Electoral reform

The next federal election is tentatively scheduled for October next year, but it seems like everyone is already in campaign mode – indeed, it seems like they’ve been in campaign mode since 2011 (one wonders if Trudeau was born in campaign mode). Ontarians are going to the polls in a few weeks, while Quebeckers just finished booting the PQ out, and New Brunswick is next up in September (tentatively). Fair voting is hot in the news now thanks to Poilievre’s sarcastically-titled Fair Elections Act. Our current government is one that has had every single electoral victory they have enjoyed since 2006 become the subject of an official investigation by Elections Canada for various types of fraud (robocalls, in & out, etc.). Seems like a good time to talk about electoral reform!

Atheism in and of itself is theoretically politically neutral, though there are some political positions that just seem to naturally follow from it, like secularism. There are atheists all across the political spectrum. (Humanism is much less apolitical, of course.) Finding an issue that all atheists can agree on seems nigh impossible.

Well in Canada, there may be such an issue in electoral reform.

First, some background.

In Canada, all levels of government in all provinces, municipalities, and federally use the ancient electoral system we inherited from our (former?) British overlords. The systems is known by many names – simple plurality, winner-takes-all – but the most widely used name is “first-past-the-post” (or FPTP).

FPTP is simple: given a set of candidates, each voters picks one of the candidates, and the winning candidate is the one chosen by most voters. In our federal and provincial elections, this process is done in dozens or hundreds of ridings, and then the collected winners get together and form a government. The premier or prime minister is chosen by the collected winners – obviously, each chooses the leader of their own party (independents can pick anyone, but their vote has never made a difference). Simple. Even a child can understand.

Unfortunately, it turns out that this system – while simple – is terrible. It fails just about every single criterion for a fair and democratic voting system that applies to it. The only exceptions are those criteria that are mutually exclusive (for example, the Condorcet criterion and the participation criterion), and the majority criterion… and the majority criterion is only half-satisfied (if the majority wants X to win, they will, but if the majority does not want X to win, they still might), and even then only for individual ridings but not for the government as a whole. Literally the only electoral systems that score worse are the random winner systems which are used hypothetically when studying voting systems.

In fact, as it turns out, our electoral system is one of the worst in the world when it comes to metrics of representativeness. The chart below shows the Gallagher index for Canada’s last few federal elections, and the world average. The Gallagher index is a measure of the disproportionality of elections – the higher the number, the less representative the elected government is of the people’s wishes. Zero – meaning no deviation from what the people want – is the ideal.

A chart of the Gallagher indices for Canada's federal elections and the global average, between 1980 and 2013. Except for a short period before 1984, Canada's disproportionality index is always higher than the global average - sometimes a lot higher.

Canada’s Gallagher index, compared to the global average, since 1980. Higher values mean less representative government.

As you can see, Canada is fairly consistently higher than the global average, but bear in mind that the global average is not good – it includes those countries that are extremely undemocratic (Monaco, for example, is always up in the thirties), and very small (for mathematically obvious reasons, it is a lot harder to have a perfectly representative government when your government is tiny). Most representative governments have values that are less than about three; you can see Canada never comes anywhere close.

Let’s talk real numbers. Using only elections since 1990, Denmark scores 1.93, Finland: 3.27, Norway: 3.19, and Sweden: 1.80. Germany scores 4.00, but most of that is due to the 2013 election, which had their highest disproportionality ever for some reason, at 7.83 – without that election Germany scores 3.36. New Zealand scores 6.44, but they overhauled their electoral system in 1996 – if you only count the elections after the reform, their score is 2.69. Canada’s score for that period? A whopping 12.20. That is almost five times the average of those other countries (only considering New Zealand after its reform, of course).

Go ahead and try to make excuses for this horrible lack of democratic balance. None will fly. For example, do you want to try and argue that this problem is due to Canada’s size? Nice try. But the five biggest countries in the world are Russia, Canada, China, the US, and Brazil. Scratch China because it isn’t even remotely democratic (you can’t have a meaningful election disproportionality index without meaningful elections). As mentioned above, Canada’s representative disproportionality since 1990 is 12.20 – would you like to wager a guess which of the other three are higher or lower? This may shock you, but Russia scores 7.55 (and, really, it’s not exactly a paragon of democracy), and Brazil scores 3.47. Ouch. Okay, what about the US? We can at least beat those guys, right? Guess again. If you just look at their presidential elections – which are notoriously disproportionate (remember Bush winning in 2000 despite losing the popular vote?) – their average since 1990 is 11.64… which is bad, but still better than Canada. But a more fair comparison would be to their House of Representative elections – it’s a better analogue to our own Lower House – and for those elections, the US scores… 3.65. See what I mean? Canada’s representative disproportionality is not just bad… it’s embarrassingly bad.

This is not just a hypothetical problem. The lack of representativeness caused by our system means that our government will not actually represent the will of the people. And, naturally, political parties have evolved to exploit the weaknesses of the system. Take a look at the chart below. The dotted line is the ideal – when a party has earned precisely the right number of seats for the popular support it has. When a party scores above that line, it has undeserved seats – when a party scores below, it has been cheated out of seats.

A chart showing the difference between the number of seats each Canadian federal party got versus the number they earned by votes in each federal election since 1993. The value ranges from almost +60 to −45 seats.

The difference between the seats each party earned by their actual voter support, versus the number of seats they actually got. The red dotted line is the ideal – scores above that mean the party got underserved power, scores below mean they were cheated out of power.

Notice that in every single election, the party with the greatest disproportionality advantage was the winner (not counting the Bloc Québécois in 2006, because it only runs in Québec – the Conservatives won a minority government that election). Winning by disproportionality means the winning party can often end up with a very brittle lead, that can be broken quite easily. Because of that, Canada has had the most unstable government in the first world, with elections being called every couple of years until one party establishes a majority that they can use to squelch the power of all other parties – cooperation and partnership is not a winning strategy in this electoral system.

Because of the nature of the FPTP system, parties with very localized support have an enormous advantage – look at the chart above to see the Bloc Québécois’ performance. Playing provinces off against each other has become a staple of Canadian federal politics, but the same kind of thing happens at other levels of government, too – such as playing urban areas off against rural areas.

All of this should make any Canadian be in favour of electoral reform, but for atheists, freethinkers, and humanists in particular, the current system is particularly unfavourable.

There are several reasons for this:

The current system favours regional parties – parties whose support is very localized.
Unfortunately, none of atheism, freethought, humanism, or secularism are geographically-localized ideologies – quite the opposite, in fact. The fact that we’re spread out across the country means that even though we may have many more supporters than other, geographically-concentrated voting blocs, we can’t have the same level of political power.

Consider the Bloc Québécois. The only reason the Bloc Québécois had any real power in federal politics – even becoming the official opposition in 1993 (despite being 4th place in the popular vote!) – is because all of their support is tightly concentrated. In the last election they “lost” badly, winning only 4 seats with less than 900,000 votes. But… wait a second… in the previous election the Green Party got almost 950,000 votes, and they got zero seats. (And if you go back to previous elections, you see similar bullshit – in 2004, for example, they got 54 seats on 1.7 million votes, while the NDP got 19 on 2.1 million.) Nonbelievers as a voting block are much like Green Party supporters – not in the ideological sense, but in the demographic sense: we are fairly well spread across the country (and strongest in BC, natch). For the same reasons that the Greens can’t get any real power, we won’t be able to either.

We make up ~25% of the country – our population is comparable to Québec – but because we are dispersed more or less uniformly across the country, we mean nothing to the balance of political power. Meanwhile, Québec alone can turn the entire government. Can you imagine if we had had an “atheist party” with as much influence as the Bloc Québécois has had over the years (or far more, actually, because the BQ doesn’t come close to representing all of Québec)?

The current system favours non-compromising, ideologically hardline parties.
Duverger’s law states that countries that use an electoral system like Canada’s will, in time, become two-party states. The US is the prime example of this. In our system, tiny swings in public support can cause enormous swings in political power. The Conservatives, the NDP and the Liberals were all ~10% apart in the last election, but they got 166, 103, and 34 seats respectively. With so much on the line with just a few percentage points, parties have to fight tooth-and-nail for every little bit of public support, all the time – that’s why our politicians seem to be in perpetual campaign mode. You can’t cooperate with the party you’re trying to demonize to keep their support down and yours up.

But atheism, freethought, and humanism are not left or right positions (well, humanism leans strongly left); they are positions which can be either on the left or right of the political spectrum, depending on which is more reasonable for a given situation. Reasonable compromise is really our thing, but our current political system makes reasonable discussion and compromise a losing strategy.

