electoral reform

Depressing Night for Electoral Reform in Canada

So Ontarians have voted NOT to change their electoral system to MMP and have chosen to stay with first-past-the-post (FPTP) for the time being, one of the most antiquated electoral systems in the world. It's unfortunate that our country and constitution has been intact for so long. If you are a country like Iraq or Germany you get to start your government from scratch after a war (see Iraq's proportional representation system). Instead we are stuck with a UK/Commonwealth-inspired system from 1867 that is only used in a few large countries: USA, Canada, UK, Mexico, South Korea, and India. All these countries inherited their electoral systems from the United Kingdom, politically speaking (except may Mexico). Notice how you don't see any mainland European countries in that list? They are all using proportional representation in some form.

The referendum question was:

Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature?

  • The existing electoral system (First-Past-the-Post)
  • The alternative electoral system proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly (Mixed Member Proportional)

According to media reports a lot of people were confused by the question. Duh! a) FPTP and MMP are not household terms, b) many people don't watch the news and/or read the paper, c) many of those who do would not necessarily read an article discussion the virtues of FPTP or MMP. The question is somewhat unfair if you think about it. I mean, I wonder how many people had no fucking clue what FPTP or MMP was and so checked the "existing electoral system" box because they thought that sticking with something "existing" was safer than voting for an "alternative" they had no clue about. I wonder what the result would be if question was the following:

Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature?

  • The First-Past-the-Post system
  • The Mixed Member Proportional system

and the ordering of the two choices on the ballots was randomized? Would the result be roughly a 50-50 coin toss? Given the fact that a lot of the support leading up the referendum was for MMP, perhaps the result would have been equivalent to a slightly weighted coin toss (in favour of MMP).

Of course some voted against it, for dubious reasons. According to the National Post (MMP: 'Just leave well enough alone'), one lady who walked up to the booth in a walker said "Just leave well enough alone, Why do we need something different?" Of course, old people hate change, unless it's their diaper. Her friend rejected MMP because of the supposed increased costs: "That means more people in Queen’s Park, more pay, more hikes and more taxes for us and more pension for them.” Did you ever think of the ways in which MMP might reduce costs? I'm not sure if that's true but it I can think of a few ways in which it might be. Or the fact that MPPs salaries are such an insignificant part of the entire government's budget and that perhaps a better democracy SHOULD cost a bit more money?

The Toronto Star ("MMP goes down to defeat") quoted a scrutineer saying that "people arriving at her Toronto-area polling station to cast ballots for both a new provincial government and the referendum were clearly confused." According to the National Post another voter complained that the new system wasn't explained to him well enough so he voted for the old system. Another voter said he liked the idea of MMP but didn't like the formula that would be used. Which brings me to another question. What if the question looked something like this instead:

Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature?

  • The existing First-Past-the-Post system
  • A new system in which the percentage of seats a party gets will be determined (in part) by the percentage of votes a party receives

Unfortunately this would not work. Even if they put "...to be determined by a Citizens' Assembly" at the end of the second choice. The referendum question has to be clear.

A letter (or post rather) to the Toronto Star (MPP gives power to voters) from reader Jacqueline Sharp on October 7th sums this up nicely:

In the referendum today, we don't get to vote for "random selection" or any other utopian voting system – we get to vote for change (MMP) or the status quo (FPTP). MMP may not be perfect, but it is an upgrade that can continually be tweaked as we see how it works in Ontario. A vote for the status quo, on the other hand, will surely destroy any chance of reforming our government for the next few decades.

The political powers-that-be do not want change, and a No vote on MMP will give them the mandate they need to keep our system the way it is.

It doesn't make sense to vote against MMP because you would rather see different reforms to our voting system and government. Those reforms are not on the ballot. But a vote for MMP will tell politicians that we are tired of government bickering and partisan politics, and that we want more co-operation and better oversight of government spending. A vote for MMP says that we want everyone's vote to count equally and the Legislature to match the diversity of Ontario, so that the best policies possible can be made.

On the contrary, a vote for FPTP says that we are perfectly content with how our political system functions now. Really, is there anyone (other than the politicians who owe their jobs to the current system) who can step forward and say that?

