Now Is The Time For Democratic Reformers to Pause and Reflect

In celebration of Canada Day, my next few posts will be about Canadian politics and culture.

Last month, democratic reform in British Columbia was soundly defeated. The proposal to adopt a Single-Transferable Vote (STV) system that earned 58% support in 2005 – just shy of the required 60% to be adopted – barely scraped the 40% support mark a second time around. Following the convincing defeat of the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system in Ontario in 2007, observers can’t be blamed for assuming that, at least for a generation, the death knell for democratic reform in Canada has been sounded.

On this point, I agree. It’s unlikely that any government will have the appetite to entertain major reforms to our voting system for at least a decade. In addition to proposals in two of Canada’s three largest provinces being defeated, average voters are unlikely to have an interest in major reforms, or a tolerance for governments who spend time and money entertaining them, as long as our economy is struggling. Major issues with management of the environment and the sustainability of our public health care and social support programs are likely to become more and more pressing as well.

In the wake of STV’s defeat, some proponents took solace in the fact that youth supported the referendum in strong numbers. Eventually, they figure, the demographics of the voting population will be on their side. I’m wary of this, as I believe a large number of those who voted for STV did so since they support changes to the system that would advance their political beliefs. Which is why, as our generation becomes more engaged, and becomes a more influential block of voters, support for major systemic reforms is likely to shrink. The big parties will either adapt to the beliefs of voters or be replaced. STV or MMP may yet happen, but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion.

I consider myself a supporter of democratic reform, but I don’t support all of the proposals for reform we’ve seen. I oppose the election of Senators, which, unfortunately, is one of the most likely reforms to proceed in some form over the coming years. I would have opposed MMP if I lived in Ontario, largely because it exacerbates one of the major problems I see with our system (I’ll explain a little later). I’m honestly unsure of how I would have voted on the BC-STV proposal.

The coming years present a great opportunity for reformers to take a step back, and think about what outcome they are truly looking for. What are the things we are trying to change? Will STV or MMP address them? If not, what will?

Dealing strictly with structural issues, which democratic reform aims to address, the following issues are the most pressing for me:

• Strict party discipline, and the corresponding inability of representatives to vote freely without significant reprimand and repercussions from the party caucus.
• In a minority government setting, the ability of the government to designate any issue as a confidence motion, forcing the opposition to acquiesce and accept policy they do not support, or defeat the government and trigger an election.
• The ever expanding power of the first minister, which is largely unchecked except in a minority government setting. Though as per the previous point, that check is less effective than it should be.
• The First Minister’s unilateral power of appointment over non-partisan positions.
• The blurring of executive and legislative functions.
• The lack of meaningful roles and powers for elected representatives who aren’t in cabinet.
• The fluid and discretionary size of cabinet, which leads to cabinet shuffles and department reorganizations that are disruptive to the civil service.
• The absence of true fixed election dates.
• Vote-splitting, which allows a candidate to win with a plurality of support.

I fail to see how either BC-STV or Ontario-MMP would address any of my concerns, save for the last one. The use of party lists in MMP would in fact possibly exacerbate the first concern.

Further, while supporters often argue that some form of PR will boost voter turnout, I’ve seen no evidence that an increased number of options at the ballot box increases turnout in Canada. For most of the past twenty years, there have been four parties who run candidates nationwide – the Liberals, PCs, NDP, and Reform/Canadian Alliance from 1993-2004, and the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, and Green Party from 2004 to the present. Yet, despite this, voter turnout has steadily decreased since the 1988 election, which ended a long period that featured three national parties – the Liberals, PCs, and CCF/NDP.

Our system can be improved, and reformers should look at ways we can meaningfully do so – our voting system may or may not be one of them. Over the coming years, there is an opportunity to engage citizens who are dissatisfied with government, and determine what the problems people care about are. Are they policy issues, a general distrust/dislike of politics and public officials, or are there structural characteristics of our legislative system that could be changed to address them?

All of the concerns I outlined could be addressed by changes within our traditional system; this is where I hope to see the debate move over the next 5-10 years.

Next post: a corresponding list of recommended changes that would address these concerns.


9 Responses

  1. Alex – nice diagnosis of the problems with the way our governments function. To them, I’d add the tendency of single-party governments to act with progressively less regard for the need for public scrutiny; coalition governments by their very nature have representatives of more than one party at the cabinet table and so are more able to keep an eye on patronage appointments and other forms of supporter payback.

    By the way, in your argument about PR and turnout, I think you’re confusing the number of parties running with accurate translation of votes into seats. Even though we’ve got more parties now than we used to have, voters still find that their votes are translated into seats in counterintuitive and unpredictable ways. I agree that increased turnout is not the main reason for voting reform, but I do think that more voters will turn out if they believe that their vote will be taken seriously and make a difference to the outcome.

  2. Antony,

    Thanks for the comments. Regarding your point on PR and turnout, I wonder if there is any evidence that a close race, particularly one touted as such in the media and the public, boosts turnout compared to ridings that are seen to be safe seats. A first-past-the-post system is much more sensitive to small shifts in the vote, so this spur voters who believe their vote doesn’t matter – aside from contributing $2 annually in public subsidy to their party of choice.