Imagine this hypothetical scenario: There is a population of 1,000,000, with 100 ridings up for grabs, and the demographics of each riding is exactly the same – of the 10,000 voters, 3,334 of them want the theocratic party A while 3,333 of them want left-wing secular party B and 3,333 of them want right-wing secular party C. In other words, across this country, 333,400 want a theocracy while 666,600 don’t… but half of those want a left-wing government while the other half want a right-wing government, even though they would accept a government of the other political leaning so long as it kept the government secular. Guess what happens under our current electoral system. You got it – the theocrats, despite only having a third of the country’s support (and two-thirds’ utter contempt) – win all 100 seats. The more you split the vote of reasonable people – which is not hard to do, because there are many ways you can reasonably lean politically – the easier it is for the kooks to muster and take absolute (or at least extremely disproportionate) power. What would happen under a proportionate system? Exactly what you’d expect – the theocrats would win 34 seats, while the other two parties got 33 each. And at that point, both party B and C would realize that cooperating is their best strategy, because if they don’t, that means the theocrats are in power by default… which their supporters definitely do not want (remember, each party’s supporters’ second choice was the other secular party). If one party refuses to cooperate, their supporters will punish them in the next election (if both refuse to cooperate, well, then it’s a lost cause of course, but there is strong motivation to do so). The need for cooperation and coalition means more reasonable voices prevail, as opposed to the current system where the only way to make a government work is with an absolute majority so you can just ignore the other 60% or 70% of Canada – that’s fertile soil for stubborn hardline partisan tactics.

The current system favours political conservatism (small ‘c’ – meaning not making any meaningful changes; no relation to the Conservative Party).
It’s a fact of politics that doing nothing is usually safer than taking action, unless and until you are absolutely forced to. Studies have shown that countries with systems like ours are less likely to enact policies in line with popular will, and less likely to take any action that might have any negative political consequences.

Want an example? Okay: abolishing the public Catholic school system in Ontario. Not going to happen. Why not? Because even though the majority of Ontarians – hell, the majority of Catholics – support abolition, the party that does so will almost certainly see a ~10% hit in their popularity from the hardliners. A 10% change in support shouldn’t mean much – it’s 11 seats in Ontario, which doesn’t change the balance of power at all – but because of disproportionality effects, a 10% shift can mean 50 seats (as it did in the 2007 election). No party can take that risk. So even though the majority of Ontarians want the public Catholic system abolished, our electoral system will prevent it from happening, at least in the near future.

The current system silences minority voices.
All plurality and majoritarian systems have this in common: the winners are the ones the majority wants. That sounds good on the surface, but the corollary is that the all of the minority voices are absolutely and completely silenced in government. (“Minority” is a shifting standard, too, under our current system. 49% is a “minority”, so you can end up with situations where half the population does not get a voice in government. Even worse is when there are more than two candidates: just under (100 − (100 ÷ N))% of the population will get no representation – when N is 4 (as it is for most Canadian elections), that’s just under 75% of the population unrepresented.)

We nonbelievers make up ~25% of the population. You would expect that mean we should have ~25% of the power in government – which is not an unreasonable expectation; we’re not asking for a majority. But we don’t have that, and we can’t, under the current system: we get 0%. If we want political power in this country, we can either choose to wait for the day when we finally make up over 50% (in which case, we would go from the voiceless minority to the oppressing majority – which I’m not really comfortable with), or we can demand reform in our electoral system.

Canada needs electoral reform badly. All Canadians will benefit from it (except those who don’t actually want to live in a democratic country, I suppose). But atheists, freethinkers, and humanists need it exceptionally badly. We cannot have a voice in our government under the current system – it’s a mathematical impossibility until we become a majority of the Canadian population (unless we all move to Québec, of course).

Despite the importance of the issue, very few political parties – across the spectrum of government – have taken a firm position, and fewer still have proposed a meaningful plan for making it happen. Several times a party that has been dealt an embarrassing defeat because of disproportionality effects has taken up the cause, only to drop it when they win not long after… because of disproportionality effects. The half-assed referendums that have been done in Ontario, PEI, and BC just aren’t going to cut it (obviously) – rather than holding a referendum on the current system versus some specific alternate, what we need is a two-stage process: first a referendum on the current system period, then a referendum between alternatives (that was essentially what was done in New Zealand in 1992 and 1993, where, by the way, neither of the two major parties at the time actually supported reform).

This should be our number one priority in the immediate term – all atheist, freethinker, and humanist associations should refuse to support any political party that does not promise reform to a proportional electoral system (which is the Conservatives at most levels of government, and the federal Liberals), or who fail to deliver on that promise once elected (the Liberals at most levels of government, and the NDP). We can’t get a voice in our government otherwise. Once we have a voice, then we can start pressuring them to take action on other important issues, like the Ontario public school system for example.

Obviously I’ve just barely touched on this enormous and important topic. For more information, including much more detail about the problems, and the outlines of some possible alternatives, check out Fair Vote Canada.

23 thoughts on “Electoral reform

  1. I don’t see this happening, but if you really want to pursue this, I would say the most direct route would be to start local with municipalities. Fewer people to convince, means you have a chance at making it happen. Then, once the systems are set up, people will either see the wisdom in it… or not. Toronto and Montreal would be good targets, but starting smaller is probably more realistic.

    Canadians are somewhat (small c) conservative at times, we don’t like radical change. But if you get people used to your system…. maybe someday.

    • This change is not “radical”. In some countries similar systems have existed for over a hundred years. There is a library of data compiled that shows that proportional representation not only works, but it works *FAR* better – in just about every metric you can think to apply. Far from “radical”, Canada is being foolish and backward, clinging to an archaic system that just frankly doesn’t work.

      All it would take is for one or more of the big parties to seriously endorse the idea and get to work spreading the information on why it’s better. This is a *FAR* less “radical” change than, say, allowing gay marriage was (we were only the 4th country in the world to legalize it), and we got that done. The reason it hasn’t happened has nothing to do with Canadians being “conservative”, and everything to do with the fact that we’re stuck in a cycle where those who SHOULD be responsible for making Canadians see the benefit of the change (and who should be working to make it happen) are actually benefiting from the failings of the existing system.

      If, say, the Conservatives put even HALF the effort they put into pushing their own bullshit “Fair Elections Act” into pushing this – presumably they would have had the NDP at least on their side on this, though, frankly, they wouldn’t even need them – then it would probably pass with barely a grumble. In the next election, we’d duly go to the polls, cast our votes… and for the first time in Canadian history actually get the government we want.

      • I never said it doesn’t work. I have said it has its problems, just like any system. I’m not actually against electoral reform, I just don’t think it is very likely given the results of Charlottetown/Meech, not to mention the endless ‘senate reform’ stuff.

        And I specifically said radical for canada. Lots of things work in other places.

        >…allowing gay marriage

        This is a bad example. A court, read: appointed judges, struck down the common law definition of marriage. This did not involve politicians from any party. At the time it happened polls showed a 45/45 split among canadians who were for/against gay marriage.

        In fact, if you want to talk about ‘democracy’ in action, Prop 8, which nullified a similar court decision in California, is a good example of direct democracy in action.

        Not a good result in my opinion, but much more ‘democratic’ than what happened in canada on this issue. Go Canada.

        Further, I think you are underestimating the pushback both from the left and right. If you open up the debate on the electoral system, you will immediately get resistance from special interest groups that want special status. Feminists will want female quotas, Natives and French speakers will demand special representation…. and of course the political establishment on both sides stands to lose.

        It’s a political nightmare…and the big parties know it. Further, it doesn’t really benefit them.

        I should note. I am not saying that proportional rep couldn’t work, only that on the federal level, I can’t see it happening.

        On the municipal level… it’s at least possible.

        • I never said it doesn’t work. I have said it has its problems, just like any system. I’m not actually against electoral reform, I just don’t think it is very likely given the results of Charlottetown/Meech, not to mention the endless ‘senate reform’ stuff.

          Those things involve amending, rewriting, or replacing the constitution. Electoral reform does not. Not only could Ottawa pass federal electoral reform without consulting the provinces, the provinces could each pass reform without consulting Ottawa. It would not be not that hard to do.

          And I specifically said radical for canada.

          Yes, I read what you wrote and it’s still wrong; it’s not “radical” for Canada either. It has been recommended at just about every level of government, and has even been implemented in trials. Referendums have been attempted or seriously proposed in at least five provinces, all in the last 10 years. Every Prime Minister and most party leaders in the last 20 years have spoken out for the need (though they usually changed their tune when the disproportionality swung in their favour, cf. Harper).