Green Party Leader May Looking for Co-Operation from Layton

I wanted to stay out of this but I just saw a news article today that was just way too similar to my last blog post for me to not write about. The Globe & Mail's headline was "May blasts Layton over lack of party co-operation." She actually made reference to our first-past-the-post system in this criticism of Layton's refusal to talk with her about collaboration: "The door, as far as I'm concerned, is still open to discuss if there's some way that, despite our first-past-the-post system, leaders who care about their country and are willing to put the future of their planet first can't find some way to communicate," she said. Well said. Why shouldn't the two parties who both claim to care about the environment the most work together to get more seats? Seems like a win-win situation.

May went on to say that "'I felt a clear signal was needed that the Harper Conservatives still represent a grave threat to any future action on climate, as well as on a large number of social policy issues. ...This was more about putting principle ahead of partisanship.' She added that, under Canada's electoral system — 'which Mr. Layton claims he wants to reform' — 660,000 Canadians voted Green in the last election and the party was still shut out of Parliament."

She could have added that, like the Greens, the NDP also regularly receives a larger percentage of the popular vote than it does in seats. (9% vs 17% in the last election). Then it would sound like it was lifted directly from my previous post.

Liberals and Greens Swapping Ridings

Back in August, I suggested the Greens and NDP should work out some sort of riding swapping arrangement. I suggested this as a way for both parties to gain seats by reducing vote-splitting, reducing the number of "wasted votes", and making the parliament more representative of the popular vote. In the absence of true proportional representation (which is a long ways away in Federal politics) this is a great idea.

Today a similar arrangement was made made between the Liberal party and the Green party that "is being touted as a historic turn in Canadian politics" according to this CTV article, "Critics charge May, Dion made backroom deal." The Liberals will not run a candidate in Peter Mackay's Nova Scotia riding (the riding in which Green leader Elizabeth May is running in). In turn, the Greens will not run in Stephane Dion's riding of Saint-Laurent-Cartierville in Quebec. Rather than describe this move as a way to "team up to get Harper" or a ploy to reduce vote-splitting (and it is reasonable to try to reduce it), Ms. May said it came out of their "shared commitment to a greener Canada." Fair enough. Harper is the weakest on the environment, so that's another of saying "we want anyone other than a Conservative to win either of these seats. Just based on the 2006 election's results, it turns out Peter Mackay's seat is probably a sure win for him, with or with the Liberal candidate, and Dion probably has a lock on his riding as well so this whole thing won't really make a difference. There's nothing that Dion or Mackay have done (or not done) in the past year to really change those numbers too much. Which makes me wonder why they bothered? It starts to look like two party leaders trying to secure their own seat (well, in this case just Dion) in which case I can understand when John Baird said "it's a bit surprising and I think what it amounts to is an incredible example of bad judgement on Stephane Dion's part". An alternative with much better optics would be have to swap a riding where the Liberals lost previously by a narrow margin (or won by a small margin) and the Greens "stole" more votes from the Liberals than the other parties, with a riding where the Greens garnered lots of support (like the Saanicih-Gulf Islands riding where Greens grabbed 17% of the vote in 2004).

The replies from the other parties ranged from laughable to logical. One of John Baird's comments sort of makes sense: "To have to make a deal with the leader of a fifth party to try to save his own seat and prop her up just leaves you scratching your head." Again, Dion probably had a lock on his riding already with or without the swap and I don't think May stands a chance of winning the riding she is running in with or without the swap. She would have to pick up all of the Liberal votes and half the NDP's.

Jack Layton said it denies Canadians true choice in the next election: “We’re going to make sure that we offer a choice to vote for a New Democrat candidate in every riding because we think that’s Canadians’ right . . Why should people in some riding be denied the choice that other Canadians have in other ridings?"

There's that riding thinking again...as if who you elect in your own riding really matters. I agree that if there were only a Right-wing Christian party candidate and a Marxist-Leninist candidate running in my riding I would be disappointed. But we are only talking about a couple ridings here and what's stopping the parties from gaming the system a bit? The only thing we should all care about at the end of the is whether or not your vote is represented in the allocation of seats. The NDP is always the most under-represented part in parliament compared to the percentage of the popular vote it gets. They are the ones that could benefit the most from riding-swapping. The NDP is clearly in favour of proportional representation (PR). Yet, in the absence of an actual implementation of PR you have Jack Layton proudly saying that the NDP is running a candidate in every riding in Canada. If he partnered up with another party and did some riding-swapping (hence not running a candidate in every riding) that would most probably lead to a government representing the popular vote better, just like it would if there were run-offs in each riding. So Jack is contradicting himself to a certain extent. He's basically saying, we want proportional representation but only if its done right (by passing a bill). Ironically, if the NDP engaged in riding swapping with another party in key ridings it might get get people talking about the negative effects of vote-splitting, and so on, possibly leading to proportional representation at the federal level sooner, rather than later.

