For those who don’t know, at the end of Second World War the victorious Allies governments imposed Mixed Member Proportional Representation on West Germany.
They did this specifically to prevent the rise of another Hitler. Although these powerful government leaders clearly understood this, they chose not to follow the same path for their own nations. Presumably they believed such limitation on their own power wasn’t necessary. Just as Canada’s current Prime Minister doesn’t feel his power needs limitation.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if there is a good Prime Minister or a bad one. It doesn’t matter if there’s a bad government in place or not.
What matters in a representative democracy is that voters secure representation in Parliament. All Canadians need representation, period. Just as Canadians need the Charter, in times of good or bad. Like the Charter, representation provides citizens with security.
Had Harry Truman implemented such a change on the USA, the likelihood of a Trump presidency would be nil.
Winston Churchill knew Proportional Representation was a defence against fascism.
Here’s the thing: fear and dog whistle politics are a powerful tools used over and over again in winner-take-all systems because they work. One of the things so dreadfully wrong with winner-take-all politics is that the governments we elect are so unaccountable to voters, it isn’t a question of whether they will keep all their promises, it is a question of which promises they will keep. And, incredibly, we accept that. We have been conditioned to understand they won’t keep all their promises. No doubt this is a major reason the young and the idealistic don’t engage in politics: they see it for a sham, and choose to invest their energies elsewhere.
The Canadian MSM is now reminding us that all the MPs in Parliament — including those Conservative Leadership Candidates seeking to ride a wave of prejudice to 100% power in Parliament — voted in support of Mr. Mulcair’s October Petition. This was long before 6 Quebec Muslims were murdered at prayer.
Mr. Speaker, following discussions with all parties in the House, I hope you will find consent for the following motion. I move:
That the House join the 69,742 Canadian supporters of House of Commons e-petition (e-411) in condemning all forms of Islamophobia.
So what has happened? Do these Conservative Leadership Candidates feel a majority of their constituents approve of gunning down Muslims at prayer?
I don’t believe that for a minute.
But our winner-take-all political system allows for the distribution of a disproportional amount of power.
In a winner-take-all system like ours, Ms. Leitch doesn’t need a majority of Conservative Party Members to support Islamaphobia in order to win her party’s leadership crown. Nor does she even need to attract a majority of voters to become the Prime Minister of Canada.
So long as we continue to use this First Past the Post Electoral System, the right dog whistle can win a 39% (or less) majority.
It doesn’t matter if we have a few women or minority MPs in the House of Commons.
We are staring in the face of the polarization inherent in FPTP. This whole hullaballoo starkly contrasts what happens when a powerful old white male MP puts forward a Motion condemning Islamaphobia with what happens when a young ethnic woman MP does.
And it is a not pretty picture.
But it happens. And it will keep on happening so long as we retain an electoral system that rewards dog whistle politicians with more than their fair share of power.
Canada needs real Real Change.
It does not have to be this way. In spite of his totally specious arguments to the contrary, Prime Minister Trudeau’s disavowal of his electoral reform promise not only paves the way for institutional racism, it fuels Islamaphobia. If Ms. Khalid (and other Liberal MPs) want to change this dreadful FPTP side effect, it is time they told their leader he must restore the Electoral Reform process and show leadership to get Proportional Representation legislation through Parliament by October.
Because if Canada wants to be a healthy multicultural democracy, we must have Proportional Representation.
At this time of writing, Petition e-616 is up to 120,651 signatures. If everyone who has already signed it can convince 2 Canadians to sign it our chance of having Proportional Representation implemented by 2019 will be greatly improved.
Unlike previous electoral reform referenda in Canada, the PEI process did a pretty good job of informing voters. If you watch the video below and those that follow, you’ll see the array of very nice explainer videos put out by Elections PEI
The tiny province of Prince Edward Island has taken the first step in leading Canada toward better democracy. Bravo!
This is the nineteenth in the Whoa!Canada: Proportional Representation Series
Although you’d hardly know it from our friends in the Main Stream Media, there is an Electoral Reform Consultation going on right now.
I’ve been trying to raise awareness of Proportional Representation because that is the only way we will get the *real* real change Canada so desperately needs. Like most Canadians, I used to think Government Consultations were just for experts. It never occurred to me that a consultation was meant to consult with all Canadians until I was found myself involved in the 2009 Canadian Copyright Consultation in 2009. More than eight thousand Canadians submitted written submissions, and my understanding is that was the best response any Canadian consultation has ever had until then.
Even though most Canadians lack the requisite background in electoral systems, we don’t need to be experts to know the system we’ve been using isn’t working. I don’t understand how my car’s engine actually works, but I certainly know when it doesn’t. At this time, Canadians need to make sure the Special Committee on Electoral Reform knows that we do want Proportional Representation.
Stand Up For Proportional Representation.
The government needs to know Canadians are not satisfied with our electoral system and that we want Proportional Representation because we care about our democracy. Since a petition requires so little effort, although helpful, especially with many signatures) your signature on a petition is not given as much weight as a form letter. The most weight is given to personal contact. Talking to your MP on the phone ore in person has a lot of weight: it demonstrates how important the issue is to you.
Even if you don’t say a word, even if you are just there to learn, attending any Electoral Reform discussion night or town hall near you is very important, because your presence demonstrates your commitment to electoral reform.
If your MP hasn’t announced a town hall, call them up or send them an email. All our MPs are all supposed to have a Town Hall. Conservative MPs seem to be avoiding holding Town Halls. If your MP is Conservative, tell them Conservative voters deserve to be consulted too.