          I don’t know how much less “radical” a proposed change can get, unless you define ANY proposed change as “radical”. It is an idea whose time has not only come in Canada, it is overdue.

          This is a bad example. A court, read: appointed judges, struck down the common law definition of marriage. This did not involve politicians from any party. At the time it happened polls showed a 45/45 split among canadians who were for/against gay marriage.

          That is not a legitimate characterization of how it happened.

          The Court of Appeals in ONTARIO struck down ONTARIO’s discriminatory marriage law (in 2003). In point of fact, the Supreme Court of CANADA never made a ruling on whether same-sex marriage was required. When Martin asked them to in 2004, they actually explicitly passed on responding. To this day, even, that hasn’t happened (which is why the Conservatives raised the issue of repealing the same-sex marriage law two years after it was passed – how could they possibly do that if the court had already struck down the change they were proposing, derp?).

          As you note, Canada-wide there was still only middling support for same-sex marriage, if any, and the federal Liberals (with full-throated support of the Conservatives, then split between the Reform and PC parties) had JUST finished passing federal laws reaffirming “traditional” marriage (specifically, after a 1999 ruling that they would have to give equal benefits and taxes to same-sex couples – should any province choose to adopt same sex marriage – they write laws to make sure that would happen, but then just to spite same-sex couples they explicitly added wording about marriage being one man and one woman). They were actually considering challenging the Ontario court’s decision.

          Then what happened was the Liberals decided to make same-sex marriage happen. Why did they make that decision? That’s open to speculation. Could be they saw the winds of change (at the time Québec had passed civil unions and Ontario and BC were passing full marriage, and then there was the Ontario court decision, not to mention that one or two other countries had started the ball rolling at the national level) and decided to get on the right side of history. Could be they recognized it was a wedge issue against the conservative alliance. Could be they just wanted a distraction from the sponsorship scandal.

          For whatever reason, the Liberals started pushing toward same-sex marriage… not all at once, of course – they used a specious Supreme Court query to delay taking action until after the 2004 election. In that election, the NDP, Greens, and Bloc were all vocally in favour of same-sex marriage, the Conservatives were opposed – the Libs were on the fence pending the Supreme Court review.

          Between 2003 (when the Liberals first started seriously considering legalizing it) and 2005 (when they actually did) there was a radical shift in attitudes. As it became clear that same-sex marriage COULD happen, people started talking about it seriously. Support quickly shifted (because, really, there is no rational reason for opposing same-sex marriage). By the time it was finally passed in 2005, there was – as you note – a pretty even split in support.

          But when the Conservatives went to “reopen” the issue in 2007, popular support was now clearly and firmly established. And it has been rising since.

          So same-sex marriage in Canada is a situation where the government got ahead of popular opinion and did what’s right, albeit dragging its feet a little. And no, they weren’t forced by the courts (though, arguably, they might have been if they persisted in being stubborn) – PEI, for example, was standing by the discriminatory definition of marriage long after the feds smartened up, and the Conservatives themselves were willing to reopen the issue and strike down the law when they came to power in 2006. Popular opinion followed the change, it did not precede it. (In fact, it has become a case study for civil liberties, showing that if a government ends sanctioned discrimination, popular opinion can shift quickly.)

          There is absolutely no reason the same could not happen with electoral reform. All evidence available suggests it needs to happen. All evidence available suggests that there will significant benefits to Canada if it does happen. All major organizations concerned with democracy and the electoral system in Canada say it should happen. As with same-sex marriage, it’s effin’ time for it to happen, whether or not popular support has quite caught up yet – and, arguably, the only reason that hasn’t happened is because no one’s bothered to take up the cause of seriously educating the general public on the issue. The job of a good government should be to properly explain to Canadians why a required piece of legislation is necessary, what the benefits are, and to make it happen. We don’t have a good government (partly because of our broken electoral system), so we’re stuck… for the moment.

          In fact, if you want to talk about ‘democracy’ in action, Prop 8, which nullified a similar court decision in California, is a good example of direct democracy in action.

          We don’t have direct democracy – mostly because it’s not a great idea. We have representative governments precisely because we accept that the majority at large neither has the training, nor the time, nor the temperament to review and make every single legislative decision. We vote for people who have the knowledge and ability to make the right decisions for us, or at least to properly review the pros and cons to explain them clearly to us before we can make a decision, and we constrain our choices to deciding who would do that job more responsibly. That’s what they should have done in California – in fact, if it had been put to a popular vote here (as some people, such as the Conservatives, wanted), it would not have passed here either. Instead, a responsible government reviewed the issue and made a tough decision (eventually), and explained the situation to the population… and the population saw the benefits of that decision, and their opinions shifted, radically. That’s how a good representative government should work.

          The exact same thing could and should happen for proportional representation. A responsible government actually concerned with doing what’s in Canada’s best interests should review electoral reform, and they will find that it is necessary. (I can state this with absolute certainty because… they already have. Elections Canada has been pushing for proportional representation for decades now. Every time it’s been reviewed, in every province and at the federal level, the conclusion is: we need it.) Then they should go ahead and begin the process of passing the law to change it (passing it through committees and whatnot), and set up education programs to explain to the population why it’s needed. That’s how government SHOULD work in a representative democracy.

          Instead, we have parties who keep power NOT by actually representing Canadians, but by playing tricks like gerrymandering and playing provincial/territorial favourites off against each other. Our current government has 100% of the political power with its majority, with only 40% of the population’s support. Good for them, bad for Canada.

          THAT is why we don’t already have PR. Not because it’s “hard” to pass. Not because it requires an absolute majority in popular opinion (really, which of the Conservative’s policies that they’ve passed has EVER had that kind of support?). Not because it requires every single province/party/politician/special-interest group/whatever to get on board. Not because it requires constitutional tinkering. The ONLY reason we don’t have it already is because it doesn’t work for the parties… and to hell with the fact that it would work for Canadians in general.

          Anyone who is serious about democracy should be disgusted with the current state of affairs, not making excuses for it.

          Further, I think you are underestimating the pushback both from the left and right. If you open up the debate on the electoral system, you will immediately get resistance from special interest groups that want special status. Feminists will want female quotas, Natives and French speakers will demand special representation…. and of course the political establishment on both sides stands to lose.

          This is all complete bullshit. A majority government can pass pretty much whatever crap it wants without any interest in what anyone else says, so long as it’s constitutional (and election reform to a PR system would be). They do it all the time (do you *really* think most Canadians supported the billions being spent on F-35s?). They COULD do it again, except this time actually doing something good for all of Canada rather than just their voting bloc and donors.

          And even if we can’t appeal to their civic responsibility, the population at large could be educated about what the problem is, and why the parties are being dicks about not fixing it. Once that idea enters the public consciousness, it would become very uncomfortable for any parties, and any sitting parliamentarians, to NOT support reform. If it sinks in enough, the parties that let their term pass without doing something about it could end up punished at the polls in the next election (remember, under the current FPTP system, tiny shifts in popular support cause enormous shifts in seat counts – that can work against the current parties just as well as it currently works for them).

          This special-interest group argument is complete bullshit. First of all, what you’re proposing would require constitutional amendments – voting quotas are disallowed by the Charter, and establishing quotas in the House would require changing the constitution… not going to happen. But even without that, how can one small group hold up representation for dozens of other small (and large) groups? That’s nonsense. The whole point of PR is that right now, small groups get ZERO representation – why would small groups shoot themselves in the foot and give up ANY chance of fair representation in order to make (ridiculous) demands for unfair representation? And do you really think they could get away with that? Ridiculous. Seriously, it makes no sense. Your bizarre fear of feminists, aboriginals and francophones aside, what group, really, could hold up a bill to give fair representation to EVERYONE? What group has that power and could POSSIBLY get away with actually exercising it? We don’t need absolute consensus to pass bills in the House of Commons. That’s kinda how it works every day.

          Whether you realize it or not, support in the House TODAY for PR is about 41% AT LEAST. That’s because the NDP, Greens and Bloc all support the idea (and even for those parties who won’t whip the vote, the members surely see the benefits it will bring them even if they won’t see the bigger civic picture). Support is mixed among the Liberals, and there are probably some Conservatives who still support it from back in the day when Harper was pretending to. In other words, we might ALREADY have support in the House to pass a reform bill to PR. It just needs to be made an issue that politicians have to take action on.

