Electoral Reform

Greetings from Toronto where I am wrestling with an uncertain internet connection, hence no links in today’s post 🙁

I had the great pleasure today of attending a small meeting with the Chair and representatives of the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform. For my readers outside of Ontario, let me explain. The province of Ontario, like our federal system, utilizes a “first past the post” electoral system, wherein the candidate with the plurality of votes within a riding wins the seat, and the party with the majority of seats –or the party with the plurality of seats within a coalition with the majority– forms the government, made up of those individuals elected at the riding level. Ridings themselves are geographically drawn to provide somewhat equal population representation (with a very wide margin of error, +/- 25%).

The problem with our system is that in a multi-party system, it is common to have the government made by a party that the majority of voters actually did NOT vote for. The present Liberal government of Ontario, for example, garnered around 44% of the popular vote, and yet was able to form a “majority” government.

There are other forms of electoral democracy around the world. Every country and jurisdiction does it differently. Some use a “list” method wherein parties submit a list of members who would form the government if elected, and citizens vote directly for their party of choice; this translates to zero local representation, which may be already an outmoded idea in an era of 3 levels of government. Australia employs a system in which voters identify a first and second choice; if the first choice does not result in a majority, then the second (and possibly third) choice is considered. And New Zealand reserves a set number of government seats for Aboriginal candidates, assuring legislative diversity that way.

There is also a growing recognition of the marginalization of urban dwellers (and therefore of immigrants and people of colour, who tend to be city folk). A researcher named Sujit Choudhury (I may have spelled his name wrongly) is presently making waves by having computed that, in Ontario, due to a lack of proportional representation, a city dweller’s vote is actually equal to 0.96 votes, while a rural dweller’s is something like 1.22 votes. Clearly, something needs to be done.

In recognition of this discontentment, the present Ontario government commissioned the Citizen’s Assembly, which is a remarkable experiment in democracy. It is made up of 104 randomly selected ordinary Ontarians (one from each riding), with equal numbers of men and women, and with jigged mandatory representation of Aboriginal and other minority groups. The assembly is charged with the task of devising a new electoral system for Ontario. Their recommendation will be put to a province-wide referendum come next election. With supposed guarantees that this process is at arm’s length from the government (and I have my cynicisms about that claim), this process has the potential to elicit real change on the ground. Thus, it was with great excitement that I participated in this discussion, hosted by the Maytree Foundation. I’m looking forward to submitting my own written brief soon, and I would encourage any Ontario reader to do the same, if you feel strongly about this issue. Even if nothing comes of it, the process will have helped you crystallize your thoughts on the matter.

The Assembly states that ones of its goals is to better assure a legislature that is demographically representative of the province’s population, according to such things as geography, gender and ethnicity. This worries me. The focus of any electoral system in a society that ostensibly values true, unbiased equality should be on maximizing the fairness of the process without dictating the nature of the elected government. In other words, so long as every citizen has received equal guidance and opportunity to both exercise his franchise and/or to run as a candidate, and so long as the formulary for forming government does not bias or favour one demographic group over another, then the resulting legislature will, by definition, be representative of the population. In this way, so long as the process is genuinely fair (and more on that later), then I have no problem with a government made up entirely of straight white men or, for that matter, lesbian black women.

This, of course, outright rejects that New Zealand model which supports reserved seats for certain groups. There is a vocal minority advocating for Ontario, and Canada, to set aside guaranteed seats for Aboriginals, women and ethnic minorities. On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable path. But several problems quickly arise. First, which special interest groups deserve such a boon? Why not reserved seats for disabled people, young people, older people, war veterans, homosexuals, poor people or, for that matter, fishermen? More importantly, however, is this question of whether, for example, more Blacks in the legislature will translate into a more effective voice for so-called “Black issues” in government.

In my philosophy, it is more important for me to represented by someone who shares my values rather than by someone who shares my biology. Therein lies the value of the party system; parties create platforms that I can then match to my personal philosophy. Parties are also able to field candidates whose experiences may match my own (eg, gender experiences, immigrant experiences, etc) and I can then choose to either select or reject such individuals on the ballot sheet.

What’s more important is to remove barriers to full participation of the population. This means making civic education a priority again, so that everyone understands the role, function and process of government. And, more importantly, it means simplifying the process for becoming a candidate, taking such paths out of the hands of the wealthy and influential. If all citizens are equally able to present themselves as candidates, without procedural advantages given to wealthy and powerful individuals, then the citizenry will be presented with a truly representative panoply from which a necessarily representative government will likely be chosen.

I would also add a need to earn the right to vote, not through citizenship, but through knowledge. I am not one of those people trying to maximize voter turnout. I’d rather have a small, informed voter population than a large, ignorant one. Perhaps this is elitist of me, but I think that if parties are aware that the voters are well informed, then the attack ads would diminish, propaganda would dilute, and real platforms would have to be developed. How to institute this? Well, for a provincial election, how about asking on the ballot, “What is the name of the current Premiere?” Those who tick the wrong box get their ballots tossed.

The Citizen’s Assembly is not focused on these issues of access and candidate representation. Rather, they are seemingly more concerned with the formulary for computing won seats. I have no strong opinion on that yet, other than to suggest a weighted average. I have previously suggested this model in my essay submissions to the Magna Corporation’s “What Would You Do As Prime Minister?” scholarship contest, of which I was a semi-finalist 3 years in a row when I was a graduate student. My idea was to modify the Australian model by weighting the voter’s first, second and third choices accordingly, then computing which candidate received the most weights, rather than the most votes. The result is that you would often get coalition governments and very few dynasties. In other words, no one gets the government they really really want, but everyone gets the government that is least objectionable.

A modification might be to also include a “vote against” category, meaning that you can also place a tick next to the name of one candidate you want to vote AGAINST. Each tick would then represent a subtracted vote from that person. This is useful in cases where people really hate a given candidate but have no preference among the others. The problem here, of course, is that the incumbent will often by most punished, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

As you can see, the permutations are endless. Any other ideas out there?