Thursday, May 21, 2015

A proposal for electoral reform

I remain unconvinced that our current 'first-past-the-post' electoral system is in dire need of reform or is the best of a list of bad options, just as I am unconvinced that proportional representation is the solution, if there is indeed a problem to be solved. But I've had an idea for a different electoral system rattling around in my head for awhile that, I think, would be a good compromise between the two systems.

There are a few good things about our current system. Regional representation is important in a diverse county like ours, and being able to have MPs that represent regions and communities is a positive feature of our electoral system. Being able to directly elect, or directly defeat, our representatives is another one. MPs are accountable to their constituents, not a party leader who can choose where to rank them on a party list.

At the same time, our system is woefully undemocratic in that it can give parties a majority government with far less than majority support. And because of the quirks of first-past-the-post, parties can received far more or far fewer seats than their popular support warrants. 

A recent example is the British election that just came to a close. UKIP won 13% of the vote, but just 0.2% of the seats (one). The Scottish National Party, meanwhile, won just 5% of the vote but 9% of the seats. It will be the third-largest party in the British House of Commons, despite taking far less of the vote than either UKIP or the Liberal Democrats.

Some might argue that the FPTP system gives us more stable governments, and that might be a compelling argument for some. But even if that was the goal, does it need to come at the price of these other perverse effects?

Proportional representation has no such oddities, and if voters want a stable majority government they can give a majority of their votes to one party (or group of parties). But a closed list with the names determined by the party is, in my opinion, a very significant flaw. We are supposed to elect people to represent us, not just any warm body that will vote according to party lines. Lists remove the ability for voters to directly elect or directly defeat individuals who deserve it. 

Yes, parties may suffer (or benefit) from having good or bad names on their list, and they can be held accountable in that way. But that is a very indirect form of accountability. It also means that individuals who are very good local representatives, but not important enough to warrant a high rank on a national list, can fall by the wayside. Or very bad local representatives with too low a profile to negatively effect a party's national chances may find themselves re-elected because they are useful in the legislature.

The ideal system, then, would seem to be one that retains proportionality and individual accountability.

There are a few electoral systems that try to bridge this gap. In my view, they all have problems.

Proportional representation with an open list can be terribly complicated, requiring voters to cast a ballot for multiple candidates, or just some candidates and then generally for the party, or variations of that. It's just too much. 

With single-transferable vote, voters rank their preferred candidates. The effect can sometimes be as bad as FPTP, at least in terms of proportionality, though there are some ways to re-jig things to avoid that. Still, being a second or third preference is different from being a first choice. Update: As some commenters have pointed out, I have simplified STV to the point of being misleading. STV systems can be (but not always are) quite proportional, though they can have the non-proportionality of FPTP when they take the form of instant run-off voting (which is a form of STV when it is applied to single-member ridings). PR-STV and IRV are two different systems, and I mistakenly equated them too much here.

Mixed-member proportional representation gives people two votes, which again complicates things. Voters cast a ballot for an individual, and a party. Proportionality is achieved by 'topping up' parties via a list. So, again, we're stuck with a list of candidates whose rank is determined by the party. Update: More clarifications prompted from the peanut gallery - some MMPR systems require only one vote instead of two, and in some systems the list of candidates is an open one, with various methods of determining who makes it on the list. To sum up - there are a few different electoral systems, but each of those have a multitude of variations.

My solution is very simple, retains many of the positive features of FPTP, such as individual accountability and regional representation, as well as proportionality. We wouldn't have to change the way we draw boundaries or the number of seats each province receives. 

(A cursory search did not find any system like this elsewhere in the world. If there is one, my apologies for trying to re-invent something that already exists!) Update: Another one! I have made the very grave error (unforgivable, even) of overlooking the good people of Baden-Württemburg, who use a system similar to, but not identical to, the one I propose below. 

How it works

This system, which for simplicity's sake I'll call '308PR', does not do away with ridings and does not change how people vote. Their ballot would look identical to the way it looks now, and they would mark it in the exact same way. Parties would nominate one candidate per riding, as they do now. But what voters are doing is not directly electing an individual representative, but rather creating each party's list.

308PR is proportional representation, divided up into Canada's 10 provinces and three territories. To keep things simple (and avoid constitutional negotiations), we'll award each province the number of seats they had in the last election. So, 106 for Ontario, 75 for Quebec, and so on. Each province is handled separately for the purposes of the calculation, so that each party receives the proportion of seats equal to the proportion of votes they received in each province.

The minimum threshold I've used for 308PR is 3% of the national vote. It could be any other number, but I think 3% is a reasonable threshold to use.

