Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Pollcast: The summer of electoral reform is over

All summer, the special committee on electoral reform has been hearing from expert witnesses on how Canada's voting system should (or should not) change. Soon it will be hitting the road and meeting with Canadians directly before submitting its final recommendations.

But after hours of discussion, is the committee any closer to a consensus on what Canada's electoral system should be?

Joining me to parse through what MPs heard all summer, are the CBC's Aaron Wherry and the Ottawa Citizen's Kady O'Malley.

And if you've followed me on Twitter, you know I have a special place in my heart for Baden-Württemberg's electoral system. I try to sell it to Aaron and Kady. It goes over about as well as you'd think.

You can listen to the podcast here and subscribe to the podcast here.


  1. In 2011 there was a referendum on electoral reform in the UK. The Labour party famously opposed PR because in their best analysis this would be against their best interests. Lo-and-behold barely five years later it turns out Labour would do a lot better under PR than under the present system.

    Let this be a warning to any party voting against a proposal merely on self-interest considerations. In fact, I think PR/AV would be the best think it could happen to the PC: it would get rid of its nastiest elements while keeping the vast majority of the promises they can actually implement when in power anyways, thus vastly increasing their electoral chances.

    1. The UK referendum was on alternative vote, not on any form of proportional representation.

  2. I am unsure where you get your data from but, Labour almost certainly would do better under FPTP than PR today. For one thing PR would make it far more likely for Labour to split into pro and anti Corbyn camps. It is difficult to know how "Labour" would perform if it split. The last numbers I saw had Labour on 173 seats (assuming they don't split and the Tories close to 400). Currently the Tories enjoy a 14 point lead over Labour 42% v 28%. Full PR then would give Labour 168 seats slightly below the last prediction and well below their last election performance of 30% of the vote and 232 seats! But given the Corbyn fiasco Labour might do well to achieve even that. I sincerely doubt AV/PR would "get rid of the nastiest elements (of politics)". One need only look at the on-going Labour leadership shambles -that lo and behold use a form of AV to pick their leader to see your assertion is on shaky ground.

    1. "For one thing PR would make it far more likely for Labour to split into pro and anti Corbyn camps."

      That's exactly the point though. It wouldn't force to camps that hate each other into the same dysfunctional party. And they're likely to split anyways, in which case they face disaster under FPTP.

      "It is difficult to know how "Labour" would perform if it split."

      Yougov polled this:

      TL; DR - If anti-Corbyn Labour MPs strike out on their own (and they have no reason not to, since Corbyn will likely block their re-nomination anyways), Labour support would drop from 29% to 21%, with "New Labour" taking 13% of the vote off on it's own. Separate, they take 5% of the vote more than they do together. So under PR, they'd get 221 seats combined. Under FPTP, with such a split they get around 198 seats combined. Plus two potential coalition partners get boosts - the Greens and the Lib Dems.

      "But given the Corbyn fiasco Labour might do well to achieve even that. I sincerely doubt AV/PR would "get rid of the nastiest elements (of politics)"

      On AV you're 110% right. It's pretty obvious why too - under AV, your second choice doesn't get counted unless your first choice is eliminated, which means the top two parties don't really have to care what each others' supporters think. Just like now. And anyone even passingly familiar with Australian and French politics would know theirs are just as much as a crapsack as ours, even with run-offs.

      For PR, it does make a difference, for a pretty simple reason - you don't want to piss off the people you might form a coalition with. And even the top 2 parties can and do form coalitions. It's what's governing Germany now. A Tory-Labour coalition would likely be governing the UK now under PR even.

    2. Ryan,

      Fragmented parties lead to factional politics. They (Labour) get potential coalition partners but, really only if they work together and only if the coalition partners agree-so there is a price to pay: Instability.

      Making every vote count does not produce prosperous societies. Peace, Order and Good Government produce prosperous societies-even Civilisation itself! Proportional representation gives you fractional politics where some of the darkest politics of the Twentieth Century originated. FPTP gives countries brokerage politics and parties where generally speaking it is to their benefit to listen to and respond to citizens' needs and desires. Parties and Government appeal to large swathes of the population and because general agreement and good will exist stability and prosperity are far more likely to succeed. An educated citizenry emerges to hold the Government to account. Factionalism produces internecine rivalries and battles. Agreement becomes more difficult because of the number of agreements or side agreements that need to be made. Then some idiot comes along and promises everyone he'll make America great again. Or Germany great again or promises the Italian-the Italian! Railways will run on time!