Attend a Community Dialogue, or even set up your own Canadian Community Dialogue
3. Catch up on what the Committee has done in the meetings so far… I’ve included links to the video, as well as the evidence transcripts and the witness briefs that have been posted to find out what experts have been saying in their submissions.
Participate on Twitter
—TWITTER: The Committee monitored the Twitter feed #ERRE#Q for comments and questions from Canadians during the committee meetings, some Twitter questions were posed to the witnesses in real time.
Unfortunately, instead of helping inform their constituents, the Conservative members of the committee @ScottReidCPC@BlakeRichardsMP are working hard to delay or derail the Electoral Reform Consultation by concentrating their greatest efforts in demanding an Electoral Reform Referendum. Proportional Representation isn’t a partisan issue; all it means is that voters will get better representation in Parliament.
The more we can share information through our social media accounts the greater the public awareness.
Make your own presentation to the ERRE Committee in person
—Requests to appear may be sent to the Committee by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by using the appropriate button on the Committee’s website. Please note that the Committee clerks will contact only those who are selected by the Committee members to appear. Requests to appear must be submitted to the Committee no later than October 7, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. (EDT).
If you keep an eye out you may get a chance to jointhe Honourable Maryam Monsefand/or #ERRE Committee on their Electoral Reform Road Trip.
—WRITTEN SUBMISSIONS: Any person or organization can submit a brief to the Committee. To be accepted, the brief must be no more than 3,000 words in length (including the summary and footnotes) and be submitted to the Committee no later than October 7, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. (EDT). The Committee recommends highlighting any recommendations to support the principles set out in the motion mentioned above. Briefs may be sent to the Committee by email (email@example.com) or by using the appropriate button on the Committee’s website. Once they are translated, briefs will be distributed to the Committee members and posted on the Committee’s website.
It is probably best to begin with the principles defined by the Government:
The following five guiding principles may help you think about what you want from federal elections, your Member of Parliament (MP) and your federal government. They can help you decide what is important to you when it comes to potential changes to our democracy at the federal level by considering how any proposed reforms might:
Restore the effectiveness and legitimacy of voting, such as by reducing distortions and strengthening the link between voter intention and the electoral result
Encourage greater engagement and participation in the democratic process, including by underrepresented groups
Support accessibility and inclusiveness of all eligible voters, and avoiding undue complexity in the voting process
Safeguard the integrity of our voting process
Preserve the accountability of local representation
Why are these principles important?
The principles were identified as a means to encourage a thoughtful, substantive dialogue about what Canadians expect from their electoral system. Potential changes to Canada’s federal electoral system can be assessed through questions such as:
How could any proposed reforms strengthen effectiveness and legitimacy by better reflecting the democratic will of Canadians?
How could any proposed reforms foster civility, cohesion and openness in politics that will help encourage Canadians to take part?
How could any proposed reforms enhance the sense among Canadians that they can contribute to, participate in and influence politics?
How could any proposed reforms support accessibility and inclusiveness for all Canadians in our diverse society?
How could any proposed reforms ensure that Canadians can trust election results?
How could any proposed reforms affect MPs’ accountability to citizens?
Then it might be an idea to take a look at some of the written submissions other Canadians have posted here. (Unfortunately the submissions from the experts and ordinary Canadians are jumbled together. Some people who submit are experts but this is a way for all Canadians to be heard. Although I have absorbed far more than I ever wanted to know about this, I am not an expert. And I will be writing my own sumbission, which I will post here in Whoa!Canada so you will be able to read it (and maybe borrow some of my ideas for your own submission). The idea is to let the Government (through the ERRE Committee) know what you want them to do.
Your written submission does NOT have to be a scholarly essay (although it can be if you want it to be). The maximum size is 3,000 words.
This isn’t a test, there are no wrong answers, the government is only asking for our opinions if we have them, and if we do, this is a chance for us to be heard. This process is really for us.
Your submission is entirely up to you; it can be as detailed or not as you like. If you have only one thing to say, it might just as easily be a single sentence. Maybe something like:
I want Canada to adopt some form of Proportional Representation.
This article is part of my Proportional Representation for Canada series to help demystify electoral reform. More info is available on my PR 4 Canada Resources page, and I keep adding material as I find it. Please share any articles and materials about electoral reform you may find helpful. If I haven’t answered your questions yet, ask in a comment or send me an email.
I hope you will participate in one way or another.
Just being part of the process — even if it is just quietly listening at an Electoral Reform Town Hall — is a help because your participation will give them an idea whether we care about electoral reform.
Oh, and I almost forgot… the Ontario portion of the ERRE road show will be coming to Toronto on September 21st, 2016.
This is the ninth in the Whoa!Canada: Proportional Representation Series
Rep By Pop
Canadians have been arguing about how we should vote since before Confederation.
At that time, Upper Canada (what would become Ontario) and Lower Canada (what would become Quebec) had equal representation in government. When the system was initially put in place, the French population outnumbered the English, but by the time of Confederation, only about 40% were French. If Upper Canada’s George Brown had his way, the government of the new Dominion of Canada would be elected with Rep by Pop (Representation by Population) in which every vote cast across the Canada would be equal.
Since the regions that were to contemplating federation were unequally endowed in population, compromise was needed, so the decision was made to establish proportionate representation among the provinces.
