Friday, May 13, 2016

The quagmire of electoral reform in Canada

Here's a subject I have been kind of trying to avoid, but it does need to be tackled, so here goes. The "new" Liberal government here in Canada (how long can I keep saying "new"? - the shine came off a while ago now...) came to power vowing that the last election would be the last one ever held under the traditional first-past-the-post (FPTP) system of elections, which is generally understood to favour the Conservative Party most as things currently strand in Canadian politics, but which also served to boost the Liberals' win in this particular case. This means that we need to choose an alternative, which is where the problems begin.
So, what are the alternatives, and which is best? Well, how long do you have...? Paring the issue down to basics, the main alternatives are probably the following:
  • instant run-off vote (also called alternative vote or the transferable ballot): voters rank the candidates in order and, after the first choices are counted, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second choices on those ballots are added to the candidate totals; if there is still no majority winner, the next-bottom candidate is dropped and the second choices on those ballots added to the totals, etc. It's is a rather convoluted and complicated process, but this is the system used in Australia, for example, and is the Liberal Party's favourite (and, wouldn't you know it, models suggest it favours the Liberal Party most).
  • party list proportional representation: before the election, each party prepares a list of candidates in order; voters then vote for a party, not a specific candidate, and each party is allocated a number of seats based on their popular (country-side, or region-wide) vote percentage, which it then fills from its candidate list. Thus, the parties not the voters themselves choose which individual members get to sit in parliament, but the relative party numbers are a good match for the popular will of the people. Several countries in Europe and Scandinavia use this system, and it is the system favoured by the NDP (which, you guessed it again, benefits the most in Canadian models).
  • mixed-member proportional representation: allows for a combination of direct election of members from regional ridings and proportional representation, as each riding elect its own MP (usually using the FPTP system), but in addition voters also vote for a party, and additional MPs are allocated to each party so that the final breakdown of seats reflects the overall party popular vote. This system is used in Germany and New Zealand, among others.
  • single transferable vote: voters fill in ranked ballots and, if a particular candidate wins and exceeds the pre-determined "quota" for that riding, the "surplus" second-choice votes above the quota are transferred proportionately to other candidates, so that they are not "wasted". This seems ridiculously complicated to me, but it is used in some jurisdictions, including Ireland and India.
  • single non-transferable vote: one voting ballot is used to elect more than one MP for each riding, depending on the size of the riding, with the candidates with the most votes all becoming members. This system is used in Afghanistan and Puerto Rico, and a few other countries.
  • mixed-member majoritarian system (also called parallel voting): a hybrid system whereby one part of the legislature is elected directly (e.g. by FPTP), while another part is elected by party list proportional representation, but without "compensating" for the overall popular vote like the mixed-member proportional representation system. It is used in many countries including Japan, South Korea and Mexico.
There are many other electoral systems, and other tweaks and hybridizations to these, but these are probably the main contenders. I may not have explained some of them very lucidly, but that's because I only have a vague notion of how they really work. And there's the rub, because if I - a reasonably intelligent, clued-in and politicized example of an average voter - don't really understand them, or can't visualize how they would work in practice, or what repercussions they may have, then what chance does a busy single mother or a politically apathetic plumber or an 18-year old school-leaver stand? If we were to have a referendum on the matter tomorrow, or even next year, would the result be particularly valid?
I have this feeling that I should, given my other beliefs, have a strong preference for a proportional representation system, probably the mixed-member PR model. But do I really hate the current system enough to get rid of it, and to take a running jump into the relatively unknown? It is probably no surprise that the last couple of referendums on electoral reform in Canada, in British Columbia and in Ontario, both resulted in strong preferences for the status quo first-past-the-post system, i.e. the devil we know.
Yes, FPTP exaggerates the stronger parties at the expense of the weaker or smaller ones, but it also allows for a party to win a majority mandate (and potentially to force through their own agenda). But I do worry that a PR system would just result in permanent minority governments, and effective policy stalemate.
Just to give one topical example, Spain, which operates under a party list proportional representation system, held inconclusive elections back in December 2015 and has spent the last 5 month trying, and failing, to negotiate a workable coalition. They will now hold another election in June 2016, and all the polls suggest that it will almost certainly return similar results. In the meantime, the Canadian government, elected under the much-maligned FPTP system, has already made substantial inroads into fulfilling its election promises, and has firmly established itself on the national and international political scene. There's something to be said for that.
A report in today's Globe and Mail graphically shows the effects that a couple of the alternatives might have had on the last Canadian federal election in October 2015. The actual first-past-the-post system resulted in a Liberal majority government with 184 seats, compared to 99 for the Conservatives, 44 for the NDP, 10 for the Bloc Quebecois, and 1 for the Greens. A party list proportional representation system in the same election would have yielded a reduced minority Liberal government with 144 seats, while the Tories would have had 67, the Bloc 16, and the Greens 3. The instant runoff system would have yielded an increased Liberal majority with 202 seats, compared to just 83 for the Tories, 46 for the NDP, 6 for the Bloc and 12 for the Greens. It's an interesting academic exercise, I suppose, but what does it really mean for the future, and how does it help me (and the single mothers, plumbers and school-leavers of the country) decide what is best?

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