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Why a Referendum on Electoral Reform Would Be Undemocratic

Effective representation is a civil right, not a political preference, argues fair voting advocate.

By Antony Hodgson 21 Jan 2016 |

Antony Hodgson is president of Fair Voting B.C., a professor of mechanical engineering, and director of the graduate program in biomedical engineering at the University of British Columbia.

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Fair Voting BC president Antony Hodgson: 'Progress on civil rights should not be held hostage to a public vote.'

"When you change the rules of democracy, everyone gets a say," interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose stated recently in demanding that Prime Minister Trudeau commit to holding a referendum prior to introducing any changes to our voting system, and fellow MPs Scott Reid and Blake Richards added that not to do so would be "stubbornly and profoundly undemocratic."

Fair Voting B.C. strongly disagrees. These crocodile tears supposedly in defence of democracy reflect a profound misunderstanding of why voting reform is needed. Quite simply, we need voting reform to correct the longstanding injustice that half of us are denied our Charter rights to effective representation and equal treatment. And when our civil rights are violated, those who stand to benefit from the current system's discriminatory effects should not be allowed to block redress.

Consider: Would any of us now claim that men ever had the moral right to decide if women should be granted the vote? Or that whites ever had the right to determine if First Nations peoples or those of Asian origin should be allowed to vote? Of course not. And indeed almost all provincial governments and the federal government simply enacted these extensions to the franchise by statute, as they had every right, and indeed the duty, to do.

As Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said in a 1991 ruling, "Ours is a representative democracy. Each citizen is entitled to be represented in government. Representation comprehends the idea of having a voice in the deliberations of government," and "the Canadian tradition [is] one of evolutionary democracy moving in uneven steps toward the goal of universal suffrage and more effective representation." Under our current voting system, only half the voters have voted for their MP, so adopting a reform that would give virtually every voter a voice -- including Conservative supporters in Toronto, Liberal supporters in Calgary, NDP supporters in Nova Scotia or Green Party supporters almost everywhere -- would essentially double the number of voters represented in Parliament and be the largest and most significant expansion of the franchise since women won the vote a century ago.

It is clear that there is broad cross-party agreement that our current voting system does not live up to our Charter ideals -- Trudeau, Mulcair and May all explicitly campaigned on the premise that many voters do not have a voice in government and that this deficiency should be corrected. And even former Prime Minister Harper once supported proportional representation, arguing that voters on both the left and right are equally "entitled ... to effective elected representation." Since parties supported by two-thirds of Canadians are now in favour of reform, we have a rare opportunity to take the last major step towards full suffrage by ensuring that all voters are represented by an MP they support.

Those who hope to win unrestricted power in the future on a minority of the vote argue that governments cannot change our democratic structures without a referendum. But this argument holds little sway -- the Canada Act, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was passed after extensive public consultation, but without a referendum. And numerous governments have implemented various voting systems (the proportional single transferable voting system in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary and the non-proportional alternative vote in B.C.) by simple statute without ever putting the proposals to referendum.

Going proportional

There are many different voting reforms (generally described under the blanket term proportional representation, or PR for short) that would be markedly more inclusive than our current system: the single transferable voting system recommended by B.C.'s Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, the mixed member proportional system put forward in Ontario and PEI, and the interesting new dual member proportional system proposed a few weeks ago in PEI.

If two neighbours who hold different political views are both to be represented in Parliament, they must be represented by different MPs. That is, PR fundamentally and logically requires there must be more than one MP elected to cover each electoral district, whereas our current single member plurality (a.k.a. first-past-the-post) system pretends that a single person can simultaneously represent the differing views of their constituents, including those who did not vote for them and who may in fact be strongly opposed to the MP's views.

In a 2004 federal court case in New Brunswick (Raîche v. the Attorney General), the judge wrote that "the Supreme Court of Canada has rejected" this idea -- "the reality [the Court said sensibly] ... is that an elected representative who is faced with the conflicting interests of the majority and a minority will often have to choose to represent the interests of the majority." In fact, since an MP can be elected with well under 50 per cent of the vote, an MP will often choose to represent the interests of a mere plurality of their constituents, even if this view opposes that of the majority. While this is the best that can be done if only a single MP is assigned to a given geographic area, the obvious result is that, on average, half the voters have an MP who does not advocate those voters' views in Parliament.