Still, the idea of embracing Proportional Representation in order to attain electoral fairness didn’t die out. Voting reform has moved to the forefront as Canadians have become increasingly aware that our votes don’t count.
We tend to think the ballot has more power than it actually has because it is the public face of the election contest. It’s our user interface. Which is why it is important for the ballot to be easy for voters to understand— voters shouldn’t have to come out from behind the privacy screen in the voting station to ask the poll clerk how their ballot should be marked. Voters need to be able to indicate their preference if they are to have any hope of electing the Member of Parliament that will best represent them. But the ballot is still just one of the elements of electoral system design.
The procedure by which qualified voters determine who our representative will be is called an electoral system. The different elements that go together to make up an electoral system determine:
the structure of the ballot
how votes are cast
the way votes are counted, and
the criteria needed to win
At this point most Canadian electoral reformers have a very good idea which voting systems are more likely to go over well with Canadians. Because this is such a confusing topic, I have chosen to limit this article to the electoral systems that might be used in Canada.
Plurality or Majority
Only one winner is possible in a winner-take-all voting system. Just as it sounds, at the end of the election contest, one winner gets it all, the candidates who against them are losers, the citizens who voted for them are left without effective representation in Parliament.
FPTP First Past The Post • Single Member Plurality
The area within each province is divided into separate electoral districts, or ridings, each represented by a single member of Parliament. During an election, the successful candidate is the individual who garners the highest number of votes (or a plurality) in the riding, regardless of whether that represents a majority of the votes cast or not. The leader of the party that secures the largest number of seats in the House, and can therefore hold its confidence, is generally invited by the Governor General to be the prime minister and form government.”
And, of course, this is the voting system Mr. Trudeau vowed to replace.
AV Alternative Vote majority-preferential Preferential Voting PV Preferential Ballot PB Instant Runoff Voting IRV Ranked Ballot
The system is most accepted in single winner elections (as for Mayor or President,) but the system flaws have tends to be found wanting because it doesn’t produce outcomes very different than our current winner-take-all First Past The Post system.
Alternative Vote (AV):
This system is also known as preferential voting.
On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their riding 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 votes is dropped, and the second preferences on those ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates.
This process continues until one candidate receives the necessary majority.
Over the years Alternative Vote has been adopted here and there though out the world for varying periods of time. Here in Canada the province of British Columbia used AV in its 1951 and 1952 elections, and Manitoba used AV in its rural ridings for about three decades ending in the 1950s.
The only country that has used the Alternative Vote system at the federal level of government for any length of time is Australia, where this winner-take-all system was adopted in 1918. But the 1948 majority government decided to implement the Single Transferable Vote Proportional Representation to its Senate elections.
But a fresh review of the historical record shows that the 1948 decision was really the final stage in a frequently-deferred plan of parliamentary reform that goes back to Federation. Even before Federation, many prominent constitutional framers had expected the first Parliament to legislate for proportional representation for the Senate. Sure enough, the Barton government included Senate proportional representation in the original Electoral Act, but this was rejected in the Senate on the plausible ground that it would undermine the established conventions of strong party government.”
— Parliament of Australia: Why We Chose Proportional Representation
A mix of Alternative Vote (majority-preferential) and Proportional Representation (quota-preferential) can also be found in Australia’s provincial Upper and Lower Houses.
Although this system is so little used, the data is fairly consistent. New and small parties are allowed to participate, but the system is designed to funnel their votes back to the major parties, so although voters may be freer to actually vote for the candidate that would best represent their interests in Parliament, they are unlikely to ever elect them.
Because Alternative Vote raises the bar to 50%+1, Alternative Vote makes it even more difficult to elect women and minorities than under First Past the Post.
Alternative Vote is thought to provide an edge to centrist parties because centrist parties are likely to be the second choice of voters on both left and right. But this is still a winner-take-all system that leaves too large a proportion of Canadians without representation in Parliament. Adopting Alternative Vote would give the appearance of change while effectively retaining the status quo.
Does any electoral system have more aliases than Alternative Vote? Proponents of this system seem to be continually rebranding their favored winner-take-all electoral system, presumably to better market it to voters. This proliferation of names for the same system adds a great deal to the confusion around voting reform.
While Alternative Vote is a single system with many different names, the defenders of the status quo very often give the impression that Proportional Representation is a single electoral system. This tactic frees them to cherry pick the worst examples of problems found among the 90+ countries that have adopted Proportional systems over the last century or so to “prove” this will happen if we adopt Proportional Representation.
Proportional Representation is not a single electoral system, it is the name given to the family of electoral systems that share the principle of proportionality. The one good thing about Canada’s tardiness in attending the Proportional Representation party is the wealth of data from which we can learn about successes and failures experienced by other countries. This way we can avoid the pitfalls while cherry picking the features we need to get the benefits we want from electoral reform.
The phrase “Proportional Representation” describes the outcome of elections in which the voting system ensures seats in Parliament are won in the proportion in which votes are cast. Which is to say 39% of the votes would equal 39% of the power in the legislature.
At a glance, the Single Transferable Vote looks very much like Alternative Vote. After all, both systems make use of the ranked ballot.
Very often the proven benefits of STV (the Single Transferable Vote) are mistakenly cited as benefits that would be achieved with Alternative Vote.
Single Transferable Vote (STV):
Citizens in multi-member ridings rank candidates on the ballot.
They may rank as few or as many candidates as they wish.
Winners are declared by first determining the total number of valid votes cast, and establishing a vote quota (or a minimum number of votes garnered); candidates must meet or exceed the quota in order to be elected.
