Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Change to Proportional Representation, or don't bother changing at all....

Liberal ministers Dominic Leblanc and Maryam Monsef at presser today.
The Trudeau Liberals have fulfilled an election promise by today launching a special parliamentary committee to recommend a new electoral system and explore mandatory and online voting.

Already, the opposition is criticizing the Liberals for "stacking the deck" in the governing party's favour by appointing a majority of Liberals to it.

The opposition has a point.  The Liberals have total control over what the committee decides to recommend once this "consultation process" ends December 1st.

So far, many Liberals including Justin Trudeau, himself, have been making noise in favour of changing to a preferential balloting or instant runoff voting system.  Such a move would change the way Canadians vote in federal elections from marking one 'X' next to their one preferred candidate, to voters ranking candidates from top preference on down, starting with "1," followed by "2," and so on.

There are many positives to such a new system.  No longer would voters be forced to hold their noses and "vote strategically" in elections, meaning reject their first choice in favour of their least hated choice in order to stop a candidate they truly detest.   Many progressives agonized over which party to choose in the last election because of the current first-past-the-post system.

With preferential voting, progressives could be free to vote Green or NDP in constituencies where those parties have little chance of topping the polls.  Then they could possibly pick the Liberals as their second or third choice.   If no candidates receive over 50% of the vote in the first round, the candidates with the least support are dropped off the count, and the subsequent preferences of those voters are re-allocated until one candidate gets over that 50% threshold.

Such a system would force political parties to appeal to the widest number of Canadians as possible in order to win not only as many top preferences as possible, but also subsequent second and third choices.   Parties that play only to their narrow base and ignore the vast swath of mainstream voters, like the Harper Conservatives did for ten years, would find themselves quickly defeated once the majority of voters team up against them.

This would likely lead to a major change in tone during elections.  Instead of parties viciously attacking each other in order to secure a mere plurality of support, those parties would probably start to team up or go easy on each other as they'd be gunning for each others' supporters.  Parties or candidates might even make deals with each other before election day in order to try to secure second preferences to get over the top.

But the big downside of preferential balloting is it would shut out non-mainstream viewpoints from Parliament even worse than the current system.   Under the current system, at least it's possible that smaller parties can win seats with relatively low percentages of the vote.  Under preferential balloting, it would be all the more difficult as those candidates would have to rely on second and third preferences from more mainstream voters in order to possibly win.

The result would likely be a Parliament made up of only very moderate, mainstream parties.  Critics of instant runoff claim it's just a scam to elect as many Liberals as possible.  They too have a point.  In truth, it only seems that Liberals like the idea of switching to preferential balloting from first-past-the-post.

If this special parliamentary committee simply rubber stamps Justin Trudeau's preferred new system, it will be a political travesty that could backfire big time on the ruling party.  Voters tend to frown on political parties that try to manipulate democratic systems to their own benefit.   Even if the proposed change has some merit, voters are likely to not only reject it, but also reject the party implementing it if the public deems the reform process to be fundamentally unfair.

That could easily happen with this process, particularly since all opposition parties and voting reform advocates like Fair Vote Canada are likely to be dead set against moving to preferential balloting.

For me, if we're going to go to the trouble of changing voting systems, we should do the right thing and embrace some form of proportional representation.  Such a change would finally ensure that party representation in the House of Commons aligns with party support among voters, unlike the current system which distorts that support.   PR would ensure that laws have the support of parties representing the majority of Canadians instead of just the biggest plurality.

When new democracies have emerged in the world in recent decades, a PR voting system has been put in place precisely because it minimizes the chances of extremists taking power with as little as 30% of the vote.  Nowhere do they implement first-past-the-post in such new democracies, nor do they implement preferential balloting.

Having said all this, it seems unlikely that Trudeau's committee will recommend a PR option.  Any such system would likely need a lot of work to get it right, taking into account the need for regional and local representation.   Contrary to the propaganda spouted by many PR opponents, PR does allow for locally elected legislators.   A mixed member proportional system that utilized open party lists (meaning, the voters could decide who from a party list would be elected to Parliament, not the parties themselves) would be a welcome change.  So would some form of Single Transferable Vote, or STV, which allows for local representation through multi-member constituencies. 

However, I'm not holding my breath this will ever happen in Canada.   Before Trudeau promised to revisit our first-past-the-post system in the 2015 election, I had thought this issue was resolved.  Every referendum on this subject in recent years has resulted in affirming the status quo.  Even a referendum in the UK on preferential balloting was crushed with 69% voting to keep first-past-the-post.  Furthermore, the issue of electoral reform tends to bore the crap out of the public.  Few seem to care much about changing away from first-past-the-post.  Even the NDP when in power always keeps the current voting system in place.   