      So that is the point-FPTP gives Labour a very large incentive to stay together thereby promoting brokerage politics and moderate policies that benefit most of society. Brokerage politics makes it possible for formerly "radical ideas" (socialised healthcare, income tax, gay rights) to be accepted even welcomed by the broader society.

      It is a far better way to run a country one need only look at Italy, Spain and Greece to see why.

    3. Ryan,

      FPTP promotes brokerage politics-AV/PR promote factionalism-that is the point! Labour has absolutely no incentive to split. Brokerage parties appeal to large swathes of the population by promoting policies generally acceptable even desired by most people. As many of these policies are expensive or cumbersome citizen agreement even participation is needed to complete the task. Brokerage politics promotes broad agreement among the citizenry by having parties whereby internal compromise is adhered to in an effort to promote the greater good. Programs such a universal healthcare, pensions, Aboriginal rights are the direct result.

      PR and AV by contrast cause politics to fragment. Making "every vote count" (it is debatable whether PR and AV even do that) does not produce or promote prosperous, cultured and educated societies. Peace, Order and Good Government promote and produce prosperous societies-May even be the prerequisite for Civilisation itself! PR produces fragmented politics and promotes factionalism and with it some of the darkest politics of the Twentieth Century have been rendered.

      You write that PR would allow for the pro and anti-Corbynistas to be separate and would improve their chances of forming Government by increasing their seats count. How likely are pro and anti Corbyn camps to work together after a divorce? What it really does is turn Labour from a party able to compete for Governement into two parties; one completely radicalised and lead by a discredited former leader of The Opposition and a new party that whatever its attributes is deeply divided. A British voter would rightly ask: "If Labour can't stick together, how will they be able to fend off the charms of a Nicola Sturgeon and keep the U.K. together"? PR/AV may give Labour "potential coalition partners" if and only if pro and anti-Corbyn Labour work together to cobble together a Government. In fact I think you may be badly misreading Liberal-Democratic voters, it would be difficult for many of them to work with an out-right socialist party. Potential may exist to form coalitions; If Corbyn Labour gets X number of seats and if Anti-Corbyn Labour get Y number of seats and if the Greens get Z number of seats and if they sign a governing agreement and if the Lib Dems get A number of seats and if they agree to govern with them-a lot of "ifs"-6. In reality all it will do is turn a party that was able to compete for Government into two parties neither one of which is a competitor. So, AV/PR has a cost that must be paid. Instability.

      Some, mainly homogeneous countries can tolerate the instability, usually small ethnically united with a single language; Denmark, The Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and be prosperous. Much more diverse countries with large immigrant populations have much more difficulty maintaining stability and getting general agreement amongst the population for national projects. Hence, the rise of the Front Nationale in France and Alternativ fur Deutschland in Germany. These parties though on the fringe and deemed by some as extreme are moderate compared to what PR produced in the twentieth Century.

      That is the fallacy of electoral reform: it does not promote good governance much less good Government-it creates fragmented politics where everyone need not agree because separate alternative exists for all. Agreement becomes impossible as more and more side or sub-agreements must be reached to stitch together a majority. The result is what we see today in the US Congress-stagnation.

      That is the point-First Past The Post promotes and helps create the environment for brokerage politics to succeed.

      A note on German politics. The SPD is considerably to the right (centre) of Jeremy Corbyn. The only reason the SPD is part of Merkels' grand coalition is because it was the only card they had to play after the 2013 general election. It was too small with 193/631 to form Government on its own even with the support of the Left party and Green party.

    4. The difference in the factionalism between FPTP and AV/PR is that voters get a say in the balance of power. For example, there is a definite policy difference between Reform Conservatives and Progressive Conservatives. Under FPTP, voters only vote for the generic Conservative, while AV/PR would allow voters the choice between them. Thus the "internal party politics" become "external" and brokerage between the various camps is done in the light of day.

      How government operates is independent of how it's elected. Instability is how we walk, always balancing on the edge of falling. The Front Nationale doesn't exist in France because of their voting structure, it exists because it reflects the sentiments of a distinct group of voters. Those same voters would have influence on a different party if that couldn't be expressed view the FN.

  3. And what's wrong with FPTP ?? Really decent sample of public opinion and too bad the Tories lose !!

    1. Nothing is wromg with FPTP Peter. It is the best of all electoral systems. It is wrong for the Liberals to meddle with it without general agreement among Canadians-a referendum would secure and grant such legitimacy.

