Yes, last week we had a Canadian election. Not much changed, so it wasn’t a very satisfying experience. For the first time, I’m warming up to the notion of tinkering with our voting system.

What Happened · Before the election, we had a Conservative minority government, with the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Québécois on the other side of the aisle. After the election, we had... well, the same thing. Only with more Tories and fewer Liberals.

In practical terms, this probably strengthens the Tories’ hands, because it takes all three other parties to unite against them to force another election, and Canadians aren’t going to be in the mood for one for a couple years at least.

The most disappointing thing is that the Tories are completely Part Of The Problem when it comes to the environment, and the Canadian electorate didn’t exactly seem exercised about this, so Canada as a nation will not be a leading player on the environmental world stage. Since I sometimes shudder in fear at the haphazard experiment in atmospheric remodeling whose results we’ll be bequeathing to our children, this upsets me.

My Core Principle · My feelings about the core values of democracy may be read here; one of the very first pieces published on this blog, and one I’m proud of. In fact, the Conservatives have not been notably awful as a government and the voters did not exercise the central privilege, the one that makes democracy better than the alternatives, by firing them.

Irritated · Some Canadians I know are running around complaining, saying “The election cost three hundred million and accomplished nothing. Shame! Shame! Shame!” Gimme a break; democracy isn’t free. You gonna pass a rule saying you can’t have an election unless you’re guaranteed a new government? I’d start laying out the reasons why that’d be counterproductive but if you can’t see it there’s nothing I can say that will help you.

But actually, I am irritated over the results. And for the first time in my life, I’m starting to think there’s an upside in tinkering with the rules. It totally sucks that you can be a Liberal voter and if you’re in the burbs, you needn’t bother voting. Or if you’re in the seven percent of the population who favored the Green party. Or if you’re a Tory living downtown. And so on.

I don’t know what the solution to the problem is, but I’ve become convinced that there is a problem. Check out Fair Vote Canada. I’m open to persuasion on the relative advantages of proportional representation, single transferable vote, and various other psephological mongrels.

But I have to say the Fair Vote Canada press release (PDF-only, sigh) does some pretty compelling statistical advocacy.

The problem is, it escapes me how one mounts a plausible electoral-reform campaign when all the current legislators were by definition elected under the current system. But given a chance, I’d pitch in.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Sean Callahan (Oct 20 2008, at 01:08)

New Zealand has proportional representation to allow minor parties to be represented in parliament. Having been here 11 years, I have no knowledge of what their FPP system was like. However, having grown up in the US, I see two obvious problems with MMP:

1) The minor parties end up having too much power. A party with 3% of the vote ends up getting policies approved because the party with 48% of the vote needs their support. We end up with the likes of the Progressive Party (Jim Anderton) in cabinet based on him winning an electoral seat and capturing 1.16% of the vote. We get the United Future party (Peter Dunne) as a minister (outside of cabinet) on the basis of winning 2.67%. Those two parties end up influencing Labour way more then they should.

2) You can't get rid of politicians in the big parties. The party picks the list of MPs, ranking them in order. If no one in Helen Clark's electorate voted for her in the next election, you can guarantee she'll be back in Parliament because she's number one on the Labour list (likewise for John Key from National). In my opinion, it puts too much power in the party and less to the voter (I'm probably being overly simplistic, in that I'm sure the Dems and GOP parties choose who runs in each seat, though with Primaries, the general public does have some say).

The US system isn't perfect (see 2000, Election), so I'm not saying MMP is a terrible solution, just that it has it's issues, too.

NZ also has a single house, so, once a party gets into power, it can pretty much do what it wants (very little legislation is conscience voted - the party decides what it wants to do and goes through the legal motions). MMP has reduced the major party's ability to put whatever legislation it wants through, as its supporting parties might balk at overly extreme measures. But, most of the coalition partners aren't willing to risk rocking the boat and facing the populace with a snap vote after being responsible for "bringing down the government".

I'm of the opinion that few people hold the extreme right or left opinions that seem to hijack the major parties. I think what most people thought they'd get with MMP was more centrist government. I think both Labour and National have moved to the center, as they can allow the smaller parties to take the extreme viewpoints and include them or exclude them from government based on the final voting results (and blame them for having to include policies they didn't originally campaign for).

After four elections, we haven't yet had a "grand coalition" of the two major parties (which would represent 80% of the votes cast). The parties aren't that different that it couldn't work, but the egos are too big.

I suppose it could be worse: Can you imagine the fun we'd have if we went back to direct democracy instead of representational democracy? I have enough problems reading all of the election material every other year, let alone deciding on major issues on a regular basis.

Good luck with your tinkering!