Every party that receives at least 3% of the national vote wins the proportion of seats in each province that their vote in each province warrants, rounding up or down as necessary. If, at the end of the distribution of seats to each of the parties, there are seats leftover, those seats are then distributed proportionately. If any province is awarded more seats than it should have, the lowest-hanging candidates are dropped.

Let's use, as an example, the 2011 election. With 308PR, the Conservatives would have been awarded 126 seats (123 via straight proportional representation, plus three top-ups), the New Democrats would have been awarded 95 seats (94 + 1), the Liberals would get 59 seats, the Bloc Québécois would get 18 seats, and the Greens would get 10.

Who gets to fill those seats? The voters get to decide.

Under this system, the Conservatives would have been awarded 12 seats in Quebec (75 seats x 16.5% = 12.4 seats, rounded down to 12). The list of 12 Conservatives would be formed by identifying the top 12 Conservative candidates in Quebec's 75 ridings, according to vote share. 

This process would be repeated for every party in every province. In other words, each party's provincial list is populated by the candidates that took the largest share of the vote in their respective ridings.

Provincial MPs with local responsibilities

What this does is allow voters to vote for (or against) individuals to be their representatives. The local connection is retained, and the party list is formed according to who voters wanted most. But it avoids having to ask voters to select, in effect, their top 12 Conservative candidates from a list of 75 in Quebec. Even with smaller districts, it would still require a lot of knowledge. With 308PR, voters don't have to know any more than they already do when entering the ballot box. If your local candidate gets enough votes, he'll be high enough on the party's list to be elected.

In Quebec, Maxime Bernier would have placed first on the Conservatives' Quebec list with the 50.7% of the vote he obtained in the riding of Beauce. But once he gets to the House of Commons, he would be considered just a Quebec MP, and not one particularly for the Beauce. He would be one of 75 Quebec MPs, coming from all five major parties.

But how Bernier would act as an MP would be up to him. While representing Conservative voters throughout Quebec, Bernier would still owe his re-election chances to the people in the Beauce riding. He'd probably still have his constituency office in the Beauce. He would be the local representative in practice, if not officially. 

Parties would be required to assign each of their MPs a 'region' of their province (a group of ridings, drawn up by the parties themselves) to act as its main representative, ensuring that every part of every province has a representative from each party. How the MPs fulfill their jobs would be up to them - and the incentives would be high to take their role seriously. Someone like Bernier might need to worry only about the Beauce, but an MP that took less of the vote will need to ensure that enough voters from their assigned region cast a ballot for their party in the next election in order for the list to get long enough to include them.

Resignations, small parties, and independents

There would be no by-elections in 308PR. When an MP resigns or passes away, the next person on the list from that MP's party takes their place immediately. If that person declines, the next name on the list is invited to take a seat in the House of Commons, and so on.

Independents or representatives of very small parties would still have a chance if local voters want them in the House of Commons. The system would award a seat to any candidate who wins a riding in the traditional FPTP way, if the party that candidate represents does not reach the 3% national threshold.

To avoid gaming the system, a party would not be able to win more seats in this fashion than a party that receives 3% of the vote. A party would be capped at 3% of the seats in the legislature if they don't hit 3% of the vote, or nine seats in the case of the 308-seat map. So, a party could not put all its resources in 20 seats and not run a single candidate anywhere else. If they did so, they could still win no more than nine seats.

And in 308PR, Elections Canada would be given powers to prevent colluding between candidates who, by officially registering as independents, hope to get around this rule. Independents would be forbidden from colluding or helping candidates of an official party or other independents in other ridings in any way.

Pros and cons

This system provides proportional representation as well as local accountability without any gimmicks or complicated voting methods. It's simple and easy to understand. If people are more interested in voting for a party than an individual, their vote does that. If they are more interested in voting for the local candidate than the party, their votes does that too. The only 'strategic vote' that comes into play would be if you are particularly fond of a local candidate that might come from a different party. That isn't a bad thing. Very few votes are 'wasted' - in the case of 2011, just 1%.

If there is one problem with this system, it is that a handful of ridings would elect more than one candidate. In theory, as MPs are elected to represent their province, this is not a problem. The ridings just populate the lists. 

While some ridings might get better served than others, this happens anyway with our system, which has ridings that can be taken for granted and others that are battlegrounds. And parties would be running a risk by focusing energy on these double-represented ridings - better to try to get votes where there is less competition in order to boost the party's overall numbers.

In any case, to me it makes more sense to have two candidates that had very wide support in the legislature than one that only won because of a divided vote. There are more than a few MPs in the House of Commons today who received far less of the vote share in their riding than some defeated party colleagues did elsewhere.