          (Incidentally, when you say “the political establishment on both sides stands to lose”… can you *really* not see the implications of that? Because if both sides have something to lose… then both sides have something to gain. The only problem is that the side that happens to be on the upswing of power is the side that that stands to lose, while the side who is forced into opposition is the side that stands to gain. If it were the opposite, we would have had PR 20 or 30 years ago. Instead, we have a situation where the big parties only want it when they’re not in power, and because they’re short-sighted idiots they forget about how much they want it when they get in power.)

          It’s a political nightmare…and the big parties know it. Further, it doesn’t really benefit them.

          Only the second sentence is true. And that is exactly the problem.

          • > Not only could Ottawa pass federal electoral reform without consulting the provinces, the provinces could each pass reform without consulting Ottawa. It would not be not that hard to do.

            I’d say that is a huge leap to ‘not that hard’. The ‘process’ might be possible, but the political realities are very different.

            >>And I specifically said radical for canada.
            > It has been recommended at just about every level of government, and has even been…

            And that should tell you how difficult it actually is to implement.

            > I don’t know how much less “radical” a proposed change can get, unless you define ANY proposed change as “radical”.

            When it comes to voter representation, people who vote tend to take that very personally.

            >>This is a bad example. A court, read: appointed judges, struck down the common law definition of marriage. This did not involve politicians from any party. At the time it happened polls showed a 45/45 split among canadians who were for/against gay marriage.
            > That is not a legitimate characterization of how it happened.
            > The Court of Appeals in ONTARIO struck down ONTARIO’s discriminatory marriage law (in 2003).

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halpern_v._Canada_%28Attorney_General%29

            is a notable June 10, 2003 decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario where the Court found that the common law definition of marriage, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman, violated section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. [..]In this respect the judgment followed much of what had been ruled elsewhere. Thus, the two same-sex marriages performed by Brent Hawkes on January 14, 2001 were legal on the day they were performed.[1]

            Surprisingly, the Court also held that there was to be no suspension of the remedy as it applied to the general population and that the new definition allowing same-sex couples to marry would take effect immediately. Michael Leshner and Michael Stark, who were applicants in this case, became the first gay couple married after the decision.

            Its not that hard… the cat was out of the bag. Any government that went against this decision would have to start nullifying marriages. Even the Conservatives at the time were suggesting ‘civil unions’ as an alternative.

            > As it became clear that same-sex marriage COULD happen, people started talking about it seriously.

            Much like when the abortion law was struck down. Our politicians are cowards, always have been.
            Wait and see… even the Harper Conservatives are dreading having to deal with the prostitution mess that the courts dumped in their laps. These sorts of things are no-win scenarios. It is a mine field.

            >There is absolutely no reason the same could not happen with electoral reform. All evidence available suggests it needs to happen. All evidence available suggests that there will significant benefits to Canada if it does happen. All major organizations concerned with democracy and the electoral system in Canada say it should happen.

            But who is going to do it?

            > We don’t have direct democracy – mostly because it’s not a great idea.

            On that we agree.

            > That’s how government SHOULD work in a representative democracy.

            And that’s a whole lot of should.

            > Our current government has 100% of the political power with its majority, with only 40% of the population’s support. Good for them, bad for Canada.

            Well that’s a bid misleading. They got almost 40% of the vote…. but Canadian voter turn outs hover around 60%. So it is not 40% of the ‘population’, not by a long shot. It is however 40% of Canadians, who actually don’t give a shit.

            > The ONLY reason we don’t have it already is because it doesn’t work for the parties… and to hell with the fact that it would work for Canadians in general.

            Yeah, but the parties don’t exist in a vacuum. They are all funded and supported.

            > Anyone who is serious about democracy should be disgusted with the current state of affairs, not making excuses for it.

            I make no excuses, I just acknowledge the cynical reality of politics.

            > They COULD do it again, except this time actually doing something good for all of Canada rather than just their voting bloc and donors.

            But those are the people they answer to.

            The real irony is that the people most likely to embrace political change are young people, but young people don’t vote. That leaves the old people, who have the most vested interest in the status quo.

            > Once that idea enters the public consciousness, it would become very uncomfortable for any parties, and any sitting parliamentarians, to NOT support reform.

            I agree. But you would have to make it sexy enough for people to get angry about. And ‘voting reform’ is dry bread, even to the small number who understand it.

            > The whole point of PR is that right now, small groups get ZERO representation – why would small groups shoot themselves in the foot and give up ANY chance of fair representation in order to make (ridiculous) demands for unfair representation?

            Because people are irrational and ignorant?

            > And do you really think they could get away with that?

            No. I don’t. But politics is as much about perception as reality. And when people are married to an ideology, they dig in their heels to defend it, against all odds. And those people scare the other people.

            > It just needs to be made an issue that politicians have to take action on.

            But… that IS the hard part.

            >(Incidentally, when you say “the political establishment on both sides stands to lose”… can you *really* not see the implications of that? Because if both sides have something to lose… then both sides have something to gain.

            No. You’re assuming I’m talking about whether the libs or the cons win. I’m not. That is largely irrelevant.

            The political establishment includes lobbyists, and bureaucrats, money men and cronies…. and politicians… and all those who know how to work the system.

            If you change the system, they all stand to lose.

            >The only problem is that the side that happens to be on the upswing of power is the side that that stands to lose, while the side who is forced into opposition is the side that stands to gain. If it were the opposite, we would have had PR 20 or 30 years ago. Instead, we have a situation where the big parties only want it when they’re not in power, and because they’re short-sighted idiots they forget about how much they want it when they get in power.

            I agree that is part of the problem.

        • You forgot to mention them there black people.

          Don’t you see that we already have a real special interest group running the show? Big oil is not your friend.

          • Black people? In relation to what?

            I never claimed that oil companies were my friend. Although many pension plans and RRSPs are invested in oil companies. Is that what you mean by friends?

            Lobbyists and bureaucrats are part of the political establishment.
            But so what?

          • You forgot to mention the other ‘special interest’, black people, while you were targeting women folk and injuns.

            Lobbyists don’t bother you? They should if you care about clean air and fresh water.

            http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/energy-industry-letter-suggested-environmental-law-changes-1.1346258

          • Oh sorry, I thought you actually had something valuable to contribute to the discussion. My bad.

          • I vote you off the island.

          • Right, you stick to reality tv, I’ll stick to… actual reality.

          • Oh sorry, I thought you actually had something valuable to contribute to the discussion. My bad.

            Do you have anything valuable to contribute? “People are stupid and irrational” and “*whine* I just think it would be so hard (because I don’t actually understand what would be involved, or how much momentum has already built up)” are not really “valuable” contributions.

          • Your charts were nice.

    • Municipalities suffer from elections which tend to have lower voter turnout than provincial and federal elections, partly due to municipalities tending to have fewer revenue sources, although it is a vicious cycle.

  2. Proportional representation would be more likely to be implemented if the urban areas were more accurately represented in the legislature (support for electoral reform was correlated with population density in the Ontario and British Columbia electoral reform referenda), if those under the age of 18 were to be enfranchised (those who are relatively young tend to favour parties which support proportional representation) and if there were higher voter turnout (those who are relatively poor tend to have a low voter turnout and tend to support parties which support proportional representation).

  3. Lots of great information in that post, and I was especially intrigued by the Gallagher Index data. The key problems with FPTP aren’t exactly a secret, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the case for the prosecution articulated better. I liked the line about Justin Trudeau having been born in campaign mode, too – that’s his approach to politics, or at least a large part of it, in an excellent nutshell.

    About those Gallagher Indices, though – I notice that you haven’t provided numbers for any FPTP countries other than Canada and the United States, and south of the border it’s a bit of a moot point because there are only two major parties. How did the UK do, for example? It would be interesting to have a rough idea of how much of Canada’s disproportionality problem is down to FPTP, per se, and how much is attributable to something more like an interaction between the mechanics of FPTP and our specific political conditions.

    I also think you’re coming on a bit strong in your approach to the whole issue, and taking a narrow view of what makes a system democratic. A comparison between the popular vote, summed up across the whole nation, and the composition of the legislature is just one criterion. One could argue, for example, that the translation of a narrow advantage in the popular vote into a massive advantage in parliamentary seats is actually a feature rather than a bug because messy coalition-building is less likely to be needed. I don’t entirely buy that argument myself, but I do take it seriously. Proportional systems that involve some kind of party list, rather than a single representative elected from each constituency or riding, also deprive people of what some (definitely including me, this time) would see as the advantage of having a single locally connected figure who represents their link to the legislature.

