Our election reforms stay complex
Narrowing down knotty questions is not impossible
What exactly are the Liberals up to on electoral reform? The party was elected on a platform that pledged, in part, to ensure that “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” To that end it promised to appoint an all-party parliamentary committee to review the options for reform, with legislation to follow “within 18 months of forming a government.”
Yet here we are, five months after cabinet was sworn in, and the committee has yet to be struck. While Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions, is believed to be committed to the project, the suspicion lingers that more powerful figures in the prime minister’s office would not be overly concerned if it died the same death as other Liberal promises.
To be fair, the slow start may be rooted in genuine uncertainty over how to proceed. They can’t just renege, of course: not on such an explicit promise, or on such a major issue. Neither can they simply ram through their own preferred option, given the obvious partisan sensitivities involved. Either course would poison the rest of this Parliament, and make the new government look every bit as cynical and despotic as the government it replaced.
But suppose you were genuinely interested in giving a fair hearing to the alternatives, gathering consensus, and consulting the public, such that the final result, if not to everyone’s liking, was at least seen as legitimate? How would you go about it?
Is the usual parliamentary committee, dominated as it is by the governing party, enough? Or should the parties be represented, as the NDP has suggested, in proportion to their share of the popular vote? Should the process be taken out of the hands of the parties altogether, whether through a royal commission or an assembly of ordinary citizens?
And that’s just the start. How should whatever was proposed be ratified? Many have suggested a referendum is in order. Fine: on what? Should they be asked to approve a particular reform proposal, or choose between a menu of options? By what voting system? With what majority? And so on?
These are all knotty questions. Still, it should be possible to narrow things down a bit. We are not starting from scratch here, after all. Recent years have seen two major consultative exercises on electoral reform, in British Columbia and Ontario, both involving citizens’ assemblies. We can build on their work.
And while the theoretical possibilities are limitless, in the broad stroke the design of electoral systems comes down to how you answer a couple of large questions. First, should it be “winner take all,” in which only the winning candidate in each riding is elected, or proportional? Put another way, should ridings be represented by one member or several — since it is by dividing a riding’s representation among several members, in proportion to their share of the popular vote, that proportionality is achieved.
Second, should voters simply mark an x beside the candidate (or candidates) of their choice, or should they rank them in order of preference (1,2, 3 …), a system known as ranked or preferential voting?
And third, how might these be combined? Any system of single-member districts, for example, is “winner take all”: the only differ- ence between first past the post and ranked balloting in this regard is whether a simple plurality or majority of the vote is sufficient.
Multi-member voting models differ mostly in how many members are elected from each district. Combine ranked balloting with relatively small districts, say five members, and you get the “single transferable vote” (STV) system in use in, for example, Ireland. Make the districts larger and fewer, and combine them with single-member ridings, and the result is the “mixed member proportional” (MMP) model, as used in New Zealand.
There are further possible combinations. STV can include some single-member districts, where the ridings would otherwise be dauntingly large. MMP, for its part, is often said to require the use of lists of candidates drawn up by party leaders. But in fact this is not so. Who gets on a party’s list can be decided by a vote of party members at large; voters, likewise, need not be obliged to vote for a party’s slate, but can vote directly for the candidates of their choice from each list.
Assuming we decide this by referendum, how then should we proceed? I’d argue we can eliminate one option off the top: the status quo. Not only did the Liberals explicitly run on its abolition, but so did the NDP, the Greens and Bloc. So while it is true the Liberals do not have a mandate for any particular reform, it would seem perfectly democratic to make the referendum question a choice between reform models, rather than between reform or the status quo.
I suspect a preliminary canvassing of opinion will pretty quickly find support divides into the three broad camps I mentioned: ranked ballots (i.e., in single-member districts), STV, and MMP. Let teams of parliamentarians, then, assemble around these, with instructions to hammer out a detailed proposal for each to put to the people.
Finally, it would be pretty odd to choose a reform using the first-past-the-post system of voting, with the spectre of whatever emerged slipping through with the support of 40 per cent or less of the public. So to ensure reform has broad public support, why not decide the referendum using a ranked ballot?
Over to you, Liberals.
TO BE FAIR, THE SLOW START MAY BE ROOTED IN GENUINE UNCERTAINTY OVER HOW TO PROCEED.