From: Martin Probst (Oct 20 2008, at 01:59)

As a German, I'm always baffled by the US/Canadian/UK voting systems. It seems so obviously unfair that I wonder how they actually came up with it in the first place. In particular the presidential elections in America with their focus on "swing states" etc. And the funny argument that a proportional voting system would penalize rural communities - when exactly did it start to be ok to give some particular voters more influence than others?

Mind though, that other systems are not absolutely perfect, either. For example in Germany, we have a split system: you have one vote for the local MP candidate, elected in a first-past-the-post system, and one which is counted towards the percentage of a party. The two votes both form half of the seats.

The problem is then what happens if one party gets far more direct candidates than percentage votes. This is levelled through something called "Überhangmandate" (overflow mandates), which may distory the representation slightly in extreme cases in favor of big parties - but I think the worst turnout ever was a ~2 percent distortion over all seats.


From: Stephen Howard (Oct 20 2008, at 04:28)

I've wondered about how you spur major electoral change too. I've wondered if (with enough patience) you could affect it at the local level to get people used to the idea, then scale up. If you had enough people trying this in enough areas of the country, then there might be sufficient support, in time, to do it nationwide.

I've been thinking about this for my own country (the US), but it seems like it ought to work anywhere else as well.


From: Adrian (Oct 20 2008, at 04:34)

Here in New Zealand we changed from first past the post (FPP) to proportional representation (PR) for our national elections ten or so years ago.

The form of PR we adopted is mixed member proportional (MMP). Your FVC site seems to be advocating STV instead, which a number of people here suspect would have been the better option. Whatever - either one is a LOT better than what we used to have.

What we had was your basic two party system - Labour versus National, left versus right; there were other minor parties too but they tended not to flourish under FPP, for the reasons you mention in your article.

Worse still, because of the way votes were tallied by electorate, we had successive elections won by National having not only gained less than the combined left-wing vote, but less of the vote than Labour itself! Democracy in action. Not.


MMP has done away with this sort of nonsense. Yes, it's still a case of the-big-left-party (well, more centrist these days) against the-big-right-party, but a vote for the Greens isn't wasted - if 7% of the country votes for them then they get 7% of the MPs in parliament.

Because neither National nor Labour tends to win more than 50% of the vote, governments are formed by coalitions between parties. So if Labour comes out ahead and forms a coalition with the Greens, not only do the Greens have 7% of the votes in parliament, they have some influence over policy direction as well. 7% of the influence? Perhaps.

And if Labour were to get 55% and National 45% then Labour would govern. For sure. Not like the old days.


Oh, there are imperfections. With say 80% of the vote split evenly between the two major parties, as it often is, who will govern is down to how the remainder is split between the minor parties.

In some cases coalitions are a known - there is no way the Greens would ally themselves to National, the right-wingers. (In fact they've just come out and stated this categorically, pre-election.)

But we have other centrist (or just plain unpredictable) players, who could side with either major party. It can then fall to such a party to play Kingmaker, negotiating with both major parties to see who will hand them more power. Exactly this situation happened a couple of elections ago and believe me, it's not pretty - in fact it can be downright embarrassing. Thank God I was out of the country at the time.

So it's not perfect - just much, much better. The only people who argue for a return to the old ways inevitably turn out to be National party people - and they're arguing out of self-interest, not out of principle. But that's right-wingers for you.


From: Carolyn (Oct 20 2008, at 04:36)

Tim, you’ve already “tinkered” with the voting process by making an endorsement. Unfortunately in your case, it didn’t help your cause this time, but that doesn’t mean it won’t at some point in the future.

I (in the US) already had my mind made up on Obama first, but I am happy to see Colin Powell (another favorite of mine) endorse him. We’ll see.

As far as a fair vote, I’m still pissed about Florida. Something is wrong here.


From: Martin (Oct 20 2008, at 06:04)

Comparing to the US election process, we were done in a blink of an eye. It's like comparing a 100m dash vs. a marathon. The election is done and our politician can go back to work.


From: Tony Fisk (Oct 20 2008, at 06:19)

When the system is 'first past the post', then why vote for a minority whose vote will go unheard?

In a proportional system, then voting for a minority tells the big parties where some of their voter sentiment is coming from.

Since the topic is changing the rules, you might also consider the notion of a rolling system: one seat every month or two (totally untried, I suspect it would have interesting ramifications).


From: Doug Ransom (Oct 20 2008, at 06:27)

I think the thing that makes Canada a relatively good and free place to live is the constitution. We could use a lot more constitution and less of politicians replacing individual's and family's aspirations with their own.

In our first past the post system the voter serves the main parties in power rather than the other way around. There is not much incentive for those in power to change the electoral system.


