Saturday, February 11, 2017

Why a long-time electoral reformer will be staying clear of the "Day of Action for Electoral Reform"

A few partisan and multi-partisan groups including the NDP, Green Party (provincial and federal), and Fair Vote Canada have sent out announcements to their members about a "National Day of Action for Electoral Reform".  While I've been an active electoral reformer for many decades, I will be avoiding this event.

Many of the reasons why were articulated in an earlier article on how Electoral Modernization is hard, but worth it.   It discussed how compromise and consideration of other viewpoints was critical to move forward.

When Justin Trudeau and his election platform team stated that, "We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system" they likely envisioned a specific campaign.  On one side would be those who wanted to keep the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system either because it benefit them or they were simply resistant to any change.   On the other side would be a broad coalition of people who saw the many flaws in the current system and had a proposal to move forward with a solution to the major flaws.

While these multi-partisans like to use the phrase "voter equality", this was not the campaign they ran. They picked one specific flaw in the current system that has meaning to partisans (if the seats in parliament are allocated to parties in proportion to alleged votes for parties), and dismissed all other concerns as being irrelevant as well as dismissing the people who had those concerns.   This splintered those who wanted change into multiple camps, and made a broad coalition for change impossible.

With a broad coalition not possible, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Government correctly concluded there is no consensus on this issue and was forced to back away from their election promise.

In January 2013 I cancelled my Fair Vote Canada membership and donation. I felt a need to distance myself from FVC for the sake of the electoral modernization movement in Canada.

FPTP has many flaws, and many believe vote splitting among multiple candidates that voters would be happy with is the largest flaw.  The only solution to that particular problem is ranked ballots, so it should be recognized that proposals for any system that doesn't involve ranked ballots is not a proposal aimed at "voter equality" or "fair voting".

FVC's campaign against ranked ballots in municipal elections was expected to cause confusion. Most municipalities do not have political parties, so the question of whether the makeup of city council is allocated proportionally to parties based on alleged votes for parties is an irrelevant concept.  If ranked ballots were supposedly bad in municipalities, then reformers who were repeating talking points would also be claiming that ranked ballots would be inappropriate in all elections.  The distinction between single-member and multi-member districts would be lost on many of them.

There is a family of systems that solves both sets of problems, and that is ranked ballots in multi-member districts: also known as single transferable vote (STV).

The partisan groups (NDP, Green, FVC) would indicate that STV was OK with them, but with their campaign against ranked ballots as well as the way they worded their support it was always considered a "lesser" option.   It is unbelievable that a voting system that would solve a greater number of problems with the current system and be able to create a broad campaign was somehow the "lesser" system.

It was clear to those of us who do not consider party proportionality to be an issue (or for some just not the major issue) that their "we are happy with any system that is proportional" could never be used to create a broad consensus around a version of STV.

STV isn't a single system, but a family of systems that have specific features in common: ranked ballots to solve the vote-splitting and plurality issues, coupled with multi-member districts to solve not only party proportionality but proportionality based on other demographic traits as well.   Our conversation should have been focused around optimizing district magnitude (the rural-urban proposals, and how to group districts), how to allocate surplus votes (random vs deterministic, etc), whether we offer party-promoting features (above the line voting) and whether we solve the "donkey vote" problem (randomizing order of candidates on ballots).

Instead the conversation focused on party-PR, which was a distraction that remained unclear on whether the voting system would improve or get worse.

Back in 2013 there were FVC activists who asked that I apologize for what I wrote in this blog. It turns out that my concern was proven correct, and that their campaign was counterproductive.  I don't expect these advocates to rescind their request for an apology any more than I expect them to apologize for the harm their campaign did to the electoral reform movement in Canada.  Some of these people were people I considered friends, but their devotion to FVC's campaign made it impossible for them to remain friends with me.

So we are where we are.  There is a large rift separating Canadian electoral reformers which might take a long time to heal (if at all). Electoral reform is off the table federally yet again, and the groups who are largely responsible for that failure are meeting together later today to point outward to someone else to blame.

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