Monday, December 5, 2016

The non-consensus consensus on Electoral Reform, and the Liberal promise

I haven't read every word of the third report of the Standing Committee on Electoral Reform yet. It looks like it will be great reading, and includes information about the other times this question has been studied in Canada, as well as the fact that different provinces have used different systems historically. This is important for those who think this is a novel topic to think about.  If there is one thing I have learned from my decades involved in electoral reform it is that Canadians are in need of an upgrade to their civics education: in this I mean all Canadians, not only the younger Canadians the report focused on for civics education.

The report clarifies that 1921 was a turning point for Canadian federal elections: that FPTP works fine when you have a two-option election, but since that time we have had 3 or more different options on the ballot in each riding which FPTP is ill-equipped to handle if voter intention is of any concern.

While there will be more to discuss later, for the moment I would prefer to focus on why there is confusion and disagreement about whether a consensus was reached, as well as discussing the Liberal promise.

What we heard in the house was that the Minister expected the committee to go as far as recommending a voting system, something the committee did not do. While some people cling to the idea that proportional representation was the system they recommended, everyone needs to understand that proportional representation is not a system but a feature that exists in one form or another in the vast majority of electoral system options.

If I look at what the committee was asked to do, coming up with one voting system wasn't required:
Identify and study viable alternatives to the current voting system as well as mandatory and online voting;
Fortunately the committee recommended that mandatory and online voting not be implemented at this time, so we at least dodged those bullets (online voting being the one that would corrupt the system the most).

They certainly did quite a bit of identifying and studying, speaking with many Canadians across the country.

They didn't narrow down the list of voting options much. They recommended against a "pure party lists" system, but recommended a low Gallagher Index which is "used to measure the disproportionality of an electoral outcome; that is, the difference between the percentage of votes received, and the percentage of seats a party gets in the resulting legislature."

I consider this reference to the Gallagher Index quite unfortunate as there are other things that an elected parliament can be disproportionate to than support for political parties.  It could be disproportional to votes for women, for votes for various ethnic groups, votes for individuals with specific experience or ideas not discussed in narrow party platforms, or other types of diversity.  Someone having a strong support for proportionality is not necessarily the same thing as supporting a low Gallagher index.

While partisans believe all this diversity is offered by parties, non-partisans do not.  Those who don't trust political parties won't believe there will be a change in other types of diversity for any PR system that grants seats based on support for political parties. Some Canadians believe that political parties are themselves the largest problem in our voting system, not the way we count.  This Gallagher Index recommendation ignores a (as of this time inadequately studied) percentage of Canadian voters who don't vote along party lines, and who even if they voted for a candidate nominated by a party should not be claimed to have supported that party, and who would not want their vote to go towards assigning party seats.

While many non-partisans support proportional representation, it is not the lack of proportionality to alleged support for political parties they are talking about.

With the call for FPTP to be on any referendum, as well as a referendum being recommended, they appear to have narrowed down the list to nearly all the options most often discussed in Canada. The following list is the remaining systems I've seen discussed recently, sorted from my least favored to most favored.

  • Dual-member proportional representation (DMP) - some suggest this is party proportional, but I believe this is wishful thinking.  This system has all the flaws of FPTP, with the additional flaw of bundling candidates together in larger districts.  It will make me less likely/able to vote as the two-name ticket means that I'm more likely to dislike one or the other and not be willing have my vote counted as support for the second person on the ballot.
  • FPTP - put there primarily at the insistence of the Conservative party.
  • MMP, as proposed in Ontario (FPTP + party lists), without clarity if the party seats are allocated per province or country wide.
  • Rural-Urban Proportional with FPTP for rural and open party lists for urban, without a clear definition on the variety of open list options or district magnitude. I rank RUP higher than MMP as I assume the size of rural ridings will not increase over pure FPTP!
  • Rural-Urban Proportional with AV for rural and open party lists for urban - IMO anything with a ranked ballot is better than one without.
  • Bicameral Mixed-member Proportional Representation - although I'm not sure if the Gallagher index folks would be happy with this one as they focus on how well the parties did in the lower house.  I rank this option higher as it doesn't add party list seats to the lower house, which will change the dynamic when parliamentarians choose the government and possibly reconfigure and choose a different government between elections (floor crossing, coalition building, etc  - a reminder about that required civics lesson for those who mistakenly believe Canadians vote for the government rather than parliamentary representatives!).
  • Rural-Urban proportional with FPTP for rural and STV for urban, without clear discussion of whether fixed or flexible district magnitude would be used.  I don't think this option is under consideration, but the RUP proposal didn't seem to care which of the 4 very different options it presented were discussed.
  • STV with a fixed district magnitude across entire country - not ideal, but at least we got past all the horrible party list and plurality (single or dual member) options.
  • STV with a varied district magnitude depending on the geographic region, where magnitude must be 2 or higher.
  • Rural-Urban proportional with AV for rural and STV for urban, which is a mixed system like the BC-STV system which includes district magnitude of 1 (also called alternative vote) along with multi-member districts with ranked ballots being consistent for all seats.
  • Not discussed is my ideal, which is a RUP-like system (ranked ballots in single or multi-member districts) where the neighboring districts decide to join and/or separate depending on the interests of the specific districts.  As boundaries are redrawn and populations move, what is within an urban area and what is considered rural changes.  District magnitude in the Ottawa region should be different than in Toronto as the population is quite different.