Candidates who receive the number of first-preference votes needed to satisfy the quota are elected. Any remaining votes for these candidates (that is, first-preference votes in excess of the quota) are redistributed to the second choices on those ballots.
Once these votes are redistributed, if there are still seats available after the second count, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is dropped and the second-preference votes for that candidate are redistributed.
This process continues until enough candidates achieve the quota to fill all available seats.
In order to retain the size of the legislature, riding boundaries would need to be redrawn, so existing electoral districts would be amalgamated into larger districts. Voters can vote exclusively for the candidates they feel would represent them best, and partisan voters would have the opportunity to rank the candidates in their favoured party. Single Transferable Vote achieves proportionality naturally, without giving political parties any extra advantage.
Single Transferable Vote achieves proportionality simply by increasing the number of MPs that would represent each district. When only a single winner is possible, every party scrambles to run the candidate most likely to win most of the votes. This generally results in a pretty homogeneous bunch of candidates; in Canada it almost always means a white male. This is why Canada has such an abysmal record of electing women and minorities to our legislature, in spite of our vaunted multicultural diversity. Around the world Proportional Representation has track record of electing more diverse governments that better represent the diversity of the electorate. STV seems to do this best.
As I understand it, the difficulty in applying STV to a geographically enormous country like Canada can be quite a challenge. In order to achieve a reasonable level of proportionality, there must be a large enough number of enough MPs. Nine to Twelve member districts would be ideal, but would prove impractical. Such a system would require a fair bit of made-in-Canada tweaking for STV to be made to work effectively across this great nation.
Still, this is the 21st Century. We live in a time when digital technology has made two way communication with far away people not only possible, but easy. The Internet helps shrink enormous geographic distances into workable communities.
MMP Mixed-Member Proportional MMPR MMPRS Additional Member System AMS
That’s the thing about MMP, it is an extraordinarily customizable system. Whenever anyone says, “this is MMP” and begins to explain it to you, chances are they are explaining their favoured rendition of it. The Canadian Government website’s description isn’t quite right, nor do I much like the UK Electoral Reform Society’s explanation of their version of MMP called Additional Member System as used in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Greater London Assembly.
What we all agree on is MMP is a hybrid system combining a Plurality and List PR systems, imposed on post WWII West Germany by the Allies.
The ballot comes in two parts, one side contains a list of candidates, and the voter marks an “X” beside the name of the chosen candidate.
The voter is expected to mark an “X” to indicate their favoured party on the other side of the ballot.
Everything is changeable.
Although the Candidate/Constituency side of the ballot is generally a First Past The Post ballot, it could just as easy be a ranked AV or STV style ballot. The Party side of the ballot also results in MPs, so the proportion of MPs on both sides is variable too. There might be more party MPs or less, or they could just as easily be the same.
But the most changable portion of the MMP vallot is the Party side. This is where we get into lists. There are three kinds of lists:
Closed List MMP The list of candidates is decided by the party. The party ranks its candidates in the order in which it wants them.
Open List MMP The list of candidates is included on the ballot, and the elector can vote for specific party candidate they like. This side of the ballot might be done with an “x” or it might be ranked.
Listless MMP As the name suggests, this system includes no list, like the Fair Vote mock Election MMPR ballots pictured here. In this type of system, the candidates on the first side are elected in the usual way, and the list side candidates are determined from among the candidates who were not elected. The party that needs 2 top-up candidates would get seats for their two unelected candidates who received the most votes.
Former Liberal Party Leader (and current cabinet minister) Stéphane Dion developed his own version of MMP he calls P3
DMP Dual Member Proportional Representation Dual-member Mixed Proportional
Dual Member Proportional (more formally known as Dual-member Mixed Proportional) is a proportional electoral system that was created by Sean Graham in 2013 with funding from the University of Alberta’s Undergraduate Research Initiative. It was designed to meet Canada’s unique needs and to bridge the gap between Single Transferable Vote and Mixed Member Proportional advocates.
— About DMP
Existing single member electoral districts would be amalgamated into 2 member ridings, so no new seats would need to be added to the Assembly. Each Party can field up to two candidates in each riding, but voters each cast only a single vote, either for an Independent candidate, or one of two ranked candidates running for a party (or only one party candidate if only one is nominated).
Each district would elect two MPs, the 1st candidate in the party with the most votes would win the first seat, and the second seat would be used to ensure overall proportionality.
A nice twist is that Independent candidates get a little edge; if an Independent candidate comes first or second, s/he will be guaranteed a seat.
This made-in-Canada Proportional system was been chosen to be one of the electoral systems included in the upcoming referendum scheduled to take place in November 2016 in Prince Edward Island.
So there you have it. If you are interested in more detailed information, both Fair Vote Canada and Wikipedia are good sources. Also, check out my PR4Canada resources page (which has a link in the sidebar).
Next up will be my Voting Glossary.
Although I will correct a typo, rearrange text for clarification or clean up other formatting errors without comment, when I make a substantive change to the content of an article published online, I always make note of it, as I am doing here: I’ve removed the following error of fact from the section about AV (Alternative Vote) above: “Since adopting AV, Australians have only ever managed to elect candidates from the three main parties to their House of Representatives.”
“Adam Bandt (Greens) is the member for Melbourne in the House of Representatives. Independents have been elected to the House, but usually after falling out with the party under whose banner they were originally elected. Greens are making inroads in inner Melbourne and Sydney as these areas become gentrified. Of course Greens get close to their fair share in the [Proportional] Senate despite its malapportionment.”