But the Trudeau Liberals seem intent on moving forward on this issue.  They've got control over what the committee will recommend.  Should the committee simply propose preferential balloting and the government moves unilaterally to change Canada's voting system in such a profound way, it will cause a big and well-deserved backlash.

Should the Liberals bend to opposition demands and hold a referendum on any change, such a backlash could be avoided.  But such a referendum is also likely to end in defeat for the proposed change.

Regardless, it will be very interesting to see how this issue continues to move forward. 


Ron Waller said...

"But the big downside of preferential balloting is it would shut out non-mainstream viewpoints from Parliament even worse than the current system. Under the current system, at least it's possible that smaller parties can win seats with relatively low percentages of the vote."

This is actually a logical fallacy. Take the BQ. Under FPTP they win 4 seats. Under PBs they win 1. Why do they lose 75% of their seats (75% of virtually nothing)? Because they're extremists. They lose out on alternative votes. In almost all Quebec ridings, constituents simply don't want a Bloc MP representing them. That's why they don't vote for them with the support of a majority. They want a different representative from a different party.

So to protect a few insignificant seats for fringe parties comes at an enormous cost: a trade off of saddling voters in dozens of ridings with MPs they don't want and didn't vote for. That's the mechanism behind FPTP landslide false majorities. In the case of a Con majority, voters in dozens of center-left ridings get stuck with an odious Con MP.

The only way to deal with this issue is with some form of PR (semi or full) that transfers party votes.

But — with preferential ranked ballot voting, fringe-party voters who don't get direct representation, get representation for their alternative votes.

So take the Green party under PBV. Even if they only get 1 seat, the NDP and Liberals (perhaps a Red Tory party) will compete for their alternative votes. (They make a big difference in election outcomes.) That means they get representation in government or opposition. (Otherwise they will cast their AV to a different party.)

Not as good as full PR. But a million times better than what they get from FPTP: i.e., being perpetually shut out of government.

Here also, the NDP can become a major player in government and be in a position where they could be the lead party in a two-party majority government.

So even meagre ranked ballot voting would change everything.

Getting stuck with FPTP means that the establishment will be forever in control of the government. Because they only have to manipulate 40% of voters (through the news media that they own) to get a party that represents their interests absolute corrupt power. (Which is why they are so fiercely opposed to electoral reform.)

Under preferential ballots, a government will require 50% of the vote to govern. (Like in Australia. There they have 4 conservative parties, that regularly govern.)

This will also free the Liberal party from establishment control. Presently they have to split the Red Tory vote to stop a Con majority and form their own. This means being beholden to Red Tories on economic issues (which are aligned with establishment interests: i.e. neoliberalism.)

Under PBV, the Red Tories would form their own party and force the Liberals back to center-left.

So that's win-win-win-win-win-win.

In short: PBV is not as good as PR or semi-PR, but literally a million times better than caveman voting (which has absolutely no single virtue, unless you're a member of the establishment.)

(BTW, ranked ballots can be made more proportional by adding members. Stephane Dion proposes a semi-proportional system of 3-member-riding preferential ballot STV. 5-member is full-PR STV.)

Ron Waller said...

The simulations that show the Liberals would've won a bigger fake majority under preferential ballots are based on junk statistics. They make absurd assumptions no real statistician would make:

1) All those who voted Liberal would've voted them #1 on their ranked ballot. Obviously many would've preferred the NDP on daycare, pharmacare, reversing corporate tax cuts, federal carbon pricing, killing Harper's anti-terror bill, etc.

2) The Conservatives would've run the same polarizing campaign that FPTP rewards and ranked ballot voting punishes. (All simulated Liberal gains came from lost Conservative seats. Polarizing politics costs lost alternative votes.) John Ivison wrote a column bemoaning ranked ballots moderating Conservative tone.

3) There would only be one Conservative party. The historical trend is to 2 conservative parties. So instead of the Liberals splitting the Red Tory vote to stop a Conservative majority and form their own, they would be forced back into center-left territory because Red Tories would have their own party.

In short, the Liberals would not have won a false majority under preferential ranked ballot voting. Like in Australia, governments represent at least 50% of the vote.

Real statisticians do not make absurd assumptions like these. (Statistics forms the basis for measuring the success rate of scientific experiments; so it's something taken seriously outside of the realms of politics and economics.)

BTW, with 2 center-left parties competing for votes, center-left voters will be very well represented. Instead of voting strategically, voters will be free to vote on policy and principle. Imagine the freedom!

James A. Latimer said...

I keep asking myself why so many people who desire/demand democracy do not want to ask the voters themselves what they want for fear they may want the status quo. I prefer Ranked Balloting but would happily accept the status quo.