The 2011 election under 308PR

By now, I'm sure you've identified some holes in the system or some problems you have with it. I hope you'll post your thoughts in the comments section. But for now, let's look at who 308PR would have elected - and defeated - in 2011.

In the charts below, I've listed the MPs who would have been elected and the vote share they received in their ridings. Candidates with an asterisk are those who would be elected under 308PR, but were not under FPTP. You can click on the charts to magnify them.

The Conservatives would have won 126 seats, with 52 in the West and North, 48 in Ontario, 14 in Atlantic Canada, and 12 in Quebec.

Ed Fast would have topped the list in British Columbia. James Moore would have been elected with no trouble. But other notable candidates, like John Duncan, James Lunney, and Nina Grewal, would not have made it onto the list.

Stephen Harper would finish in the middle of the table in Alberta, along with Ted Menzies, Jason Kenney, Rona Ambrose, Deepak Obhrai, and James Rajotte. Rob Anders would have been the last name on the list. Not on the list would be Lee Richardson, Peter Goldring, Laurie Hawn, and Tim Uppal. Mike Lake, Devinder Shory, and Michelle Rempel would get added to the list with the resignations of Menzies, Brian Jean, and Rob Merrifield later on in the term.

Tom Lukiwski and Kelly Block would not make the list of eight MPs from Saskatchewan, though Gerry Ritz, Lynne Yelich, and Andrew Scheer would.

Candice Bergen and Vic Toews would top the list in Manitoba, but Joyce Bateman would not make it. Rod Bruinooge would replace Toews after his resignation, and Shelly Glover would stand in for Merv Tweed.

There would be a big list of names that would not make it among Ontario's 48 Conservatives. But topping the list would be Mike Chong. Peter Van Loan, Peter Kent, Jim Flaherty, Patrick Brown, Julian Fantino, Tony Clement, Lisa Raitt, Pierre Poilievre, Rob Nicholson, Paul Calandra, Diane Finley, Dean Del Mastro, and Kellie Leitch - they'd all make it, and Joe Oliver, among others, would come in later on in the term. There would be some big absences, though: John Baird, Chris Alexander, Bal Gosal, Roxanne James, and Eve Adams.

The Conservatives would get seven extra MPs from Quebec than they did with FPTP, including Josée Verner, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Lawrence Cannon, and Larry Smith. They are probably happy that Saulie Zajdel, though, did not make it.

Mike Allen would top the list in New Brunswick, but Keith Ashfield. Bernard Valcourt, and Robert Goguen would not be on it.

All of the Nova Scotia MPs elected in 2011 would be elected with 308PR, along with Cecil Clarke. In Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, Tim Ogilvie and Fabian Manning would join Gail Shea and Peter Penashue. 

And the Conservatives would win both of the single-district territories they did in 2011.

John Ottenheimer would replace Penashue after his resignation (though he resigned to run-again in actual fact, so who knows how this would have worked).

Most of the Conservatives' top bench makes it to the House of Commons, with some notable absences. The extra MPs from Quebec would have certainly come in handy, though. But the question is whether these Conservatives would have been on the governing or opposition benches, as the Tories would only hold a small plurality of seats.

The New Democrats would also lose seats with 308PR, being awarded 95 instead of 103, with 27 in the West and North, 28 in Ontario, 32 in Quebec, and eight in Atlantic Canada.

Outside of Quebec, Jinny Sims would be the only current NDP MP that would not have been elected under this system. In fact, Zeni Maartman would have replaced Denise Savoie after her departure rather than Sims. The rest of the list in B.C. is full of familiar names like Libby Davies, Nathan Cullen, Peter Julian, and Fin Donnelly.

Linda Duncan would have been joined by four other MPs in Alberta: former provincial leader Ray Martin, as well as Mark Sandilands, Lewis Cardinal, and Nadine Bailey.

Instead of being shutout in Saskatchewan, the NDP would have been awarded five MPs, led by Nettie Wiebe, Noah Evanchuk, and Lawrence Joseph.

In addition to Pat Martin and Niki Ashton, the NDP would elect Jim Maloway and Rebecca Blaikie in Manitoba.

Jack Layton would head the party list in Ontario, joined by other NDP luminaries like David Christopherson, Olivia Chow, Paul Dewar, Charlie Angus, and Peggy Nash. Joining the historically elected MPs would be a few other names that were not so lucky, including Taras Natyshak who won election as an NDP MPP in 2014.