    2. Agreed Paul and to me the only reason for a referendum would be "Should we investigate other voting systems??"

      And since we are agreed it is the best why should we change ??

    3. FPTP effectively disenfranchises people like me, who don't support any of the major parties. Of course, for many people, the fact that FPTP disenfranchises people who disagree with them is an advantage of the system, not a disadvantage.

    4. No it doesn't stop complaining!

      You have every opportunity to vote-if you do not support any candidates or parties that too is a choice. Alternatively, you could get some intestinal fortitude and run for election yourself! You seem to be an articulate writer I see no reason why you could not serve.

    5. Any democratic system is going to disenfranchise minorities. I'm atypical, and I never get the government I want, and that's not going to change with a change in electoral system.

      Because bills are still passed using FPTP voting. It doesn't matter if your fringe party gets a member in parliament. One MP can't pass laws.

  4. Politically, what the Liberals should do if they want to implement electoral reform while also making the opposition look stupid, they should hold a referendum to choose between STV and PR. That precludes sticking with FPTP (something they promised they'd change), and it uses a referendum to do it (something the opposition has demanded).

    But it doesn't do what the opposition wants. I think this would be a clever political move.

  5. Peter -- FPTP is the worst voting system. Its results are determined more by arbitrary lines on a map than by voter choice. Those lines have been gerrymandered and manipulated for centuries. Any defence of FPTP needs to justify North Carolina's Twelfth District and the existence of the riding of Kenora (bonus points for justifying Old Sarum).

    Peter -- FPTP doesn't produce stability. From 2004-2011, Canada had 4 elections in 8 years and two governments fell on no-confidence motions. FPTP rewards regional voter bases, which advantages regionally-based nationalist and separatist parties who by definition are against stability.

    1. No it is not !! It allows you to look at all the party platforms and all the candidates and make up your own mind.
      What's not to like ?? Oh YES The Tories don't have a chance !!

    2. Mixed member proportional representation systems, such as exist in places like New Zealand and Germany, do not lead to instability and frequent elections, collapses of government etc. There is a lot of documentation on this. It is ridiculous that a party getting 27 % of the vote (as the PCs did in 1993) should get only 2 seats in parliament. That would never happen with a MMPR system.

    3. The Progressive Conservative party only garnered 16% of the vote in 1993. It is not ridiculous it is the way the system works and it works well. Of course it would never happen with MMP as that system is designed to reward the losers, it allows politicians who otherwise would be defeated serve in parliament. You either play by the rules or you whine about them.

      What is ridiculous is minor parties who receive a small per centage of the vote demanding a say in Government. This happens a great deal in MMP system where minor parties, who often receive only 5% of the vote such as the Free Democrats or New Zealand First blackmail large concessions from the Government to implement policies without a mandate to do so. Fortunately, only the NDP has the arrogance to do so in Canada, and then only on rare occasions but, that would change with a different electoral system.

    4. Goaltender Interference,

      Riding boundaries are not "arbitrary lines". They are drawn by independent electoral commissions! They are drawn to give equal representation to all Canadians while incorporating communities and neighbourhoods within their boundaries!

      Please do some independent research on this as you are way off the map and I find your comments insulting, untrue and just plain incorrect. They provide the less educated with incorrect facts that may to the untrained or learned slander their faith in Canada's electoral system and politics-It's a very Trumpian statement.

      Secondly, your assertion of gerrymandering is foolish, untrue and almost wholly fictional. I can find no record of gerrymandering in post-Confederation Canada-I can write with metaphysical certainty-it has not been going on for centuries (the gerrymandering of Canadian electoral districts).

      Please read and research Canadian history before you make historically incorrect statements. Your disparaging of the Canadian electoral system is entirely without basis

    5. Goaltender Interference,

      There is some truth that FPTP produces regional separatist parties but, less so I would say than other systems notably PR. Look at Belgium: It has a political party for every stripe in German, Flemish and French as well as both Nationalist Fleming and Wallonian parties. Who can forget the Northern League that brought about Silvio Burlesconi, it started as a regional autonomist party. Catalonia has any number of separatist parties in their parliament elected under PR subjecting Catalans to voting three times over the last five years!

      By contrast other than Quebec separatist parties have been few and far between. My Cape Breton Labour party had limited success and we were our own Colony Once! There is a very minimal Western separatist movement mainly out of One Hundred Dollar Oil Alberta. Whether it exists now with such changed provincial finances is anyone's guess.