This is the seventh in the Whoa!Canada: Proportional Representation Series
First Past The Post (FPTP)
Although democracy seems like the best form of political system for citizens, there are different ways to go about it, and as with most things, some are more effective than others. England bestowed our single member plurality winner-take-all electoral system on our young nation in our very first Canadian federal election in 1867, and we’ve been using this First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system ever since. Canada has seen a lot of innovation since then — from automobiles through air travel to space exploration. Our lives have changed and improved in a wide variety of ways: indoor plumbing, universal health care, the internet — most things have improved and modernized… but not our electoral system.
Like many Canadians I have come to understand the serious democratic deficit inherent in our 18th century voting system, but I’ve had an opportunity to learn about the alternatives over the past few years. As I’ve mentioned before, I hear many of the same arguments against Proportional Representation used over and over again. One of the most pervasive arguments is the one that insists if we switch to a Proportional system it will necessarily be unstable and have to suffer many more elections than we do now.
So let’s compare the Canadian record of elections with countries that use some form of Proportional Representation.
The reason I decided to look at Israel, Italy and Spain are because these countries are the ones most often trotted out to “prove” just how bad Proportional Representation is.
But I was still interested in finding a Proportional Representation system that had actually had more elections than Canada. So next I looked Denmark, a country many Canadians admire because of its’ excellent social safety net. Denmark has used List PR since 1953 (but I’m not sure what they used before that). Since 1945, they have had 25 elections in 1945, 1947, 1950, 1953, 1957, 1960, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2011, 2015
Something else to keep in mind is that all three of these countries use List PR, which I’m pretty sure is the oldest form of Proportional Representation– and certainly the most commonly used. The thing that is important to understand is that List PR is one form of Proportional system that nobody is recommending for Canada.
So maybe we ought to take a peek at the proportional systems that are recommended for Canada, in countries that have a little more in common with us.
Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
After List PR, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) is the most common form of Proportional Representation used at the national level around the world, so it’s not surprising to learn that MMP is the system most often recommended for Canada.
New Zealand replaced their First Past The Post electoral system with Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) in 1996, and since then they have had just 7 elections, in 1996, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014 — the same as Canada.
The other form of Proportional Representation that has been considered for Canada is the Single Transferable Vote (STV). This system is not as widely used as the others, but it found a lot of favour here in the BC referendum, where more than 58% of BC voters voted to adopt it. As often happens, the government holding the provincial referendum didn’t actually want to change the electoral system that had given it a disproportional amount of power. Their referendum was designed to fail by requiring a super majority of 60% before BC-STV would be adopted. Last night Dennis Pilon remarked on the irony of BC referendum requiring a higher threshold of support to change its provincial electoral system than had been required by the Quebec secession referendum.
Admittedly, I have not made a comprehensive study, but it seems clear Canada’s First Past The Post system is less stable than many Proportional Representation systems.
National Stability with Alternative Vote (AV)
While Canada’s Liberal government has promised to replace our existing electoral system, it has not ruled out adoption of the winner-take-all Alternative Vote (AV), a voting system also known as “Preferential Voting” (PV), “Instant Runoff Voting” (IRV) and lately “ranked ballot.”
As we can see, Canada’s winner-take-all First Past The Post system has resulted in more elections than many of the least appealing Proportional Representation systems.
The evidence from Australia — the only country in the world to have used Alternative Vote for any length of time — shows the Alternative Vote system is much more unstable than Canada’s FPTP and indeed every Proportional Representation voting system I’ve looked at here.
This evidence demonstrates the “instability” argument against Proportional Representation is simply not true, and suggests
any electoral system that provides Proportional Representation is likely to result in *fewer* elections than we are used to with First Past The Post.
And if stability is an issue, adopting Australia’s Alternative Vote is far more likely to dramatically increase the number of elections we have.
What’s the difference between a Proportional Representation voting system and Alternative Vote?
If you’re in or near enough to Waterloo Region and can make it out to Kitchener City Hall tonight (that’s Thursday night), you’ll have a chance to find out from the experts when Waterloo city councillor (and former NDP candidate) Diane Freeman moderates a panel discussion between WLU’s Associate Professor of Political Science, Barry Kay and York University’s Associate Professor of Political Science, Dennis Pilon.
Barry Kay and Dennis Pilon will be talking about representative democracy and electoral reform, with special emphasis on the winner-take-all electoral system Alternative Vote (known variously as Instant Runoff Voting/Preferential Voting/ranked voting) and the many different ways in which Proportional Representation will be achieved.
But Alternative Vote isn’t a system the results in Proportional Representation. It’s another winner-take-all voting system, very much like the First Past The Post winner-take-all system we use now. I see no value in switching from one winner-take-all system to another.
But maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps Mr. Kay will enlighten me tonight.
After the talk there will be an audience Q & A, and who better to answer you questions than experts of this calibre.
This is the third in the Whoa!Canada: Proportional Representation Series
Lets start with the basics.
Sometimes human beings are loners, hermits who shun other humans. But that is rare.
Most human beings are social in nature. We want to be together, to live in proximity to other humans. We want to play together and we learn to work together. In order for people to co-exist, human society requires some sort of boundaries. Rules.
Individual humans start out as part of a family unit. The family unit fits into human society as part of some kind of tribe. In the modern world collections of tribes have come together to form countries. Each nation establishes its character in the style and form of policy and the framework of rules— laws— set down by its government.