So, what was excluded?

  • Pure Alternate Vote (AV).
  • Pure party list systems.
  • FPTP+leaders , which is an oddball option where the leaders are given at-large seats if their nominated candidates received at least 10% of the popular vote.  It seems to be a close sibling of MMP except only a single at-large seat is assigned to parties.
  • Abolishing elections. Given all the wide number of options which are claimed to be proportional, which some confuse with being a system, I guess having a ballot at all was a voting feature that achieved consensus.

While there are good reasons to want to advance beyond AV, from reading the discussion it appears that the greatest mark against AV was that people believed the Liberals wanted this option as well as implausible claims that AV exaggerates false majorities to the benefit of Liberals.  While it is by far not my favorite system, the unnecessary campaigns against AV have confused people into believing the problem is with ranked ballots rather than single member districts in urban areas.  In my case I rank all ranked ballot systems, even AV, as being above any system based on party lists (open or closed) or plurality (single or dual member).

While there are now people who would disagree with any system that has ranked ballots, there are other people (myself being one) that will disagree with any system that grants seats to political parties or is based on plurality.  If you expand your understanding of proportionality beyond support for political parties the question about whether a system is proportional or not is not controversial, but the question about whether you achieve proportionality via ranked ballots in multi-member districts or party lists is very controversial.

While the report will make for a good read, I think it should be obvious that no consensus was found on a specific voting system, and no alleged consensus was offered by the report.

The Supplemental Report of the Liberal Members

I find the Supplemental Report of the Liberal Members to be illuminating.  While the NDP and Green supplemental report focused on narrow concepts that would benefit those parties rather than indicating concern for the improvement of parliament, the Liberal report was truthful in ways that can greatly harm the interests of the Liberal party of Canada.  The Liberal supplementary report corrects a number of problems in the Majority Report, but it also makes those who ran the 2015 Liberal campaign and wrote the 2015 election platform look amateurish (at best) or dishonest.

Recognizing the lack of consensus, something that has easily existed for a hundred years in Canada, the Liberal members indicated "Our position is that the timeline on electoral reform as proposed in the MR is unnecessarily hasty and runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the process by racing toward a predetermined deadline."

This deadline was set by those who wrote the 2015 platform at the Liberal Party campaign office.  Yes, it is arbitrary. Yes, it is ill advised if you want to have a legitimate process that actively educates and engages the population. The Liberal campaign office didn't suggest interest in legitimacy, realistic policy, civic education, or legitimacy of the process. They seemed only interested in simultaneously abusing some of the worst features of FPTP to ensure that they and not the NDP or Conservative nominated candidates won, as well as deflect criticism for their ongoing abuse and benefit of this flawed system.

This Liberal Campaign promised cannot be broken without consequences!

We will make every vote count. 
We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. 
We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting.
This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.

Everything that the Liberal members wrote in the report was well known and true before the 2015 election. Given this fact, the Liberal Party needs to recognize that it needs to fall on a sword they forged themself.

The Liberal campaign said that the 2015 election would be the last under FPTP and if they as a party are to have any legitimacy and trust moving forward they need to change the system.

If there is a referendum, everyone associated with the Liberal party (candidates and all) will need to campaign in favor of a change to ensure that no matter how many options are on the ballot, that change wins. Funds will need to be dedicated to public education on the options (public and Liberal party funds). The Federal Liberal party can't be seen to be hiding the referendum or required educational material (both on the changes, as well as the required civics lesson to explain the current system) as the provincial Liberal party did in Ontario and BC.

At this point it doesn't matter which system the Liberals impose, it just can't still be FPTP during the next election. The Liberal party must recognize that any change or lack of change to the system will upset some Canadians, but that while they are damned if they do they will be damned much more by people who might have voted for them if they don't.

My own promise, and confession

On Canada Day this year I wrote that I was skeptical but optimistic about the Liberal promise to rid us of FPTP. I discussed how I campaigned against the Liberals during the election.

During the 2015 election I was frustrated by what I saw in Ottawa Center, a race between the largely unknown Liberal nominated candidate and a well loved across the spectrum NDP incumbent of Paul Dewar. Liberal campaigners were claiming that a vote for the NDP would split the vote and allow the Conservatives to win, something that was entirely impossible in Ottawa Center as the Conservatives weren't a contender in this two-horse race between the Liberal nominated candidate and Paul Dewar.

Based on what I saw as a corrupt campaign in Ottawa Center, I was unwilling to vote for the Liberal nominated candidate in Ottawa South, even though I believe that David McGuinty was (still is as an individual) the best option.

My confession is that even though I always want to vote for the person despite the party, I broke from my own political ideals and voted along party lines last election because of this issue. If the Liberals actually back away from their election promise, as naive as some of us can believe it was (or as dishonest as some believe it was), there will likely be far more people voting along party lines and punishing the Liberals next election.

While I don't yet know if the 2015 election will be the last under FPTP, I do know that 2011 will have been the last time I voted for David McGuinty (unless he crosses the floor) or a federal Liberal party nominated candidate until FPTP is gone.

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