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Electoral Reform

Electoral Reform: Myths and Misinformation Prop Up the Status Quo

Scare tactics shouldn't block change to a better democracy.

By David Chudnovsky 8 Mar 2018 | TheTyee.ca

David Chudnovsky is a former teacher, NDP MLA and president of the BC Teachers' Federation.

The debate on electoral reform in B.C. has hardly begun, but the people arguing against a change to the status quo - the first past the post system - have been quick off the mark.

They've already launched an attack on mixed member proportional representation (MMP), one of the options for reform.

Unfortunately, their claims have almost always been wrong and sometimes just plain silly.

First, let's understand how mixed member proportional representation works.

It's simple enough. Voters get two ballots. The first, just like the vote we have now, is used to elect a constituency representative.

The second lets them vote for the party of their choice. Those votes are counted and, based on the percentage of support, each party is awarded seats in the parliament or legislature. This ensures the result is more fair, democratic and accountable. These seats would be filled from lists prepared by the parties, made public before the election. The parties could let members, or all voters, decide who should be on the list.

Now let's unpack some of the things defenders of the status quo have been saying.

1. They claim MMP leads to extremism and first past the post doesn't.

Supporters of FPTP argue there is something unique about proportional representation that leads to extremism. There's a simple, two-word response to that false claim: Donald Trump. Trump was elected under FPTP with less than 50 per cent - not unusual under our current system. The claim is often made that with proportional representation extremist parties sometimes get elected to parliaments and legislatures, so change should be rejected. But compare the impact of a small minority extremist party in a parliament to the extremist president of the U.S., a racist, misogynist, egotist with his finger on the nuclear button, elected under FPTP.

2. They claim MMP leads to unstable parliaments and FPTP doesn't.

Supporters of first past the post say that there's something about mixed member proportional representation that leads to unstable governments that fall before their mandate is up, while FPTP guarantees stability. But they should read our history a bit more closely. Between 1957 and 1965 there were five Canadian federal elections under our current system - one every 20 months. One government lasted less than nine months.

And it's not just Canada. In the 1920s, Britain had three elections in less than two years using out current first past the post system. So much for stability.

3. They claim that under MMP "party insiders" and "backroom boys" would have tremendous influence on who gets to be a candidate and under FPTP they don't.

This is laughable. We all know that under the current system party heavyweights intervene all the time to influence and even control who their candidates will be. Justin Trudeau did it. Stephen Harper did it. Virtually every party and every party leader has been caught out trying, and often succeeding, in "managing" who becomes a candidate and who doesn't.

Defending FPTP candidate selection as pure and uncontaminated by party insiders is just silly. Under mixed member proportional, each party will create a list of candidates to correct unfairness and lack of democratic representation. These lists can be determined in many ways - including open, democratic primary votes by party members or the general public.

4. They claim that MMP is too complicated for the B.C. voters to understand.

All around the world, people vote in various proportional representation systems, including MMP, which is used in countries like Germany and New Zealand. Those hundreds of millions of voters are no more intelligent than British Columbians. They just have fairer electoral systems.

And that's the most important reason for mixed member proportional - to make elections fairer, more democratic and more accountable.

5. Why bother to make this change?

There are lots of reasons that people prefer mixed member proportional to the current system, but the most important one has to do with fairness and democracy. If we're going to make a change, we should be able to identify a problem. And when it comes to electoral reform in B.C. it's easy to identify the problem.

Remember the 2001 BC election? The BC Liberals got 51 per cent of the vote and 97 per cent of the seats. The NDP got 21 per cent of the vote and two per cent of the seats. The Greens got 12 per cent of the vote and no seats. That's not an insignificant or minor difficulty; it's a big problem.

But it's not an unusual outcome under FPTP. It happens to a greater or lesser extent in every election. So a system that includes constituencies (so every voter has an elected community representative) and a list to "top up" the results to make them more fair, more democratic, and more accountable makes sense.

The decision to reform our electoral system is an important one. Every voter should make themselves aware of the points of view pro and con. And every voter should look critically and skeptically at the arguments being used to defend the antiquated and flawed system called first past the post.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included this inaccurate paragraph: “In B.C., there were three elections in four years between 1952 and 1956. What electoral system was used? First past the post.” In fact, two of those elections used a preferential ballot, not the first past the post system.  [Tyee]

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