There are two basic paths human beings have taken in our approach government.
Autocracy, Oligarchy, Totalitarianism, Dictatorship, Monarchy, Empire, Fascism… there are many different systems in which the government is all powerful and citizens are powerless. Such governments might choose to treat citizens benevolently. Or not. The government decides and the citizens have no choice but to comply.
Citizens very often prefer to have a say in their own governance, and this can be achieved with a democratic system of government.
According to political scientist Larry Diamond, it consists of four key elements: (a) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; (b) The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; (c) Protection of the human rights of all citizens, and (d) A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
The term originates from the Greekδημοκρατία (dēmokratía) “rule of the people”, which was found from δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (krátos) “power” or “rule”, in the 5th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens; the term is an antonym to ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratía) “rule of an elite”.
a direct vote of the qualified voters of a state in regard to some important public question.
the vote by which the people of a political unit determine autonomy or affiliation with another country.
In a country where qualified voters number in the millions, the closest we can get to direct democracy is through holding a special plebiscite in which all qualified citizens of a state can vote on an important issue. As digital technology progresses, there may come a time when all Canadian voters will be both qualified and able to vote electronically on every issue directly. But in today’s world, the closest we come to this is through the difficult and expensive mechanism known as a referendum.
Since it would be hard to fit millions of people into the Parliament Buildings, like most modern democracies, Canada uses a form of Representative Democracy. Instead of speaking for ourselves, all qualified citizens have the right to elect a representative we believe will best represent our interests in Parliament. Although some Canadians wish it were different, referendums are not a feature of the Canadian political system. In nearly a century and a half, our government has had only three referendums: on prohibition (in 1898), conscription (World War II) and whether to accept the Charlottetown Accord (Constitutional Amendments). Certainly our choice of voting system was not made through this mechanism.
The procedure by which qualified voters determine who our representative will be is called an electoral system. The different elements that go together to make up an electoral system determine:
the structure of the ballot
how votes are cast
the way votes are counted, and
the criteria needed to win
Although I have been breaking this down for simplicity, there are many ways to design electoral systems. Most (if not all) of the electoral systems in use around the world are hybrids, as ours here in Canada is. Our representative democracy is part of a constitutional monarchy; we share England’s monarch. In understanding our options, the most crucial distinction between types of electoral systems comes down to which family they are in.
Representative Democracy can be broken down into two main families: Winner-take-all or Proportional Representation.
Just as it sounds, a winner-take-all election is an “all or nothing” proposition. A election which can only have a single winner necessarily ends up with the single winner getting all the power.
And when elections can only produce a single winner, unless that winner achieved 100% of the votes, there will be losers, too. The candidate(s) who fails to win loses. Naturally, the citizens who didn’t vote for winner end up without any representation at all. They’re losers too.
A majority is defined as 50% + 1. If there are more than 2 candidates competing for a single seat, with First Past The Post the candidate doesn’t needs to win 50% + 1 ~ s/he just needs to win more votes than any of the others.
Because Canadians aren’t happy with only two political parties, very often we elect MPs with far fewer than 50% of the votes. In the 2015 Canadian Federal Election, 28.99% of the votes cast were enough to elect Bernard Généreux Member of Parliament for the Montmagny—L’Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup. That’s a long way from 50% + 1.
But even 50% + 1 can leave as many as 49.9% of voters without representation at all. That’s why I’ve become a fan of:
Proportional Representation isn’t the name of any single electoral system, it is a phrase that describes an electoral outcome where 39% of the vote can’t win 100% of the seats in Parliament. Proportional Representation ensures 39% of the votes wins 39% of the seats.
Instead of polarizing citizens into winners and losers, a proportional system seeks to elect a government that reflects all citizens, by providing representation to all eligible voters. More than 90 countries around the world (85% of OECD countries) use some form of Proportional Representation, so there is a great deal of information about how such systems work.
As this series progresses, I’ll look at the different electoral systems that have been or might reasonably be on offer for Canada. If you aren’t already overwhelmed, I’ve provided links throughout the article so you can find out more detail from the supporting on your own.
The great resource is the grass roots multi-partisan organization that advocates for meaningful Canadian electoral reform: Fair Vote Canada. You can check out their website, but you’ll also find chapters across Canada. My local is the very active Fair Vote Waterloo Region Chapter.
I’m a Canadian. Like many I come from settler stock… my paternal ancestors emigrated to Canada before confederation (although my paternal grandmother didn’t arrive until the 1920’s), and my maternal ancestors fled the Russian Revolution. My husband’s family emigrated from the Netherlands in 1967.
I have always been happy to be Canadian, and Canada is a pretty good country to live in. The problem is that instead of getting better, far too much has gotten worse over the course of my lifetime.
When I was in high school, I wrote letters to Perrin Beatty, my local MP. And I was blown away when he called me to discuss my issues. So that’s how I thought it was supposed to work. But it’s different now. If a letter mailed to MPs or MPPs might elicit a response, it generally comes months later, and is far more likely to be a form letter than anything that actually responds to what I’ve written.
The issues that have bothered me throughout my adulthood never seem to get better; they’ve just multiplied. It isn’t that I’ve given up, but my voting has never made any difference. It took me a long time to understand that the fundamental problem is that although Canada is a representative democracy, it isn’t very representative. After voting in every election for more than 30 years, no one I have ever voted for has ever been elected to Parliament. Or Queen’s Park. Our representative democracy certainly has not represented me.