    The million dollar question, though, is whether Canada has actually been governed less effectively over the last several decades than countries that have non-FPTP systems. We’ve been doing all right compared to Argentina, Colombia and Turkey, for example.

    I also think it would be a little unfair, manipulative and therefore (somewhat ironically) undemocratic to follow your prescription for a referendum on the “current system” followed by a referendum on possible alternatives. Anyone promoting a new electoral system should have to make the case that the proposed new system is not just better than the current one, but better by a substantial enough margin to justify the hassle of switching over. That implies the need for a discussion in which both systems are held up, side by side, for consideration and criticism.

    I’m not sure what it would even mean for “unbelievers” to “have ~25% of the power in government”. As you correctly point out, we unbelievers are all over the place politically (hell, I’m all over the place politically, at least in terms of current Canadian partisan politics), which implies that there’s never going to be an Atheist Party with a coherent political programme. If you think ~25% of MPs should be “unbelievers”, even a perfectly proportional system would deliver that result only if people voted along religious lines, or at least if believers were as willing to vote for unbelievers as the reverse.

    With all that said, I’d favour a shift to an alternative vote system like the one they use in most of Australia, which avoids the problem of vote-splitting but maintains the principle of having a single representative for each constituency. However, I’m prepared to acknowledge that such a system would have its drawbacks and limitations, and I agree with Joe that lower levels of government (though maybe provincial, rather than municipal) would be the place to start tinkering.

    • About those Gallagher Indices, though – I notice that you haven’t provided numbers for any FPTP countries other than Canada and the United States, and south of the border it’s a bit of a moot point because there are only two major parties. How did the UK do, for example? It would be interesting to have a rough idea of how much of Canada’s disproportionality problem is down to FPTP, per se, and how much is attributable to something more like an interaction between the mechanics of FPTP and our specific political conditions.

      The reason I didn’t bother with that comparison is because it’s kinda beside the point. I didn’t intend to make the case for why FPTP is bad – that ship has long sailed; it’s just conventional wisdom in political science that FPTP is a terrible system – when new countries decide on their electoral system, no-one chooses FPTP anymore.

      The program I wrote to mine the data and produce the charges can be adapted to different data sets. If I use only FPTP countries (and show the UK), you get this: http://indi.frih.net/misc/electoral-reform-disproportionality-fptp.png

      As you can see, the average of all FPTP countries is WAY higher than the regular global average (the total global average never once rises above 11, the FPTP average never drops below 11). But the differences between Canada, the UK, and FPTP countries in general aren’t really all that notable.

      That shows that Canada’s disproportionality problem is pretty much 100% due to FPTP, not to anything peculiar to Canada.

      One could argue, for example, that the translation of a narrow advantage in the popular vote into a massive advantage in parliamentary seats is actually a feature rather than a bug because messy coalition-building is less likely to be needed.

      That would be a weak argument. It would be stating that it’s better to disenfranchise 60-70% of the population, rather than have a consensus in government.

      I know Canadians are terrified of coalition governments, but that’s a symptom of our broken system – not a problem with coalition governments per se. Most countries in the world are governed by coalition governments, and the studies show that they’re run much better than Canada is.

      The problem with coalition government in Canada is not coalitions per se, it is that under the current system parties have no motivation to form coalitions. If they can just scrape together a few more percentage points, they can get absolute dictatorial power… so that’s exactly what they try to do. That’s why Harper called 3 elections in a row, trying again and again to get absolute power rather than accepting that Canadians didn’t want to give him an absolute power mandate. (There was only 3.35% difference in the popular vote for Harper between 2006 (124 seats/40.3% of seats) and 2011 (166 seats/53.9% of seats), and turnout went from 64.7% to 61.1% – he pretty much wore us down and wasted our money until he got absolute power. Not that Harper alone is guilty of this – Martin lost the Liberals the entire fricken government rather than try to form a working coalition (although, in Martin’s defence, he probably would have had to form a coalition with the Bloc, who really shouldn’t have freaking had so much power to begin with, but, ya know, disproportionality).)

      Put another way, if the two parties with the most votes both get ~35%, does that not suggest that what Canadians want is a little bit of what both have to offer? And, really, it isn’t all that hard to look at the platforms of both and figure out which planks are shared, which planks can be negotiated, and which planks are just not going to get a consensus. How can any sane person conclude that what Canadians *really* want is for both parties to force another election (and another and another) until one gets 36% and the other has 34%, so that the former can completely and utterly dominate the entire political spectrum?

      Under proportional systems, parties are strongly motivated to form coalitions, and work according to the will expressed by a broad majority of Canadians. I don’t think that’s “messy” at all. I think it’s childish if parties can’t find consensus. Our system should punish that sort of dictatorial attitude, not reward it.

      Proportional systems that involve some kind of party list, rather than a single representative elected from each constituency or riding, also deprive people of what some (definitely including me, this time) would see as the advantage of having a single locally connected figure who represents their link to the legislature.

      No, not necessarily. There are many, many systems that are proportional, but the two most commonly recommended in Canada are “mixed member” and (less frequently) “single transferable vote” systems. It is STV that has the problem you are concerned with – huge, multi-member ridings. (As far as I know, only BC has seriously considered STV. Everywhere else in Canada has recommended MMP.) The alternative – and while I’ve held off on stating which system I would recommend, I lean toward MMP – uses a two-stage system. This is what is used in Germany and New Zealand.

      In MMP as done in Germany and New Zealand, each voter gets two votes – a representative vote, and a party vote. The representative vote is exactly the same as the kind of voting we’ve always known: each riding votes for its representative via good ol’-fashioned FPTP (this is how *they* do it, not how it *has* to be done). What happens next is that everyone gets a *second* vote, for their party of choice. After all the representatives are seated, people are added from the party lists (using the Sainte-Laguë method) to balance out the disproportionality.

      To me, this seems like the most logical system for our kind of government – for example, just because I want a Conservative representing me and my riding doesn’t imply I want them to control the government… in that case, I would vote for the Conservative to represent my riding, and use my party list vote to choose, say, Green. (Assuming the Conservative wins my riding) I get the representation to government that I want, and I get a meaningful say in the shape of government beyond being stuck with whatever my rep is. (On the other hand, if I really, really want a Conservative government, I can both vote for my Conservative rep and use the party list vote to vote Conservative, too.)

      You can even vote for an independent to represent your riding, under that system, to get representation by an independent, yet still have a say in the overall shape of government.

      This system is actually very powerful for weeding out garbage candidates. No longer are you forced to vote for a useless jackass just because they’re who the party assigned to your riding, and you want the party in power even though you can’t stand the jackass. You can vote for another local rep, and still use your party vote for your party of choice. Even if they lose the riding, the jackass may still get a seat if they’re on the party list… but nevertheless you sent a powerful signal to the party that they need better candidates.

      The million dollar question, though, is whether Canada has actually been governed less effectively over the last several decades than countries that have non-FPTP systems. We’ve been doing all right compared to Argentina, Colombia and Turkey, for example.

      Comparing countries one-on-one is virtually meaningless. There are just too many confounding factors to make a meaningful comparison.

      The best you can do is make group comparisons (or comparisons between a single country and the global average). That has already been done, naturally, and it turns out – via multiple studies – that not only do countries with proportional representation score better in virtually every metric, they do so to large degrees of statistical significance. This is actually quite astounding, because basically the entire set of countries that use FPTP are former British Empire countries – the Commonwealth, basically – and taken as a whole they’re not exactly on the low end of the spectrum globally, I mean it includes Canada, the UK and the US. However – and this should really raise your eyebrows – of all the Commonwealth (which is more or less synonymous with FPTP), only three countries have changed their electoral system: Australia, Malta, and New Zealand. Of those three countries, TWO outrank Canada on the human development index, and the third is not far behind (Canada has the highest HDI of all FPTP-using Commonwealth countries, and the US is the only FPTP-using country at all that outranks us).

      There are two main hypotheses for why this is so.

      The first is that the need to form consensuses and appeal to a broad range of voters means parties are obligated to listen more carefully to what voters want, rather than simply staking out ideological positions and sticking to them no matter what. Because the electorate as a whole is almost always a *HELL* of a lot smarter in aggregate than the three hundred or so members of a party, listening to them rather than stubbornly sticking to ideology will almost always mean smarter government. At the very least, the government will automatically be better serving the wants and needs of the population.