    The counter-argument to your point would be that the larger the voter pool the less of a difference a single vote will make. For example, let’s take a voter in Edmonton-Strathcona, which was decided by 463 votes in 2008, and was touted as a close race between the Conservative incumbent and the NDP challenger who had finished second in 2006. A voter, assuming they felt strongly about one of the two contending options (here’s your opening for a counter-argument) likely realizes their vote makes a much bigger difference than usual.

    Conversely, if in that election there was a province-wide or a city-wide PR list that your vote would be counted as part of, the influence of a single vote is diluted. It’s one of a few hundred thousand, instead of one of 47,000. Is a single vote likely to make a difference between whether the Green Party gets 2 seats or 3 seats?

    As an aside, my preference would be for Instant Runoff Voting, which I’ll talk about in the follow-up post to this.

  3. I don’t understand your point about “The blurring of executive and legislative functions.” Democrats in Canada spent a generation from 1820 to 1848 pursuing Responsible Government, that is, making the executive accountable to the elected legislature. This is one of the huge advantages of the parliamentary system over the American congressional system. This is also a reason why electing MPs is very different from electing a Mayor (where IRV makes sense); you are not just electing an individual, you are electing a government. Now, if you had a two-ballot system as Germany does, you could vote for the party you want in power and also vote separately for your local MP, but the government would still be accountable to parliament.

    On the topic of party lists, I find most people now agree with what some reformers suspected all along: voters in Canada won’t accept province-wide closed lists. Open regional lists are the only remaining viable MMP choice.

  4. Alex – it’s only one data point, but a regression on voter turnout vs closeness of the race in the 2005 BC election shows that turnout drops by 10% of the difference in popular vote between the two leading parties – ie, each 10% difference in support between the two leading parties is correlated with a 1% drop in turnout; turnout in the least competitive ridings (50% difference in support for the two largest parties) is about 5% lower than in the most competitive.

    I take your point about a vote being more significant in close races. The problem is that only about a quarter of the races are perceived by voters as being at all close, so the motivating effect of this is highly localized. In addition, the outcome is highly unpredictable – your vote might help, but it might not. Who knows? In contrast, under PR, each vote is accurately translated into representation, so each vote has a proportionate and reliable effect.

    In addition, with our current system, people who are tired of the two major parties have no obvious way to affect the outcome and so may opt out of participating altogether. It’s hard to say how large this effect is, but the political scientist Arend Lijphart has estimated that there is a significant systematic difference in turnout under PR systems (I recall that he found it to be in the range of 10-15%, but I don’t have the exact figure at hand).

    Re: Wilf’s comments. I think most Canadians appreciate the idea of responsible government and would want to preserve it, but many of us feel that we have but a pale imitation of it right now due to disproportionality and party discipline. Furthermore, we don’t directly vote for government – we vote for our local MP, and there is a quite unpredictable relationship between how we vote and the overall outcome. Personally, I advocate a proportional representation system with a direct vote for government (ie, I think voters should have a second ballot that provides advice to the Governor-General as to which party should be given the first opportunity to form government), along with revised rules that prevent a governing party from declaring anything other than a budget to be a confidence vote, so that they can’t hold the opposition hostage, as Harper so neatly played Dion.

  5. I believe that all of the problems you have named are caused or exacerbated by the winner-take-all nature of our current voting system, and that any proportional voting system, including BC-STV and Ontario-MMP, would help significantly.

    We don’t have to wonder whether proportional representation would help voter turnout. This is an empirical fact that can be ascertained by examining the data. This has been done, and the results are in. Although many other factors affect voter turnout, in general and on average, proportional voting gives a boost of 7% to 15% in voter turnout.

  6. Wayne, can you post links to the data you mentioned re: voter turnout, or email me at alex(dot)abboud(at)gmail(dot)com? I’d be really interested in seeing it.

  7. The definitive work on comparative electoral systems is this:

    Lijphart, Arend, Patterns of Democracy (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1999)

    Unfortunately, I haven’t found it online, but it is summarized by Fair Vote Canada here:

    Also note this article from International IDEA, posted at the Ace Project:

    “• electoral system choice. Almost all electoral systems can generally be categorized as plurality/majority, proportional representation (PR), or mixed systems. It has been found that the more responsive the electoral system is in representing the choices made by the electorate, the higher voter turnout will be. Turnout in PR systems is often higher than in plurality/majority systems;”

  8. The result Wayne refers to was first reported, I believe, in Arend Lijphart’s Patterns of Democracy (1999). According to a flyer put out by Fair Vote Canada, “Lijphart reports in the period 1971-1996, consensus democracies [his term for countries using proportional representation systems] and voter turnout were positively correlated, but statistically significant only at the 10 percent level. However, this general comparison doesn’t consider the effect of three other key variables: the existence of compulsory voting laws, the frequency of elections, and the general level of national development. When these variables are controlled, “the effect of consensus democracy on voter turnout becomes much stronger and is now [statistically] significant at the 1 percent level. With these controls in place, consensus democracies have approximately 7.5 percentage point higher turnout than majoritarian democracies.””

  9. Wayne and Anthony,

    Thanks. I’ll give those a read, and work on tracking down a copy of Lijphart’s work

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