Whenever I vote, I cast my vote for the candidate I think will best represent my interests in Parliament. It’s not that I only vote for fringe parties, I have voted for all the majors at one point or another. What I started noticing is the candidates and parties that actually listen to citizens are those with no hope of getting elected this time. When winning a majority becomes a possibility, they stop listening to us and start telling us.
Naturally, off and on over the years I’ve been upset enough to join the odd protest in hopes of convincing this government or that to listen. But that too has rarely worked.
Voting has always been a futile exercise for me, so I was teetering on the brink of giving it up. Except… I’m a mother. Didn’t your mother ever tell you the sign of a good guest is to leave a place better than you found it? In an alarming number of ways, the Canada of today is much worse than the Canada I started with, and frankly, that isn’t the Canada I want to leave to my son, or any of the generations to follow.
Meaningful Electoral Reform
Many people think the act of casting a ballot makes for democracy. But I’ve been doing it my whole life and it it has never resulted in representation in Parliament. The problem in Canada is that some votes count more than others, while most don’t count at all. So it’s no wonder so many people give up on voting. Why waste your time doing something so pointless? Defenders of the status quo insist that all is well with our First Past The Post electoral system because all our votes are counted. But just because my vote is counted does not mean it counts.
Which is why I was on the verge of giving up myself, until I discovered our FPTP winner-take-all system isn’t the only democratic system. This is difficult for us because it’s the only way most of us have any familiarity with. Our system is based on the UK Westminster Parliament and although there are significant differences, the American presidential model of goverment is also a winner-take-all system. More formally known as “majoritan/plurality,” electoral systems that only allow for a single winner are “winner-take-all.” Elections in Canadian electoral districts result in a single winner. This winner only rarely wins a majority of votes, because s/he only needs to win the most votes. In a 5 candidate race that might mean as little as twenty something percent of the votes cast.
Our current majority Liberal government was elected with 39.5% of the votes cast by Canadians. This government replaced a majority Conservative government elected with 39.6% of the vote. The net result is that a majority of Canadians did not vote for the party that won all the power. A majority of Canadian votes didn’t count. The reality is that more eligible Canadian voters did not vote at all than voted for the Liberal Party (or the Conservative Party before them).
But this isn’t the way it has to be. We don’t have to settle for winner-take all politics, there are different kinds of voting systems that result in Proportional Representation. All that means is that 39% of the votes only deliver 39% of the power in Parliament. The reality is 90+ countries use some form of Proportional Representation.
And we could too.
It’s easy for Canadians to to get confused by the different factors because we have little or no experience with Proportional Representation. But if we are ever going to be able to solve the most important problems we face we must adopt some form of Proportional Representation. Since Canadians have given the Liberal Government an actual mandate to replace our unfair winner-take-all First Past The Post system following consultation with Canadians, it is incredibly important for us to become informed so we can achieve the meaningful electoral reform we need.
Although I’m not an expert, over the last few years I’ve been learning a lot about Proportional Representation. Over the next months I will do my best to share what I’ve learned with you. There’s so much to cover, so I plan on posting a new article in the series at least once a week (on Fridays) but more if I have time. If Canada is to truly be a Representative Democracy, we all need representation.
We are beginning to see a proliferation of Main Stream Media “journalism” about electoral reform. Canadian unfamiliarity with other electoral systems makes it incredibly easy for the main stream news media to get the facts wrong, and pass along misinformation as fact when discussing “Proportional Representation” and “Preferential Ballot/Alternate Vote/Instant Runoff Voting.”
Canada’s first federal government was elected with the antiquated First Past The Post electoral system, and that’s what we have used ever since. Like many Canadians, I’ve spent my life frustrated by unrepresentative and unaccountable governments, watching helplessly at the erosion of many of the things we hold dear. After having voted all my life without ever electing anyone, I was on the verge of giving up on our hopelessly undemocratic democracy when I discovered that it does not have to be this way.
As it turns out, there are many other ways to have representative democracy. 85% of OECD nations have some proportionality in their electoral systems, and in the wider world more than 80 countries have adopted Proportional Representation. And since so many countries have adopted the principle that votes should translate into representation, there are plenty of real world examples that furnish valuable information that allows us to see what works and what doesn’t.
Everything has changed so much since 1867, and we’ve adapted to so many things; it is high time our electoral system was modernized. Just as we have welcomed indoor plumbing and automobiles and the Internet, Canadians can as easily adopt Proportional Representation. With three of our four major political parties campaigning to get rid of First Past The Post in our 42nd federal election, it looks like we’ve finally found the political will to upgrade to a system that will better serve Canadians.
Although I’m no expert, I have learned a great deal about Proportional Representation from Fair Vote Canada. Since electoral reform is such an important topic, I have been making notes as I consider how best to share what I’ve learned about meaningful electoral reform. But John Ivison’s December 4th, 2015 National Post article “Liberals’ electoral reform vow an existential threat to the Conservative Party” required an immediate answer.
By way of refutation, I made some comments on the article. However, I know how easy it is for comments to get lost, particularly on a contentious issue, so I decided it best to incorporate them here.
“The repeated commitment to look at the prospect of electoral reform, specifically use of a preferential ballot system, represents an existential threat to the Conservative Party of Canada.”
People keep making this unsubstantiated claim about Alternate Vote (AV), the winner-take-electoral system the Liberals call “Preferential Voting” (PV), a system also sold under the name “Instant Runoff Voting” (IRV). While some people like the idea, this pronouncement is no more than wishful thinking.