The biggest difference for the NDP would be Quebec, where instead of winning 59 seats (or 79% of the seats) the party would take just 32 (or 43%). Thomas Mulcair, Françoise Boivin, and Nycole Turmel would all make it. But we would not have been introduced to Quebec New Democrats like Claude Patry, Pierre-Luc Dusseault, Lise St-Denis, and Ruth Ellen Brosseau.

In New Brunswick, Yvon Godin would be joined by Rob Moir and Shawna Gagné, while all the MPs historically elected in Nova Scotia and in Newfoundland and Labrador would win under 308PR. 

The NDP would have been awarded a seat in Prince Edward Island, but with two seats going to both the Liberals and Conservatives, the NDP had the lowest-hanging candidate and was bumped from the province.

Brian White, Trevor Haché, and Marc Laferriere would have been the replacement Ontario NDP MPs for Layton, Chow, and Glenn Thibeault.

Overall, the NDP ends up with a similarly-sized caucus as under FPTP. But their parliamentary group would be less artificially weighted towards Quebec than it is currently.

Along with the Bloc and the Greens, the Liberals would benefit most from this sort of system - at least in 2011. They were beneficiaries of FPTP in the past.

The Liberals would win 59 seats, with 11 in the West, 27 in Ontario, 11 in Quebec, and 10 in Atlantic Canada.

Joyce Murray and Hedy Fry would still win in B.C., but they would be joined by Ujjal Dosanjh, Sukh Dhaliwal, and Taleeb Noormohamed.

Three Liberals would have been elected in Alberta: Cam Stewart, Mary MacDonald, and Janice Kinch.

Ralph Goodale and Kevin Lamoureux would have still made it in the Prairies, along with Anita Neville.

Many of the Liberals' incumbents in Ontario would not have been defeated under this system. Along with those who were in fact elected would be Rob Oliphant, Borys Wrzesnewskyj, Martha Hall Findlay, Joe Volpe, Mark Holland, Navdeep Bains, and Michael Ignatieff, to name a few. Ignatieff would have just avoided not making it on to the list. But you can see that there were many defeated Liberals who took more of the vote in their own ridings than some victorious Liberals.

Not so in Quebec, where the top seven all come from actually-elected MPs. In addition to them, headed by Stéphane Dion, would be Marlene Jennings, Bernard Patry, Pablo Rodriguez, and Noushig Eloyan.

Jean-Claude D'Amours would join Dominic Leblanc as the Liberals' New Brunswick representation. 

In the rest of Atlantic Canada, Scott Andrews, Sean Casey, and Geoff Regan would all come up short. 

Alexandra Mendès would stand-in for Denis Coderre when he ran for mayor, while Yasmin Ratansi and Omar Alghabra would be the Ontario replacements.

With 18 MPs, the Bloc would have hardly been considered dead. In fact, the FPTP system exaggerated the Bloc's defeat in both senses. In 2008, the Bloc won 49 seats. But with 38.1% of the vote, they deserved just 29 of them. In 2011, the Bloc won four seats, but with 23.4% of the vote deserved 18 of them. The drop from 29 to 18 seats would not have been seen nearly as dramatically.

In addition, Gilles Duceppe would have avoided defeat. Other heavy-hitters for the Bloc, like Michel Guimond, Pierre Paquette, Bernard Bigras, and Daniel Paillé would have avoided defeat as well. More than enough of a nucleus to rebuild the party back to its former glory.

Finally the Greens, who would have won 10 seats under 308PR. That still penalizes them a little, but that is due to the low vote share they took in Atlantic Canada and in Saskatchewan - too low to warrant a seat. But the party would have won five in the West, three in Ontario, and two in Quebec.

Only Elizabeth May and Adriane Carr might be familiar to you. They were also the only Green candidates to take more than 15% of the vote in any riding outside of the Yukon.

But this would have been an interesting parliamentary group, include two Quebecers and one MP from Alberta.

Alternate history

Interestingly, these numbers do not make it so easy to figure out what kind of government would have been formed. The Conservatives would have had difficulty finding another dancing partner with just 126 seats, but theoretically could have come to terms with the Liberals to put together a majority.

If the Liberals teamed-up with the NDP instead, the two would together have had 154 seats. They'd probably need the Greens or a few floor-crossers to have a shot at a stable government.

And what would have come before then if a system like this was in place? A Paul Martin-Jack Layton government in 2006? A rainbow coalition with the NDP and Greens under Stéphane Dion in 2008? Jean Chrétien and the PCs in 1993 and 1997, or with the NDP in 2000? How about an anti-free trade John Turner-Ed Broadbent government in 1988, Pierre Trudeau-NDP coalitions throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, a John Diefenbaker-Social Credit coalition in the 1960s... An interesting counter-factual history. But will a future with the first-past-the-post system endure?