      I have long thought Vancouver and the Gulf Islands and the North Coast of British Columbia including Haida Gwaii deserved to be their own provinces. Both were colonies before the advent of British Columbia. Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands would have a population of close to a million. Haida Gwaii and the North Coast have such a unique and distinct cultures and natural geography both regions would be a natural fits for provincehood.

    6. That FPTP produces regional parties is a strength, not a weakness.

    7. Winnipeg striker, sorry, my eyes jumped a line when reading the percentage for the PCs in 1993. 27 % was the swing against them from the previous election. However, they got a larger proportion of the vote than the NDP or Bloc, and a much smaller share of the seats.

      To suggest that the current system works well compared to that in Germany or New Zealand is to ignore the fact that these countries have stable governments, and even can generate majorities. Voter participation is much higher, and there are several other benefits. If you take the trouble to read Fair Vote Canada's submission to the Electoral Reform committee, you can see all the details

    8. oh the German system that recently allowed the election of the neo-Nazi far right Alternativ fur Deutschland into the Berlin State Parliament-Yes. now that is a system we should replicate in Canada-Wonderful idea! Then, lets build a wall-right across Hans Island in the Arctic-that'll teach those meddlesome Danes and Greenlanders! The system provides reasonable stability sure. It does not however, work well. With both the CDU and SPD sharing Government the Germans have little option but, to look at extreme alternative parties as an alternative to the Grand Coalition. The system does not work well because it gives Germans few alternatives which is the same criticism pro-electoral reform groups say about FPTP!

      The New Zealand system works better because of its Westminster traditions and conventions but, it gives small parties with little public support the ability to coax large concessions from the Government. Currently parties that received a whopping 2% of the popular vote at the last election hold the balance of power! The National Party won its fifth election in a row and its traditional Opposition -the Labour Party was reduced in seats and popular vote again. So, rather than promoting democracy we see the New Zealand MMP system is slowly eroding the ability of the system to produce competitive elections and alternative governments!-

      Great idea if you are a Liberal M.P. in Ottawa who wants to stay in office until a Senate seat opens up!

  6. Striker - I have a degree in political science. I know what I'm talking about. Calling people "foolish" etc. isn't really the style of this message board.

    As to your points, I am not saying the riding boundaries are random, I am saying that they are arbitrary. If they are designed to give equal representation to all Canadians, then why does Kenora, Ont. have 42,000 voters while Niagara Falls, Ont. has 102,000 voters? If they are meant to incorporate communities, then why did I go through 3 different ridings on my 10-minute walk to work? Why has my small hometown been switched between an anglophone, suburban riding and a francophone, rural riding three times in 30 years? You can have equal representation for each voter, or you can have representation by community, but you can't have both. The way that Canadian ridings are designed, you get neither - just arbitrary, meaningless lines.

    The FPTP system in Canada is definitely gerrymandered -- not in the upfront, obvious manner of American Congressional districts, but in more subtle behind-the-scenes ways. Read this link before trying to defend FPTP as "the simplest system" or as free from interference by self-interested politicians and other groups:

    Paul - Yes, I agree that PR tends to keep alive small parties (including small separatist parties) that tend to die out in FPTP systems after being shut out of Assembly representation. My main point is that some people sell FPTP as "stable" because small parties get shut out, but as we have seen in Quebec and Scotland, FPRPT can also have the complete opposite effect of over-representing small parties that concentrate their vote in one small area. There is nothing inherently more "stable" about FPTP than any other system.

    1. When the independent Electoral Commission made the ridings of Kenora and Niagara Falls in 2012, they were 56,641 and 98,397 each. Beyond straight "equal representation by population", in a decision released in 1991, commonly referred to as "Carter", the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Charter right to vote guarantees the right to "effective representation", not the right to equality of voting power.

      From the Commission Report:
      Other rules for constructing electoral boundaries relate to community of interest; community of identity; historical patterns; and a manageable geographic size for electoral districts in sparsely populated, rural or northern regions of the province. The Commission may depart from the strict population rule when it believes such a departure is necessary to respect any of these other rules. However, variance from the population equality rule is limited to 25% (plus or minus), except in extraordinary circumstances. The upper limit of deviation from the quota in Ontario is 132,766, and the lower limit is 79,660.