The best information we have about AV/PV/IRV comes from Australia, the only country on earth to have stuck with this system for any length of time. Australia uses “Alternative Vote” in their lower house, and has done for decades. What we can see in the Australian example is that AV/PV/IRV has proven to be even more effective than First Past The Post at polarizing a political system into a 2 Party dance of alternating left-right majorities.
At least in Oz they are lucky enough to have an effective proportionally elected senate which has served as a check on majority excesses that would otherwise have occurred there. Although detractors deride it as legislative “gridlock,” the Australian Senate has actually been known to stop bad laws from being passed by majority governments. As Canadians are painfully aware, we have no such check on bad legislation here in Canada.
The point is that no matter what you call it, the adoption of Preferential Voting— aka Alternate Vote (AV) aka Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) aka “ranked ballot system” — will not disenfranchise the current Conservative Party. Quite the contrary; the Australian evidence suggests this system would be more likely to entrench the two-party system Canadians have resisted for so long. Far from being an existential threat, this electoral system would shore up the crumbling status quo at the expense of the smaller parties, freeing up the Conservative and Liberal Parties to govern alternately as they always have.
AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT immediately after the next election, an all-Party process be instituted, involving expert assistance and citizen participation, to report to Parliament within 12 months with recommendations for electoral reforms including, without limitation, a preferential ballot and/or a form of proportional representation, to represent Canadians more fairly and serve Canada better.
— Policy Resolution 31
The Liberal Party is divided on the issue of Preferential Ballot/AV/IRV or Proportional Representation. While some Liberals prefer the idea of Preferential Voting thinking it will give the Liberal Party an edge, many Liberals support Proportional Representation because they understand consensus government is the only way to a stable government that will be able to make long term policy and pass properly formed laws that will stand the test of time. Since all the evidence supports the adoption of an electoral system that will ensure Proportional Representation, my Liberal friends assure me their party’s devotion to evidence based policy will win out and Proportional Representation will be chosen for the good of all. The real question may well be whether the new Prime Minister will be swayed by the evidence.
Mr. Ivison’s suggestion that Proportional Representation fails to provide “directly elected MPs to represent their communities” demonstrates his failure to understand that Proportional Representation is not the name of a single electoral system. Instead, “Proportional Representation” describes any electoral system resulting in a Parliament that represents voters in the proportion in which votes have been cast. All that really means is 39% of votes will give a party 39% of the seats. It will not allow 39% of the votes to give a single party 100% of the power, which is what happens under a winner-take-all system like the one we we have now.
There are many ways to achieve a proportional electoral system. Over the last decade or so ten independent Canadian commissions, assemblies and reports made by Canadians have studied the problem of electoral reform, and *all* have recommended adoption of Proportional Representation. And of these recommendations, each and every system recommended for Canada includes directly elected MPs to represent their communities.
Although Canadians tend to have no direct experience of Proportional Representation, there is no shortage of information about the many ways of achieving such a system. We have the examples of of more than 80 OECD nations that have adopted such systems over the last century or so. If the news media wishes to inform Canadians about electoral options, we would be better served if journalists like Mr. Ivison would provide us with factual information. The grass root multipartisan group Fair Vote Canada has been studying proportional voting systems for more than a decade and has a great deal of good information on offer on the Fair Vote Canada website. My local Fair Vote Chapter has a wealth of info online as well.
For those of you (like me) who often learn best accidentally through good drama, you might want to check out “Borgen,” an excellent dramatic tv political series that plays out in the framework of Denmark’s system of Proportional Representation. Although similar to “House of Cards,” I enjoyed “Borgen” much more, subtitles and all. (You stop noticing them very quickly.) The popular Danish series has spread through the EU, and now North America, and was aired on TVO earlier this year. I hope TVO takes this opportunity to run it again, although it might be better if CBC were to pick it up so the show will be available across Canada. The entire series is available in a DVD box set; even if you don’t want to spring for it, your local library may be interested in carrying it, or getting it in through inter-library loan.
In the meantime, there are many good videos available on YouTube, including these I have assembled into an Electoral Reform Playlist.
What Canadians are accustomed to under our winner-take-all electoral system is alternating “majority” governments with a disproportionate amount of power.
What makes a government strong? Giving a single party 100% of the power based on 39% of the vote gives a single party government the power to dictate terms to the other 61% of Canadians. It that strength? It certainly doesn’t seem like democracy.
What makes for government stability? For many, it means fewer elections. But the fact is Canada has had more elections since 1945 than even the worst iterations of Proportional Representation.
For me real stability is policy and legislation that will stand the test of time….policy that lasts. And yet the first order of business for our new Liberal majority government is to undo many of the policies implemented by the outgoing Conservative majority government. It is this instability (known as policy lurch) that inclines many Liberals and Conservatives to reject winner-take-all First Past The Post electoral system. Adopting another winner-take-all system just doesn’t seem to make sense. If your house is falling down, fixing it, or moving to one that is more solid is a better solution than slapping on a coat of paint. Switching from First Past The Post to Preferential Voting/AV/IRV) is merely a superficial change like a coat of paint It might cheer us up because it looks better, but the problems will still be there.
The reality Canadians have today is an electoral system where some votes count more than others, but most votes don’t count at all. If we want real change, we need to choose a fair electoral system that will give us Proportional Representation, because all Canadians deserve an equal and effective vote to give us voice in parliament.