So to ensure that voters with different political views are each represented by MPs with whose views the voters more closely agree, the various PR systems typically take one of two approaches:

Bigger districts, MP teams

The single transferable voting (STV) system used in Ireland, Scottish local councils and a number of cities in western Canada in the early 20th century, elects a team of MPs from what would currently be a group of neighbouring ridings. An urban area such as Vancouver could constitute a single electoral district electing a team of six MPs. In the most recent election, the Liberals took 44 per cent of the vote in Vancouver, the NDP 28 per cent, and the Conservatives 22 per cent, so the Vancouver team of MPs would likely include three Liberals, two NDP and one Conservative, instead of the four Liberals and two NDP elected under our current system. The three Liberal MPs would likely each take primary responsibility for responding to about one-third of the city, the two NDP MPs half each, and the Conservative MP would cover the entire city.

In a more rural part of the province, such as northern B.C., where there are three seats, the region might elect a corresponding number of MPs. With the Conservatives taking 39 per cent of the vote, the NDP 30 per cent and the Liberals 25 per cent in this region, each of these three parties would likely have won one seat. Each MP would represent supporters across this three-seat region.

Single member districts, plus top-up MPs

The mixed member proportional (MMP) system used in Germany, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales takes a somewhat different approach. Instead of electing a team of MPs in a single electoral district, half to two-thirds of MPs would continue to be elected in single member ridings, essentially the same way they are now. In the Vancouver example, this would mean that the current six ridings might be replaced with four new ridings, each electing one MP (likely three Liberal MPs and one NDP, had MMP been used in the most recent election). The remaining two candidates would be elected to ensure that the overall party balance in the region corresponds to the vote shares each party's candidates received -- in this case, likely one NDP candidate and one Conservative candidate would be elected to cover the entire city of Vancouver.

In northern B.C., the three-seat region might be divided into two single-seat regions with one top-up seat. Given this year's voting outcome, it is likely that the NDP would have won the northern seat and the Conservatives the southern seat, while the Liberals would likely have been assigned the third region-wide seat.

New idea: dual member proportional

The dual member proportional (DMP) system is an interesting variant of the MMP system that has recently been proposed by the PEI Special Committee on Democratic Renewal. DMP is related to the system used in one of the states in Germany (Baden-Württemberg) and merits careful consideration. With DMP, current ridings are paired with adjacent ridings (e.g., Vancouver would have three paired ridings instead of the six current single member ridings). The first seat of each pair is allocated the same way as we do now, but then the total number of seats per party is calculated based on each party's vote share across a region, and the second seat in each pair is given to a candidate from a party with strong relative strength in each paired riding. In the end, each paired riding has two MPs -- one is a candidate from the party whose candidates won the most votes in that paired riding, and the second is likely from a different party. Over the region, the total number of seats by party would closely match the overall vote share by party.

Any of the three systems described above (STV, MMP or DMP) more closely reflects the will of voters than does our current disproportional single member plurality system.

What about alternative vote or instant runoff?

The alternative vote (AV) is another frequently-advocated voting system. AV preserves the one-MP-per-riding of our current system, but allows voters to rank candidates (first, second, third and so on). If none of the candidates wins 50 per cent on the first count, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those ballots distributed to the next preference listed on each ballot. This repeats until one candidate holds at least half of the remaining ballots.

Though AV (also known as instant runoff voting) purports to offer increased voter choice, it would still result in only one MP being elected in each current riding. Half the voters would continue to be unrepresented by a candidate they support. In Vancouver, there likely would have been no change in outcome -- with AV, we still would have seen four Liberals and two NDP MPs elected. In two close Metro Vancouver races, AV might have affected the outcome -- in Burnaby South, for example, where the Liberals narrowly lost to the NDP, second preferences from Conservative supporters likely would have tipped the balance in the Liberals' favour and taken the seat from the NDP.

Since AV would not significantly change the number of voters represented in Parliament, and since critics are right to point out that AV could in fact further distort election outcomes (to the likely benefit of the Liberals), AV should be seen as a placebo at best and not a reform that delivers on the Liberals' stated promise to "make every vote count."

Holding civil rights hostage

If the recommendation that ultimately emerges from the government's consultation process is more like one of the first three proportional systems described above, and if the recommended system is carefully designed to enable almost all voters to be able to elect a candidate they explicitly support, then such a reform would broadly enhance voters' representation.

The government would then be perfectly justified in asking MPs to approve it without a referendum. Progress on civil rights should not be held hostage to a public vote -- though enabling voters to choose between proportional systems would certainly be appropriate. Indeed, if the Liberals give in to reform opponents who wish to perpetuate discriminatory voting practices for their own self-interested ends, that would be truly undemocratic.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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