From: J. King (Oct 20 2008, at 06:55)

I'm a staunch believer in the innate fairness of a simple plurality. Fair Vote proceeds from a false assumption: that people vote for parties when they place an X beside a name on their ballot. While I don't deny that many people will often vote strategically, fundamentally the only assumption we can make is that people are voting for people, since that's what's on their ballot. Certainly that MPs can still get re-elected after crossing the floor is evidence enough of that.

Besides this, though, I personally worry about the accountability and responsibility of MPs under any number of these "proportional" systems. Any system which relies on party lists equates to MPs which are not elected democratically. Parties don't sit in Parliament: people do. If the people sitting in Parliament are selected from lists based on some sort of complex party share and can only be removed from the top of these lists by the party brass, how is that, as Fair Vote puts it, "more democratic"?

Preferential balloting I wouldn't be vehemently opposed to, but it takes longer to count for very little benefit beyond a feel-good "My vote counts!" feeling for frustrated electors---whose votes of course all count: I think the voters of Vancouver South, where Ujjal Dosanjh was recently re-elected with a 33-vote plurality, are keenly aware of this.

In my estimation any change to the mechanics of voting would be a detriment to our democracy, not an improvement. The only way to get more diverse representation which would be acountable, democratic and fair to all, would be to have a larger number of smaller ridings, I think. It's hard to justify such an expense, though.


From: mxt (Oct 20 2008, at 07:06)

I read the PDF the day after the election. Quite eye opening. I like to see "Fair Vote Canada" do the same back through history. Maybe if the parties could see how they would have faired in the past under the proposed system, they wouldn't be scared to change it because it would work better for them.


From: Chris (Oct 20 2008, at 08:09)

It appears that the political process in the great north is just as polarizing as it has become down here. Sometime in the last 10-15 years it has become less of voting for the right person for the job and more of a case of the "us versus them" mentatlity, which is an incredible shame...the good news is it can't be much longer before we hit bottom and start making our way up.

Great post. I think this is my first comment but I enjoy your blog very much.


From: John Cowan (Oct 20 2008, at 08:54)

One thing's for sure: a party-list voting system would never fly in the U.S. or, I suspect, in Canada. Our representatives are very much locals, and it would be unthinkable for a party in X to dictate who would be on the ballot in Y.


From: Avi Bryant (Oct 20 2008, at 10:06)

Since we're having a referendum on electoral reform at the provincial level in May, that seems like the place to start. BC-STV is more complicated than I'd like, but I'd be happy to see nearly *anything* that's not first past the post get tried.


From: Carlos de la Guardia (Oct 20 2008, at 10:26)

I'm not from Canada, but I helped a friend with a pair voting project for this election. This connected people who favored parties that had no chance of winning in their riding with a person in a swing riding willing to vote for their party in exchange for a vote for their own preferred party.

As far as I know this vote swapping is legal and helped hundreds of people to cast a vote that actually counted for something. At least two riding results were influenced by this voting strategy.



From: Jim Robinson (Oct 20 2008, at 11:22)

Here's another vote for BC-STV. I supported it in the narrowly defeated referendum and I'll be voting for it again next year.

I agree that it is somewhat complicated, but IMO it achieves the best of outcomes - no vote is "wasted", yet there is no danger of electing numerous special interest parties as can happen with PR.


From: Martin Probst (Oct 20 2008, at 12:18)

@Sean: the issue with the fragmentation (1% parties with one direct mandate) can be overcome by a barrier to entry, e.g. 5% minimum of votes. Directly voted candidates in a hybrid system would still get in.

@J. King: you keep the MPs accountable, as they represent their local district. Every MP has a "home" district, and most are still voted directly. And do you really believe that most people actually know the guys they are voting for? As in: really know?

@John Cowan: that's not really contradicting a mixed system of popular vote and local representatives.


From: Adrian (Oct 20 2008, at 13:49)

People here are voicing concerns about losing local representation when switching to a PR system - a common reaction when "list MPs" are mentioned.

In fact, under MMP (*mixed* member proportional) there are two types of MPs - electorate MPs and list MPs. Likewise you get two votes - one in your electorate, for an individual, and one for a party.

In each electorate the candidate with the most votes wins and becomes an MP. Then list MPs are added from each party until the overall percentage of MPs a party has matches the percentage of the party vote they won.

Thus local representation is retained, but people also get the party or parties they want. It is actually quite neat once you get your head around it.


The presence of list MPs bothers some people because (a) there can be unknowns in parliament who weren't personally elected, and (b) as Sean points out above, it can be impossible to get rid of a politician if they're placed high enough on the party list.

These are good points, although they pale in comparison to the unfairness of a purely FPP system.