NDP-Green Alliance in the News

A while back, I talked about my idea for how the Federal Greens and NDP could join forces in the next federal election (by swapping ridings rather than merging). Last week there was some news involving not the national parties but the BC NDP and BC Green Party. NDP MP Corky Evans said "it's time for the NDP and the Greens to start talking about working together." Apparently he wrote a letter that was circulated among NDPers and was published in a Victoria socialist newspaper (anyone know the name of this newspaper by the way, or have a copy of the letter?). Apparently Evans "does not use the word 'merger,' but he does say it's time for the NDP and the Greens to begin negotiations." Negotiations for what? If not a merger, perhaps a riding swapping system like what I proposed (at least until STV or another proportional representation system is in place)? Even if the NDP party and the Green party had nothing in common, they should both be interested in pursuing such a plan because it should increase both of their seat counts and I assume as high a seat count as possible is the ultimate goal of any political party in an election.

The next day, on October 26th, 2006, Carol head-in-the-sand James had this to say: "It's not on the top of my to-do list. I'm busy being the leader of the Opposition, holding this government to account and raising the issues that the voters elected us to do." What an idiotic response. Anyways, it doesn't sound like there is any talk about riding swapping or anything like that. Unfortunately they're still thinking about it as if it should have something to do with the issues. It had nothing to do with that. In the 2005 BC election the Liberals got only 46% of the popular vote but won 58% of the seats. The NDP had 42% of the popular vote and won 42% of the seats. The Greens had 9% of vote and 0 seats. Essentially the Green voters helped elect some Liberals. Take the Burnaby-North, Burnaby-Willingdon, Vancouver-Burrard, Burquitlam, Vancouver-Point Grey, North Vancouver-Lonsdale, Comox Valley, Saanich North and the Islands, Oak Bay-Gordon Head, Maple Ridge-Mission, and East Kootenay ridings for example. The Liberals barely won those ridings. In fact, in all those ridings the Greens got more votes than the difference between Liberal and NDP votes. Had the Greens given up those ridings and given the Liberals and NDP a virtual runoff vote, the NDP might be willing to give up 1 or 2 ridings where the Greens were strongest, say the West Vancouver-Garibaldi and Powell River-Sunshine Coast ridings. What respect is there to be gained by running in a riding that you know you are going to lose well beforehand, but instead you run (in an albeit ridiculous voting system) and end up splitting the vote. The Democrats (and the Greens) managed to stop Nader in 2004, now it's time for the NDP to stop the Greens in 2009, but the Greens should make sure they get something in return and get a fighting chance at a seat.

Greens and NDP Should Swap Ridings Next Election

I saw this article today "Beating Harper: NDP + Greens?" about NDP + Greens joining forces being a great solution (since we don't PR) to beat Harper. I look at it more as a solution to reduce vote-splitting, not at a way to "beat" any particular other party.

I also agree that this is a great idea; however, this will never happen. I think a better idea would be to trade ridings. Based on the popular vote numbers from the last election the NDP and Greens could work out some riding swapping mechanism whereby the Greens won't run in x ridings of the NDP's choosing, while the NDP won't run in y ridings where the Greens were strongest. It should be computed mathematically based on last year's popular vote in a very clear and scalable way, so that if the Greens were to suddenly get 10% of the vote next election the number of ridings the NDP would "give" to the Greens would increase proportionately in some way without leading to bickering, only leading to continued proportional representation for both parties. I'm not sure if those two parties could ever agree to this. They all seem to be blind to the fact that we are living in a non-PR system, where running 2 left-wing candidates in the same riding is just stupid. It would be like having 5 separatist partites in Quebec. What a dumb idea that would be. Running Greens and NDP in the same ridings, ridings where one or the other has a slim chance of winning, is equally as dumb, although just less obviously dumb.

One negative side-effect of such a scheme is that it would essentially lessen the motivation for actually implementing PR in this country.

One interesting factoid in the article: "In an article published in Canadian Forum in 1989, former NDP MP Lynn McDonald called on the NDP to be the Green Party of Canada." Probably would have been a good idea. They would have grabbed the Green name ahead of the true Greens, preventing the vote split that exists today, and with the support of labour-votes we could easily imagine the Green party having seats today if Lynn McDonald had her way.

There is lots of discussion over here, which I'm not sure I want to get involved in.

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