      During the past decade, the primary demographic trends in Ontario have been a slight population decrease in the north and a significant increase in the south, primarily in the Greater Toronto Area. Before redistribution, 25 electoral districts exceeded the allowable 25% variance from the provincial quota. Of those, two had populations that were smaller than the allowable variance from the quota, and 23 had populations in excess of the maximum allowable variance. The populations of Ontario's electoral districts varied in size from 55,977 (Kenora) to 228,997 (Oak Ridges—Markham).

      Commission endeavoured to respect the integrity of the boundaries of First Nation communities. It also endeavoured to respect the integrity of linguistic communities, and received several persuasive recommendations to that effect from Francophone communities in Eastern and Northern Ontario.

      The Commission also tried within reason to respect the boundaries of those municipalities whose populations are consistent with the provincial quota, but this was not always possible. In Southern and Eastern Ontario, representatives of county and regional governments strongly urged the Commission to respect their boundaries. The Commission was less successful in satisfying those requests; the demographics of those parts of the province often involve concentrated urban populations surrounded by sparsely populated rural areas, making it extremely difficult to configure electoral districts that meet the quota.

  7. Goaltender Interference,

    "Arbitrary": as fixed or done capriciously or at pleasure? Without adequate determining principles?, not founded in the nature of things? nonrational? not done or acting according to reason or judgement? I do not believe you understand the meaning of the word. Indeed the electoral redistricting in Canada is done according to reason and judgement. Do possess adequate determining principles (albeit with the possibility for variances) and such changes are done with reason and (good) judgement through the work of electoral commissions by province normally chaired by a respected jurist.

    It is true electoral redistricting is not found in the nature of things as in natural law but, I would argue equality itself is part of natural law and redistricting is an execution of that principle.

    Yes some rural ridings have many fewer people than urban ridings. This is because of geography. Kenora stretches for thousand of square kilometres whereas Niagara is in the tens maybe hundreds of square kilometres. If the commissions were forced to make all riding identical in population the large rural ridings created would be very difficult to represent. So, yes, as I mentioned above the system is not perfect but, the alternative of having constituencies potentially tens of thousands of square kilometres in size is unworkable and raises its own questions of adequate representation and equality. I admit the system is not perfect but it is designed to give all Canadians adequate and equal representation.

    Equal does not mean the same Goaltender Interference. I think this is a lesson you have yet to realise.

    You walked through three ridings this morning because you live in an urban area. The higher the population density the greater number of constituencies within a given area.

    The link to the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act and the Canada Elections Act (2001) do not contain evidence of gerrymandering! Boundaries change over time as do representation formulas-that is why we have Parliament! Goaltender Interference: you are way out of line, totally offside and down right offensive. I am very proud you have obtained a bachelor of arts degree but, I am sorry to inform your education is far from complete.

    1. Thanks Mapelson and TGoPM,

      For your input and comments affirming my position. What can I say Trumpian conspiracy theories seem to be en vogue at the moment, it is unfortunately so many young impressionable minds, even those with degrees, get bamboozled without evidence.

      Goaltender Interference,

      If you wish to continue this conversation please present some evidence of the systematic gerrymandering that you allege either provincially or in the House of Commons. Without it I see little reason to re-hash old arguments.

  8. Small parties do better in PR systems thereby reducing the chance of majority government. They are less stable than FPTP simply because FPTP produces majority governments most of the time. You are right that inherently nothing makes PR less stable except that the theory of PR must work within the confines of human thought and behaviour. So, PR mixed with human behaviour lead to less stable governments.

  9. The Electoral Commission makes my points for me. Having seven or more vague, conflicting goals in designing riding boundaries ("effective representation", "communities of interest", "community of identity"; "historical patterns"; a manageable geographic size for electoral districts in sparsely populated, rural or northern regions" is as bad as no rules at all. Which is why the resulting boundaries are arbitrary.

    I laugh every time I hear people say PR or AV systems are "too complicated". Read Electoral Commission Reports on boundary adjustments and tell me how "simple" PR is.

    Paul: Equal means "the same as". That's a dictionary definition. Defenders of PR have to change the very definition of equality in order to justify the obvious unequal treatment of voters under PR.

    When you write "Boundaries change over time as do representation formulas-that is why we have Parliament!" you are emphasizing my point: the people elected under PR are the ones who set the rules and they bias the results.

    Please write to the McGill Department of Political Science if you think my education is complete, but I would appreciate if you would stop the ad hominem attacks, which are not the way this message board traditionally works.

    1. You have listed criteria not goals. The "goal of the independent electoral commission is to provide "effective representation"!


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