On Electoral Reform


Version française à venir!

In the halls of the Social Sciences faculties like the one that I am just coming out of, there is lots of recurrent criticisms about the current state of democracy world-wide. Freshly imbued with the theory of how democracy should work, it is all so easy to pick out the shortcomings in its practical incarnations. Talk of a ‘democratic deficit’ is frequent, and if those students whom I have interacted with are generally very disillusioned with politics in general, their training and possibly remaining slivers of hope leads many to propose certain fixes to the problems of democracy.

One of the common irritants which warrants the invocation of ‘democratic deficit’ in Canada is our voting system. The country uses a system which is called uninominal majority voting, or more colloquially first-past-the-post, in which candidates are elected on the basis of a single round of voting wherein electors have a single vote with no possibility of somehow expressing preference; whichever candidate has the most votes in that riding wins. This creates distortions in representativity, because the relation between actual percentage of the national vote for a party and the number of seats it wins is most often completely disproportional. In certain cases, because of voter distribution and varying margins of victory in different ridings, a government can actually come to form a majority government by virtue of winning a majority of seats (and hence have total control over the legislative and executive branches of government) despite NOT having received a majority in nominal votes. This was the case in the 2011 elections, where Mr Harper’s Conservative Party assumed total domination of Parliament with just shy of 38% of nominal voter support, a number which shrinks drastically if we consider the fact that the voting population is MUCH smaller than the actual population. All said and done, a tiny minority of this country’s population has given absolute political control to the conservatives last elections. For everybody else, their ballot might as well have been spoiled.

At the Libertarian Party of Canada, we believe that individuals are the true proprietors of sovereignty, a sovereignty which need not be recognized by government because it is justified by natural rights. We believe that individuals should be free and bound only by what agreements they have freely agreed to with other parties, be they organizations or individuals. From these axioms, it isn’t hard to derive our position on the legitimacy of government in its current form. Ultimately, we’d like as little government as possible (some might even call for… wait for it… no government!), but if any form of representative government is necessary, then its only source of legitimacy can only be whatever bleak reflection of TRUE sovereignty it can garner; in a democracy, this legitimacy would come from a composition of government  that  is representative of the individuals in who’s name it devises policy. We’re a long way from there.

The fix is obvious: change the way we elect our governments. It’s a solution that inevitably comes up when invoking the problem, and one that makes sense: if  you want a government that represents its citizen, then the way politicians are put into power must integrate some sort of the proportionality. Proportional representation is seen as a long-awaited change favoured by everybody except the big three parties. But the implementation of such a scheme is easier said than done: once political will to carry on with this is secured (good luck with that), we need to make sure that the reform respects a series of requirements. Here are those which I can think of:

  1. Before we even start thinking of a new way of tallying votes, we as Canadians need to define our  ideal of democracy and government, and keep those ideals in mind while proposing solutions. We need to ask serious questions that go beyond the vote: is democracy the sum of its parts, and if not what is it? What are the true origins of political power? Piece-meal solutions to institutional problems applied over time is what led us to the arrangement of government we have now; fixing the vote piece-meal is not going to help in the long term. A holistic model of how voting fits in with our idea of democracy is absolutely necessary if we can voting to be more than choosing masters every 4 years.
  2. Reform must take into consideration the nature of political culture in our country. The most evident part of this is arguably a heavy tendency to vote tactically: do we want to kill this off? Can we? If not, how can we concile our old habits with a new way of voting? Here again, the holistic ideal of politics mentioned in the previous points can help with decision-making: do we cater to old patterns, or do we let individuals do the most with a new system they don't know? This is just as true as citizen as it is for politicians: our collective disdain for political coalitions will inevitably need to disappear if we want functional government with proportional representation and a true plurality of political actors.
  3. Reform must take into  account the nature of our political structure, being that we are a plurinational federal state with several federated entities thirsty for more control over their political future. Quebec obviously is one of those, native peoples are the other big group, but regardless of these particular cases, it should be obvious to any Canadian that our country has great disparity in worldview, socio-economic standing and political culture between its regions. Choosing a way of running elections which would go against regional representation is a huge danger: models like national lists could potentially elect governments centered around a certain region, taking away the representation of regions who deserve it.
  4. Reform must take into account the nature of our existing institutional arrangements within the federal government and of governments below it. As I have mentioned in the introduction, the Senate has not yet been fixed, despite promises of reform. Traditionally, senates in many political systems have been either a check on parliament, or an entity which somehow represented the population by other means than what is used to form the House of Commons. Supposing we were also to reform the Senate, what place would it take alongside the House? What if it isn't reformed? Upsetting the status quo of government could possibly inspire Senators to yield the power they have in the books but never exercise; we need to think about what that would mean for our democracy.

So what is the best way of implementing reform? To be honest, I don’t know. As will be shortly revealed on Fairvote.ca, the Libertarian Party of Canada unofficially promotes a system of Single Transferrable Vote (SVT), wherein voters can create an ordered list of candidates in a district with many seats. Counting is complicated, but the end result is a district representation more or less accurately the preferences of voters within it. While the idea is great and has important backing in academic circles, there are caveats. Namely, in a country where most Northern ridings are bigger than most European countries, pooling ridings in order to get electoral districts seems impractical for potential representatives and very harmful for regional representation. What are we to do with territories that only have one riding? Diluting their representation in the federation is unacceptable. The easy fix to that is to add members of Parliament, but most would agree that having more politicians is hardly a good idea. Stephan Dion’s P3 model proposes a similar system without answering the question of regional representation, and  coupled with larger voting districts which invites to big party voting, sets a vote threshold which is detrimental to small parties and serves only to solidify the big 3 parties’ grip on the country.

The Jenkins model could probably work best, with top-up candidates having the potential to become a reservoir for interesting independent and small-party candidates, while not growing the size of ridings to unmanageable sizes if the number of top-up candidates is kept at an acceptable level. The Law Commission of Canada’s Mixed Member Proportionality (MMP) is not very different to Jenkins,  with the primary difference being the retention of first-past-the-post voting we are already familiar with. I see these models as a system where you can vote with your head for your local MP, and vote with your heart for the party who’s ideas really reflect what you want. Impact on regions is still present, but somewhat mitigated. While not truly proportional, this system leaves a crack open for other political options, albeit only if political culture internalizes this possibility.

Karl Popper in Open Society and  its Enemies, said that all problems of politics are ultimately problems of institutions, and that the road to more free society is ultimately the institutional control of power. A pure libertarian perspective on this is that there should be no central power (read: government), and hence no need for institutional controls on it. However, I believe that in our setting where ridding ourselves of the state is impossible on the short term, institutionalized controls of these powers are in fact the best option we have to put a check on the growing beast of government. Re-engineering our democracy to better control who is in parliament is one small step towards freeing ourselves from the grasp of government, and with the help of a populace rekindle with the ideas of freedom and personal responsibility, I hope we can one day live in a world where government is small, people are free, and society is prosperous and peaceful.