Monday, June 20, 2016

Electoral Reform and Referenda


Most of us seem to support ending the First Past The Post electoral system. Our multi-party reality means that it is possible for one party to win a hefty majority of seats with what can be little more than the largest minority of votes. Governments elected by two out of five voters effectively rule over the three out of five that did not support them.

With a benevolent, open and democratically-minded government prepared to heed views other than its own the outcome can be, if not ideal, at least workable. Recent experience has shown us that will not always be the case and then the government can become tyrannical. We don't want a repeat of the Harperian era and the best way to achieve that is voting reform.

It would be great if there was one, perfect solution to FPTP. Flip the switch from A to B. Yet there are more than one option and varying permutations of each. The choices present a confusing array of strengths and drawbacks, the perception of which may be further clouded by political persuasion.

Should the choice be based on which party each system allegedly favours? Should the choice rest with a slate of core benefits offered by the competing systems? Should we modify not just our votes but the composition of the legislature itself to accommodate both elected and appointed law makers?

Then there's the debate over whether proposed voting system change should be put to a referendum. Should eligible voters get to choose how they will vote?

The referendum idea sounds great. What would be more democratically empowering than to allow voters to decide how they will vote? Yet it is an idea fraught with drawbacks.

A huge problem is the decision-making process itself. How do people tend to vote on referenda? Presumably the viability of the choice has some bearing on the state of mind of those casting votes. How well informed are they of the issues and the choices? How many options should be on the ballot? Do the voters really understand what they're voting for or what they're effectively rejecting? What other factors are influencing their votes? To what extent can the referendum outcome be skewed by collateral factors? What percentage of the eligible public will even turn out to vote? Should a minimum percentage threshold be required?

There's a major referendum in three days hence. British voters will go to the polls to decide whether their country should remain in the European Union. What is pertinent to our debate is not what is at stake or the possible outcome but how public opinion has shifted in the runup to the vote.  For quite a while the "Stay" camp held a comfortable lead. More recently the "Leave" side pulled ahead by several points. Now, with the balloting just days away, the polls show "Stay" edging out "Leave" by a thin margin.

Is this no-yes-no pattern endemic to referenda? Are voters fickle? Do they go from bold change to play it safe as voting day nears? Is the outcome of any referendum at least partly pre-determined?

British Columbians wrestled with electoral reform in 2005 and again in 2009. In the first referendum, a 57.69% majority voted to change to a Single Transferrable Vote system. Tantalizingly close, but no cigar. It was close enough, however, to lead to another FPTP/STV referendum in 2009. This time the STV camp was hammered, dropping to just 39.09% support. FPTP was upheld by 60%. Turnout was 55%. What a disappointment that was.

Ontario's 2007 voting reform referendum saw FPTP do even better, over 63%. It seems to have been more thoroughly analyzed. The voting public seemed poorly informed and the major newspapers opposed reform which must have had some influence on the outcome. The LeDuc report (post-mortem) went further: 

"The political advantage in referendum campaigns, particularly those dealing with unfamiliar issues, often seems to rest with the NO side. Those opposed to a proposal do not necessarily have to make a coherent case against it. Often, it is enough merely to raise doubts about it in the minds of voters, question the motives of its advocates, or play upon a natural fear of the unknown." 


Does this dynamic explain why Mulroney's referendum on the Charlottetown Accord (deservedly) failed and why the Brexit vote seems just days away from also going down to defeat?

There are a good many of us who argue that something as fundamental as voting reform should be a question for the citizenry to decide. Yet the evidence suggests that a fair referendum with a suitably informed electorate is almost impossible to achieve. It's a stacked deck.

Maybe the only way forward is to have Parliament implement some form of proportional representation or STV. Let the voters have two elections under the reformed system to get familiar with it and then have a referendum on whether to keep it or find something else.

Meanwhile, all eyes on Britain this week.

5 comments:

Kirby Evans said...

I think that's right, and I see no other reasonable choice. A referendum gets us no where and the status quo is unacceptable. Change the system based upon an all party committee and then let the parties duke it out in the elections. Its not perfect but I think its the best of the bad choices.

Northern PoV said...

I have become quite sanguine about electoral reform.

I look at outcomes - especially in places like NZ & Australia that have lots in common with Canada.

NZ in particular ... adopted a MMP PR system about 15 years ago. The right wing only lost one election to the progressives before they figured out how to game the new system. Last time out the Harper-lite (Key) go almost 50% of the raw vote. So much for PR.

Even fptp delivers good gov't on occasion. Corporate control of the media and other levers of power are much more consequential than the voting system. That is where our efforts should be focussed.


The Mound of Sound said...


I agree that voting reform will not, of itself, cure what ails us. It could help but that's by no means certain. I think we're more hamstrung today by a vacuum of political vision than anything else. No one can imagine a post-neoliberal Canada much less how to transition to it.

Chris Hedges wrote about that today when he predicted that the inevitable winner in the November US elections would be corporatism no matter which side takes Congress and the White House. I prefer Robert Reich's approach. He's urging Sanders supporters to back Clinton over Trump in November but then regroup to form a new and progressive political entity to fight both the Republicans and the Democrats.

I feel much the same way about Canada. We too need a new political movement to restore our political progressivism. I wish we didn't but we do. We can't preserve our democracy pursuing a neoliberal course and, until we establish something better, we'll remain crippled by social division; political,social and economic inequality; and the corruptive influences of corporatism.

That said I believe that voting reform is overdue and warranted even if it won't be a magic cure for all that ails our body politic. Experience seems to suggest that a referendum would be self-defeating.

crf said...

Letting parliament decide changes in the voting system without a referendum is completely proper, and something which I have consistently supported. Changing the electoral system is within the purview of parliament (to the extent that it is consistent with the constitution). And what one parliament can enact, another can undo. And referendums are simply advisory: they have no force upon parliament to vote a certain way in enacting a law consistent with a referendum's outcome (except moral). (For example, there were some discussions in the UK press that in a close referendum supporting Brexit, some Conservative parliamentarians would act against the referendum vote, and support remaining in the EU.)

Referendums should be reserved for serious political questions where there is little or no chance of revisiting the decision. For example, Quebec separation, adopting a change in the constitution, or, in the UK, Brexit, or Scottish independence.

Ben Burd said...

" Ontario's 2007 voting reform referendum saw FPTP do even better, over 63%. It seems to have been more thoroughly analyzed. The voting public seemed poorly informed and the major newspapers opposed reform which must have had some influence on the outcome. The LeDuc report (post-mortem) went further: "

I would like to think now that we know how referenda can be rigged - high thresholds, confusing question, and inadequate public education prior to the vote, we are now on to the riggers and they will be exposed. That's why when cries of "The libs are gaming the system with STV/RB" were heard the proponents of the attempte rigging suddenly were caught with their hands in the cookie jars.

So keep at 'em, expose 'em and we will win.