      The second is that FPTP is *VERY* sensitive to tiny fractions of a percentage point when there are two leading parties neck-and-neck. That means you end up with governments that shift wildly between non-compromising ideological extremes. That kind of unpredictability and variability is very bad for an economy (not to mention it encourages governments to not take care of crises that can be put off; they can just leave the mess for the next guys) – businesses and people in general prefer stability in government. PR systems are far less fickle, and – especially when coalitions are formed – tend to result in much more stable government. (For example, you probably wouldn’t have absurd situations like one government spending millions to build a gun registry, then the next coming in and scrapping the whole thing wholesale a few months later. Or at least, they would be much rarer.)

      I also think it would be a little unfair, manipulative and therefore (somewhat ironically) undemocratic to follow your prescription for a referendum on the “current system” followed by a referendum on possible alternatives. Anyone promoting a new electoral system should have to make the case that the proposed new system is not just better than the current one, but better by a substantial enough margin to justify the hassle of switching over. That implies the need for a discussion in which both systems are held up, side by side, for consideration and criticism.

      That is *exactly* what my prescription does. What do you think would be more democratic? Putting all the systems – including “stay with FPTP” on one ballot? That would just be your standard FPTP vote… with all the undemocratic bullshit it brings with it. (For example, if the alternatives are FPTP, IRV, MMP, and STV – which is a pretty standard set of alternatives – and 30% wants FPTP while the remaining 70% want ANYTHING ELSE, but are mixed as to precisely which system they prefer – which is actually a very real scenario – then you can guess what the result will be: the most undemocratic one possible.)

      Our voting system is broken – how does it possibly make sense to just ignore that fact when you’re trying to fix it? The two-stage vote is the best way to work with the broken system. FPTP only “works” when there are only two options – if there are 3 or more options, FPTP will produce undemocratic results. So rather than have one ballot with three options, you have two with two options each. It ain’t perfect, but it’s the best we can without reforming the system (which, if you’ll recall, is the point).

      If you want a *truly* fair referendum on the topic, then the right thing to do would be to use IRV or some other such single-winner system. But that’s not how we do referendums in Canada… and that is *precisely* the problem we’re trying to fix. You’re not going to fix it by ignoring it.

      I’m not sure what it would even mean for “unbelievers” to “have ~25% of the power in government”. As you correctly point out, we unbelievers are all over the place politically (hell, I’m all over the place politically, at least in terms of current Canadian partisan politics), which implies that there’s never going to be an Atheist Party with a coherent political programme. If you think ~25% of MPs should be “unbelievers”, even a perfectly proportional system would deliver that result only if people voted along religious lines, or at least if believers were as willing to vote for unbelievers as the reverse.

      Proportional systems in general produce more proportional representation… that’s kinda the point, but it actually goes a lot deeper than it seems on the surface. This tendency naturally happens even when you’re not really trying. The most commonly used example is women in government – countries with PR have much better representation of women. Does that mean they’re voting along “gender lines”? No, of course not. PR countries also have more visible minorities in government, and more diversity of ethnic and religious representation. Again, do you think that’s because PR countries in general vote along racial, ethnic, or religious lines? That may be possible in some places, but it can hardly be generally true.

      There are a lot of papers written speculating on why PR countries have more diversity in government, with lots of hypotheses. Could be because PR voting is much less sensitive to tiny fluctuations in popular support, parties don’t have to worry about those few dozens of votes they’ll lose if the candidate doesn’t happen to be of the “right” racial, ethnic, or religious persuasion (or the right gender or whatever). Could be that because people in PR countries generally feel better represented and better in control of their government, minorities get emboldened to run. Could be because PR gives seats even to small parties with small support – rather than completely eradicating any party that can’t drum up a majority at least *somewhere* in the country – parties that wouldn’t have even bothered to try to exist in non-PR countries have a go at it. Could be because appealing that 10% minority will earn you a 10% vote increase, rather than zero.

      Whatever the cause of the effect: it exists. It is well-documented (and, often touted as one of the main reasons for switching to PR, though that’s not how I prefer to roll). It means we don’t *need* an “Atheist Party”, nor do we need to encourage people to vote along religious lines. (I was just talking about a hypothetical “Atheist Party” for the sake of numeric comparisons with the BQ, given the size of the voting blocs would be comparable.) Whatever it means to be part of that 25%, it will naturally be reflected in government if people just vote for the candidates they want – which is pretty much the definition of “proportional representation”. The reason it doesn’t happen under the current system is because a 25% vote means nothing – only the majority’s voice matters – but under PR, 25% means 25% (give or take).

      To put it another way, it’s not that 25% unbeliever voters will *directly* mean 25% unbeliever ministers. It’s a more subtle effect. If there is some platform plank X that the majority of unbelievers want – and is only wanted by a majority of unbelievers – then what will happen is the nonbeliever voters will naturally prefer to vote for candidates that support plank X. This will mean that ~25% of the government will be ministers supporting plank X. But wait! Didn’t I just say that plank X is something that only nonbelievers want? That means that those ministers who support plank X – who make up 25% of government – are very likely nonbelievers themselves.

      That’s a gross simplification of what would happen, and it would be smeared out over a number of positions – probably mostly involving secularism, religious accommodation, etc. – with most positions not being quite so clearly and distinctly linked *just* to nonbelievers – there will be considerable overlap with other groups on most positions. But when you put it all together, things will balance out just as a natural statistical tendency – the ol’ law of large numbers – and the net effect in time is that you get a government that pretty accurately reflects the voters.

      Which means that – in time – we would expect to see the proportion of nonbelievers in government approach the proportion of nonbelievers in the voting population. It will be a trend – not a magical, instantaneous occurrence – so it might take many, many election cycles, and it will probably never be a perfect match… but unlike our current system where the trend is for government to *just* look like the majority, a PR system means the trend is for government to look more like the population. Which means that we – like all minorities – will tend to see much, much more representation than we do now. (Which is effectively zero.)

      With all that said, I’d favour a shift to an alternative vote system like the one they use in most of Australia, which avoids the problem of vote-splitting but maintains the principle of having a single representative for each constituency.

      That’s a bad idea. It’s a bad idea in general, but it’s a particularly bad idea for us – atheists, humanists, skeptics, nonbelievers in general. AV (or IRV – same thing) is a *slight* improvement over FPTP in that the winner of each riding is now *actually* the one the majority (50%+) of voters want… rather than the situation under FPTP where all you have to do is get more votes than everyone else, even if that ultimately means only 20-30% of the vote. Indeed, I totally endorse IRV for referendum questions, or any other single-winner election.

      But even though IRV means that each minister is the one voters *actually* want, you still get an unrepresentative, disproportional government. To visualize this, imagine that there are 100 ridings each with 4 candidates – Con, Lib, NDP, Green – all of which have exactly the same voting results. The first choices are 30% Con, 25% Lib, 25% NDP, 20% Green. Under FPTP, game over, the Conservatives win all 100 seats. Under IRV, because the Conservatives don’t have an absolute majority, it goes to the second round. In that round, the Greens are eliminated. Now say half of the Conservative voters have offered no second choice, but half have chosen the Liberals, while all the Liberal voters put NDP as their second choice and all of the NDP put the Liberals as the second choice. The counts are now: (30 + 0) Conservative, (25 + (15 + 25)) Liberal, (25 + 25) NDP. Conservatives eliminated, Liberals have greater than 50% of the remainder… Liberals win all 100 seats.

      In other words, the only thing that’s changed is that you’ve gone from an unfair Conservative supermajority to an unfair Liberal supermajority. All the same problems that exist for FPTP exist for IRV… such as zero representation for nonbelievers’ issues. Remember Canada’s index was 12.20 since 1990? Australia’s is 11.17. Technically it’s *slightly* more fair than FPTP, but still not a great leap forward. If we’re going to reform, we might as well do it right, and not half-ass it.

      As I mentioned above, under a proportional system you could have exactly the same number of ridings with exactly the same number of representatives as we do now… but then you would have “list” seats to repair the disproportionality. With just 30 list seats, the disproportionality in the last federal election could have dropped from 12.42 to 7.67 (the Libs would have gained 15 seats, the BQ 9, and the Greens 6) – which is a *huge* improvement (though still not *that* great).

      Of course, that’s *if* you want the exact same number of reps in the exact same number ridings. Under PR, that becomes a lot less important, because *all* members of all parties have to be more responsive to the will of the people. You can’t place a do-nothing back-bencher in a riding and expect people to vote for them just because they’re of the right party, so you can get another ass in the House anymore. Especially if you have a mixed system like in Germany and New Zealand, if you try that, the voters in that riding who really want the party but think nothing of the rep will simply use their riding vote for some other rep they want and only give you the party vote… in effect, you lose half of your votes in that riding. Representatives will have to work much harder to convince you to vote for them, and when that happens, it’s really not going to make *that* big of a difference if your riding and the riding next door merge. I would probably to cut the number of ridings by quite a bit – maybe even by half, or maybe just by a third to have ~200 ridings and 150 list seats for a total of 350. (New Zealand, for example, went from 100 ridings with FPTP to 70 ridings + 50 proportional list seats for a total of 120.) But that’s just a detail of implementation – it’s not a necessary component of a PR system, and as I already showed you can have a much more proportionate system without reducing the number of ridings at all.

