australia for many decades certainly does not seem to have advanced the cause of PR in the House of Representative--and this in spite of the fact that Australians do know PR (as they have it in the Senate).

    As a path to PR, AV is a dead end. And as an end in itself, it is a path best not taken. And AV is by far the best of the various systems that could be called "instant runoff."

    By Blogger MSS, at 11:56 AM  

  • (1) I had to chuckle when I read this: There’s probably more scope for … motherhood-esque terms for reforms and those who support them (sadly, ‘pro-choice’ is taken - Americans are the experts at this sort of thing and are likely the best source of ideas in this area). In fact, we Americans have become experts at giving everything more than one name and then quibbling among ourselves about which one offers the best “framing” of our issue. So, along side the alternative vote (AV), we have both instant runoff voting (IRV) and ranked choice voting (RCV). Along side STV we have choice voting (no acronym), RCV (in some places), and even IRV (in at least one city).

    (2) In the Canadian context, I agree with MSS’s comment that AV is more likely to be a dead end than a stepping stone to PR. I’m still a long way from convinced that the same is true in the U.S., where I am.

    Also, I have read MSS's paper, "Inherent and Contigent Factors ..." and highly recommend it.

    (3) I think this survey provides the best insight I know of into the recent B.C. election results.

    (4) Parties are not going to push electoral reform because of pressure on them from good government reformers. They will push reform when a different electoral system would serve their partisan interests better.

    By Blogger Bob Richard, at 4:19 PM  

  • Thanks for the feedback, Matthew and Bob.

    I'll have to look up that paper (and perhaps the whole volume) and perhaps rethink the support for Alternative Vote / Instant Runoff type reform - although I do feel that in the Canadian context it would support non-central parties which in turn would help the long term prospects for reform. It is true that its not helpful on the proportionality front.

    But maybe I'm just tired of 'strategic' voting and hoping that a new far right party will be created and gain strength in order for us to get a (relatively) left-center government elected.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:02 PM  

  • Another discussion that you might find useful is by Lewis Baston, based on the political situation in the U.K. He thinks the effects of switching from plurality to AV are different in different circumstances. AV would probably help the Lib Dems in the U.K. because they are (on most issues) in between the two larger parties. But it would often make landslide victories by one party even even more lopsided than plurality does.

    Also, Matthew has started this discussion of AV versus plurality on his blog.

    By Blogger Bob Richard, at 3:35 PM  

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