As a possible solution, it's interesting to think about what would happen if instead of getting an real extra MP, parties just got an extra vote. This gets rid of the unknowns and unwanteds problem while retaining what people actually voted for - representation by a party.

I imagine there would be some practical problems to work out.

A less radical answer would be that list MPs should allowed to debate and vote in parliament, but would be forbidden from being ministers, leading parties or other positions of additional responsibility.

The more I think about this the more I like it.


Finally, the sometimes disproportionate sway held by minor parties is problematic, but it's important to remember that this is purely down to the number of MPs elected - it's not an inherent feature of MMP or any other form of PR.

It's absolutely possible for the balance of power to be held by a minor party under FPP too. It's just less likely, because that system makes it very difficult for minor parties to get any MPs even with a significant percentage of the vote.

Think about that. The essence of this argument is nothing to do with the mechanics electoral system, it's a statement that "minor parties shouldn't receive representation because it causes too many problems". Seem like a travesty yet? How about this: "we should go back to FPP because when you get what you actually voted for, things don't work out".

That's about the size of it.


From: J. King (Oct 20 2008, at 14:27)

For what it's worth I'm convinced that John Cowan is right: PR will never fly in Canada, or at least not anytime soon. With Ontarians destroying the MMP camp in the referendum, this given the either/or nature of the question, vocal proponents seem to have cold feet these days, and rightly so: you'd have a tough time passing something which forty percent of the country's population rejected by a wide margin in 104 of 106 constituencies.


From: Doug Hammond (Oct 20 2008, at 15:40)

Another kiwi here. I don't know if we're such a promising example of how to go about changing an electoral system, but hey, we did it. Wikipedia's "Electoral reform in New Zealand" will give you a brief run-down, but being a wikipedia article it isn't nearly cynical enough.

Like Adrian mentioned, people noticed a problem when Labour got more votes -- but less seats -- than National for two elections running. The next election, Labour were voted in on the promise that they would create an independent commission to examine the electoral process. So they did, and when the commission came back they had just one recommendation: change the voting system.

It would be fair to say that from Labour's (or National's) point of view, their plan had backfired. They were hoping that creating the commission itself would be all they'd have to do to make people forget about the whole thing. Instead, they were going to have to give up a voting system that guaranteed each party power roughly 50% of the time.

So began many "ums" and "ahs," and much wringing of hands. But, the media kept at it, and eventually the then-PM promised us a referendum on the subject some time around the next election. Which never happened. Still people didn't forget, and so at the *next* election, National was voted in to power, promising to finally hold the referendum that Labour had promised us last election. Some time before the next election. Honest.

And wouldn't you know it, this time it actually happened. The result was a foregone conclusion, at least partly because of how hard both major parties tried to avoid the whole issue.

So in short, our majority parties shot themselves in the foot, and it still took eight years of grumbling before any real change was made.


From: Mary B (Oct 21 2008, at 12:46)

Hi Tim,

I also live in Vancouver and wanted to mention that the BC-STV will be on the ballot in the BC provincial election that is scheduled for May 12, 2009.


From: robert (Oct 22 2008, at 14:07)

>> In particular the presidential elections in America with their focus on "swing states" etc. And the funny argument that a proportional voting system would penalize rural communities - when exactly did it start to be ok to give some particular voters more influence than others?

Well, 1793, approximately. Built into the Constitution. Which is why we can get Presidents who lost the popular vote. The electoral college was explicitly tilted to small population states (farm states) because they were refusing to join the USofA without that. They were afraid the Big Eastern Capitalists (they existed even then) would destroy them. So, now we have the spectre stupid right-wing loonies controlling the country.


From: Giacomo (Nov 04 2008, at 22:43)

In Italy, the pure-PR system was scrapped only when the entire political class was decimated by mass-scale corruption charges, in the 90s; and they have been rewritten umpteen times since then, with no end in sight, because when even the rules of the game become "fair game", then rulers don't feel any restraint in tinkering with them as soon as they predict to lose an election. I don't think other countries are better; "gerrymandering" is just another name for it, and it happens everywhere all the time.

This said, you cannot really discuss electoral systems, as it's all about finding the right balance for the right set of people, and that usually comes about by pure chance.

PR systems are extremely fair, but when unrestrained, they give way too much power to small parties, producing instability (which is what they were historically designed to be, usually after getting rid of a king or a dictator). FPP systems, on the contrary, produce massive stability but they are profoundly unfair (which is what they were historically designed to be, created by elites trying to crystallize class boundaries without cutting off too many potentially-valuable individuals).

This said, the problem is usually not in the system but rather in the culture which produced the system. If the political environment is culturally stale (which it is, pretty much worldwide, since the 80s), tinkering with numbers and seats won't help much.


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