      If you want to know my dream system, it would be a mixed member system where reps for ridings are chosen by AV/IRV, and then there’s a party list with proportionality using the Sainte-Laguë method.

      Without going into too many details, basically you would have a ballot with a list of local representatives on one side and a list of parties on the other – you get two votes. You rank your rep choices (1 being first choice, 2 being second choice, etc.) on the one side, and pick a party (just a check mark) on the other – completely independent from each other. At counting time, your local rep – along with all others – is chosen by the IRV system which you already know. That will fill up, say, 50-70% of the seats in Parliament. The remaining seats are chosen to make up the difference between the seats the party won in the rep vote and the total seats they should have according to proportional representation.

      The result: every riding gets the representative they *really* wanted, and the country as a whole gets a government that accurately represents what the voters wanted. Which should be the goal, after all. I can’t think of a better way to select a government that accurately represents the will of the people.

      I agree with Joe that lower levels of government (though maybe provincial, rather than municipal) would be the place to start tinkering.

      To repeat the point: this is not “tinkering”. Electoral reform to a proportional system has been recommended at just about every level of government in Canada, and championed by every party at one point or another. The benefits of proportional systems are well-documented, and there are *dozens* of countries who have proportional systems and have been using them, in some cases, for almost a hundred years.

      There is no rational justification for waiting for municipalities to make the change, then watching what happens. We know what will happen – we have *hundreds* of data points already, worldwide, at every level of government, including many that are very similar to Canada.

      There comes a point when dragging your heels just gets ridiculous, and we have *long* since passed that point. This is a change that is a long time coming, and it is a change that has had *far* more evidence supporting its benefits than just about anything else our government has passed in the last 10 years. It’s bloody well time, frankly, if not already way past time.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful response, and for taking the time to put together the graph of disproportionality for Britain, Canada and other FPTP countries. I think it’s useful in helping to demonstrate that Canada’s high levels of disproportionality are down to FPTP and not some quirk of our recent political history.

        I agree with most of what you’re saying here, but with less conviction and urgency. I don’t think our system is “broken”, I just think it’s less than ideal, and I see spoiler effects as a much more egregious problem than disproportionality per se – hence my soft spot for AV, although you’re halfway to convincing me that MMP might indeed be a better idea. You’re right that a party with minority support everywhere would be completely frozen out under AV, of course, but in that situation the citizenry would still be having a perfectly good democratic say within geographically delimited units. Determining the composition of parliament based on the results from those units, rather than more directly on the popular vote, doesn’t strike me as inherently wrong or undemocratic – it just shifts some power from individual equal citizens to blocks of equal citizens. The best argument against continuing to do things that way, I think, is that Canadians tend not to be as tightly bound to their local communities as they used to be.

        I agree that a PR system would tend to put more irreligious types in parliament, whatever the exact proportion – I don’t entirely share your apparent faith in the ability of the law of large numbers to smooth things out, but that’s a bit of a detail. A more important and general point, though, is that any kind of minority can get representation in parliament without having a prayer (so to speak) of getting into power. It’s entirely possible that a coalition of predominantly religious parties would relegate predominantly irreligious parties to opposition status under a PR system, in one parliament after another.

        I agree that moving away from FPTP would be a good idea in principle, but in practical terms I wouldn’t expect it to yield huge dividends for Canada. Sure, it might boost our human development index a little, but we’re not doing badly in that department anyway. It might get more unbelievers into parliament, but Canada is already a pretty darn secular place apart from a few wrinkles that I would categorise as annoying but not terribly harmful. Fundamentally, we have a prosperous, functioning, secular, liberal democracy, and the problems and tensions that do exist are not ones that I’d expect AV or MMP to readily resolve.

        So I’m approximately on your side when it comes to this issue, but I’d advocate a measured and incremental approach – partly because I’m in no huge rush, but also because I think it’s much more likely to succeed in the long run. I suspect that Joe is overstating the small “c” conservatism of Canadians and the cowardice of our politicians and so forth, but do you really not see Canada’s somewhat hidebound political culture as a potentially significant obstacle?

        • Thanks for the thoughtful response, and for taking the time to put together the graph of disproportionality for Britain, Canada and other FPTP countries. I think it’s useful in helping to demonstrate that Canada’s high levels of disproportionality are down to FPTP and not some quirk of our recent political history.

          While I’m glad the chart might have helped convince you, it really shouldn’t have been necessary. If there’s one thing i’ve failed to do here, it is to impress on the readers just how closed this issue really is. One of the people i mentioned this to analogized it to climate change, and that’s a really good analogy: From my perspective, i basically wrote an article saying “Canada needs to take action on climate change”… and then spent the next week trying to prove to the readers that climate change is actually happening. (Another analogized it to universal suffrage, for similar reasons.)

          That should be a closed issue in 2014. It shouldn’t be necessary anymore to explain to people that the science is in and the debate is over. You won’t find any publishing political scientist – but for the occasional fringe-dweller – arguing in favour of FPTP. And good luck finding the handful who don’t say unequivocally that only PR systems are truly democratic. (In fact, if you read the literature, when they discuss the benefits of PR systems and they need a “bad example” to contrast with, Canada is often used. We are literally the exemplar of what not to do in democratic electoral systems.) I get that the general population probably isn’t up on the topic, but here, where several regular commenters have tried to lecture me on taking democracy seriously… this should be basic knowledge for anyone who takes democracy seriously.

          I was just reminded again week or so ago of just how done the debate for PR is, by the EU election. (I’m going to assume you don’t know how EU elections work, so bear with me if you already know.) The EU parliament designates a number of seats for each country roughly depending on their size (ie, roughly proportional). Then it allows each country to run their own independent elections to fill its seats. The countries are allowed to run their elections any way they so please… but for only three restrictions. 1) the system must be a PR system (they allow both MMP and STV, and probably others); 2) the country can be subdivided into ridings only if that will not prevent proportionality; 3) the threshold cannot be over 5%.

          In other words, the “debate” on PR is so over that non-PR elections are not even *permitted* for the EU parliament. Seriously, they’re so far past that they won’t event humour you if you try to bring FPTP or AV/IRV to the table. Literally, the only three restrictions the EU puts on otherwise completely independent elections for their parliament all basically boil down to that they *MUST* be PR (to at worst a 5% threshold). They don’t even have a rule that you can’t go into people’s homes and force them out at gunpoint to vote – no rules about a minimum turnout, no rules about spending or contribution limits – yet they have a rule that requires elections to be PR. That is literally the point where they have decided to draw the line.

          You see? This topic is so far past the point where it is “radical” or “different” or “experimental” or any of the other things it’s been called here, that i’ve been shocked at how bad awareness of it is. It’s not even like it’s new to Canadian politics, because as I’ve already mentioned, every single party and PM has floated the idea at some point. What you think is my “conviction and urgency” is actually just bewilderment and disappointment that I have to cover all this ground that has long since been past any reasonable debate. Especially with commenters who have put on a pretence at being serious defenders of democracy – I’m basically, by analogy, the guy bafflingly left with the task of proving that climate change is happening to a bunch of people who accused me of not taking the environment seriously.

          I don’t think our system is “broken”, I just think it’s less than ideal…

          I am not a politician, i am an engineer. I don’t choose words for their “weight” or emotional impact, i choose them depending on whether they are technically true or false.

          The purpose of elections in a democratic republic is to choose a government that represents the people’s will. Our electoral system fails to do that. That is not “less than ideal”. That is broken. Any tool that is not capable of doing what it is supposed to do is not “less than ideal”. It is broken.

          Let me be crystal clear. Our system does not merely “do the job poorly”. It fails outright to do the job. The government it selects is *NOT* the government the people actually wanted. It can’t be when over two thirds of the population explicitly said no to it.

          You’re right that a party with minority support everywhere would be completely frozen out under AV, of course, but in that situation the citizenry would still be having a perfectly good democratic say within geographically delimited units.

          No, they wouldn’t. Over 50% of the population would get what they want, the rest would be totally and completely shut out. That sounds good, but only because you’re comparing it to an even *worse* system that gives only 20-30% of the people what they want while shutting out 70-80%.

          The point is, *NOBODY* should be shut out of having a say in their government unless it is completely unreasonable to give them one. There is no reason that power could not and should not be proportioned to match the actual will of the people as much as reasonably possible, rather than making silly rules that disenfranchise huge chunks of them unnecessarily. The definition of democracy is not “rule by 50%+1 and fuck the rest” (or, in the case of FPTP, “rule by 35% and fuck the rest”), it is rule by *the people*. Thus, any *actual* democratic system should reflect the will of the people as much as reasonably possible. Who gains by telling 49% of the population fuck off? Especially when it’s entirely unnecessary.

          Determining the composition of parliament based on the results from those units, rather than more directly on the popular vote, doesn’t strike me as inherently wrong or undemocratic – it just shifts some power from individual equal citizens to blocks of equal citizens.

          It is inherently wrong, and thus undemocratic. It does not merely “shift power” from “individual equal citizens” to “blocks of equal citizens”, it utterly disenfranchises vast swaths of the country, who end up with absolutely no voice in determining the makeup of their government – not even “they were outvoted because they were too small a group”; they are literally without say. If you’re a Green Party supporter in Alberta for example… just sleep in on election day; your vote literally makes no damn difference whatsoever. You’ll probably have more influence on the election by taking part in CBC polls than you will on election day. How is that democratic?

          Our current single-vote system hides the fact that when we go to the polls, we actually have two goals.

          The first is to select someone who can represent our local community’s interests to the Canadian government as a whole. Basically, we are selecting an advocate to represent us, and like all good advocates, they should be focused on *us* – our needs, our desires, our will. They should be, perhaps, a little self-centred and selfish when it comes to making demands of the government, and try to do what is best for the community they are representing first, and the country as a whole second.

          The second goal is to select the make-up of the Canadian government itself. This is where we decide whether the principles and plans of the Conservative Party or the Liberal Party or whatever are principles we want our government to have and the plans we want it to undertake.

          These are two distinct goals, and they can contradict. For example, if I lived in Manitoba I might want to vote for someone from a “Manitoba First” party to represent my interests to the government… but I wouldn’t want the *entire government* to prioritize Manitoba over the good of the country as a whole – that would be absurd and would probably *hurt* the country (and, by extension, Manitoba) overall.

          The party system exists to ameliorate this situation somewhat, but it obviously doesn’t solve it (as the example above shows, and real-world regional parties like the Bloc and Reform). The idea is that you can mush the two choices into one by picking a representative who is party of a team with the right principles and plans. But ultimately, you’re still only making one choice, so if there’s ever a conflict, you’re prioritizing one or the other.

          This problem will continue to exist under an AV/IRV system. You still have two goals, one vote. The fact that you have slighter better control for one of those goals is simply not good enough to justify making this half-assed “fix” rather than a proper fix of the problem.

          Real proportional voting systems usually give each citizen multiple votes. STV does, but in a less intuitive way for Canada’s parliamentary structure, which is why i prefer MMP. MMP maps clearly to the two choices each citizen has to make at election time. You vote for your rep. Then you vote to make your say as to the makeup of government. Clear and obvious.

          A more important and general point, though, is that any kind of minority can get representation in parliament without having a prayer (so to speak) of getting into power. It’s entirely possible that a coalition of predominantly religious parties would relegate predominantly irreligious parties to opposition status under a PR system, in one parliament after another.

          They can do the *exact* same thing by forming their “coalition” before the election as a single, big tent party.

          Nor is that just theoretical, because, in fact, arguably, they already are. The Conservative Party of Canada* is a back-room coalition of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, various Christian groups, and mid-Western regionalists (ie, the former Reform Party). This coalition is blatant and obvious – we know the CPC was formed by merging the Progressive Conservatives with the Reform, and we have seen factions rise up in Parliament… yet we don’t know what proportions of those groups are represented in (to estimate the power balance), who represents which faction, or even a complete list of which factions exist. We not only have no idea what compromises were made, we have no idea what compromises might have been required. All of that is hidden from us under that big tent, which they need to get any power in our system because our system punishes small parties. If we had a proportional system, they wouldn’t *need* a big tent party (in fact, some of the factions would probably benefit from striking out on their own and ditching the nuttier factions), and if they had to form a coalition, we could see the structure of the coalition rather than having it all hidden from view.

          * Incidentally, I’m picking on the Conservatives only as a matter of convenience. That they’re a hodge-podge of smaller interests is obvious both from the fact of their forming, and from the recent “uprisings” in the House. It is entirely possible that the Liberals, the NDP, are the Greens are similarly schizophrenic. It’s just that the evidence for those cases is far less blatant than it is for the Conservatives.

          I suspect that Joe is overstating the small “c” conservatism of Canadians and the cowardice of our politicians and so forth, but do you really not see Canada’s somewhat hidebound political culture as a potentially significant obstacle?

          No. Clearly the biggest obstacle here is that Canadians are sorely uninformed about a topic that has long since been settled by political scientists, and that most of the world is already on board with. Canadians may be “hidebound”, but they’re also proud, and they would not be comfortable with realizing how backward they are on this topic.

          Ultimately this is a change that benefits all Canadians. Does it benefit *CURRENT* political structures? No, not most of them. But it *does* benefit some of them, and it actually particularly benefits issue-based political groups (like the Greens with their environmental focus), provided their issue is one that resonates with enough Canadians. In other words, yes, there are a few temporary losers – the current big political parties will suffer until they readjust to the new landscape… but that’s only in the short term, and in the long term they will probably find things even easier (no more winning/losing hundreds of seats on two or three percentage points), so long as they’re willing to let go of their mad desire for absolute uncompromising power… and *everyone* else wins.

  4. Great post! I voted to change our electoral system when we were given the chance a few years back but scaremongers citing fascist parties becoming, well parties in Europe freaked many people out and they didn’t go for it. I even remember some people claiming that they voted against the reform because they wanted things to be fair (clearly misunderstanding how unfair our current system is).

    Someone needs to soundbite this information for mass consumption so people get it!

    • I’d love to do that, but while I know a lot about both statistics and graphics, I don’t know a lot about marketing. In other words, I know how to gather data, parse it, and produce visualizations, but I don’t know what the audience *needs* to see. Otherwise I could put all this stuff in a nice infographic or something.

      I’ll see what I can do, though!

  5. Just a little update:

    While it doesn’t seem like election reform is going to be an issue in the Ontario election, there are hints that it could be a key issue in the next federal election. It’s still early, but it’s starting to look like one of the strategies the other parties are planning to use is to paint Harper and the Conservatives as authoritarian and undemocratic. That’s been a strategy they’ve been hinting at for years – what with the Conservatives racking up one election scandal after another, picking fights with Elections Canada, silencing opposition (scientists with research that contradicts their policies, and even their own backbenchers), avoiding open debate on any important issues, and just generally being uncompromising and dictatorial – but the Fair Elections Act may have been the tipping point. Opposition to the Fair Elections Act has pretty much gone viral, and the other parties smell blood in the water and are circling the issue.

    Now this isn’t news for either the Green Party or the NDP – election reform has been on their platform for years. The Bloc has always supported the idea verbally, though it’s never been in their platform (not that it matters, really).

    However, what is news is this. (Well, it’s not *news* news – it’s a couple weeks old, but I hadn’t checked up on the Grits before this.)

    What this is, is one of the priority policy resolutions the Liberals voted on in their convention last month. Ignore the flowery language, and the nitty-gritty details about transparency proposals. Look at the last paragraph.

    Yes, that’s right. Electoral reform is now on the Liberals’ agenda. That means 4 of the 5 major federal parties are pushing for reform; and 2 of the big 3 (assuming the NDP manages to hold on to its gains). The only major federal party not supporting electoral reform is the Conservative Party.

    If the Liberals’ policy proposal actually makes its way into their platform, then the Liberals are promising that within a year of being elected (assuming they win), they will make proposals for reforming the electoral process – either to a ranked system (bad) or a proportional one (good). (Best would be a system that is both ranked *and* proportional – such as a MMP system with reps chosen by IRV, then made proportional via list MPs.)

    This is very likely going to be an issue in the next election. We – Canadian atheists, humanists, and freethinkers – can make this a *key* issue by becoming more informed about it, and talking more about it, especially where the candidates will hear.

    • That’s good news. There’s a lot of ground to traverse between policy proposals and an actual change in the voting system, but the journey of a thousand li begins with the first step, and all that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Help

WordPress theme: Kippis 1.15