A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Problem with Proportional.

Fair Vote Canada in an open letter sent to the Prime Minister has come out strongly for
the Democratic Voting Task Force to involve citizens from the beginning on Trudeau's pledge to have reform studied by an all-party committee, that is as it should be. However as with the NDPs platform pledge (and now even the Greens) they then say, while calling on the Task Force to conduct wide-reaching consultations, that Fair Vote Canada is clear - the government must come down in favour of some system of proportional representation (PR).
Having been looking at electoral reform options for a number of years now, and having previously come out in flavor of MMP (Mixed Member Proportional, the only truly proportional system) I now, after further study, am not at all totally convinced that a fully 'proportional' system is practical or even desirable in Canada. Something that more closely reflects the voters wishes is most certainly desirable, as is some modernization to our voter identification and balloting systems. Given the way our system works it would certainly be nice to be able to separate somewhat our wishes as to the local representative and our wish for the party to hold power but what of the problems that such a system may bring. Is the solution worse than the problem?


Several countries use a form of Mixed Member Proportional voting however few if any the size and diversity of Canada. There is a great deal of difference between adjusting for proportionality in a country the size of say New Zeland at 268,000 sq km, a population of 4.5m and 71 electorate seats, and Canada with almost 10 MILLION sq km and a population of 36 million and 338 ridings!
In the debate about proportional representation you will see a lot of arguments that go something like this.....


Winner-take-all gave Canada a House of Commons in 2011 of 166 Conservatives, 103 New Democrats, 34 Liberals, 4 Bloc Québécois, and one Green. TOTAL 308
Instead, the proportional results would have been roughly 127 ( 41% ) Conservatives, 97 (31%) New Democrats, 56 (18%) Liberals, 17 (5.5%) Bloc Québécois, and 11 (3.5%) Greens.
TOTAL 308 MPs


That is NOT however how it works, irregardless of what 'proportional' system we use based upon the national vote (or a separate vote for party) the local MPs will be still elected for each riding (using a first past the post method) and thus cannot / will not loose their seats in order to make the results proportional thus the final make up of the HoC would look more like this....


166 ( 41% ) Conservatives (the number actually elected), 125 (31%) New Democrats, 72 (18%) Liberals, 22 (5.5%) Bloc Québécois, and 14 (3.5%) Greens. TOTAL around 400 MPs (rough figures / rounding errors / no partial MPs!) Note that the Greens and the Bloc would 'appoint' more MPs than were elected! (I also note we now have more than 308 ridings to start with!)
Having established that with this system we will have to have more MPs, let us examine the way they would be selected. Two basic methods exist, Open List where your 'extra' vote goes to an individual proposed by the Party of your choice and Closed List where your additional vote goes to the Party of your choice. Within these two options there are multiple ways in how such lists and choices are made, I will not try to fully explain each of these (check out the following links for more on that) but will try and outline some of the possible problems and potential solutions.
All Open List proportional voting systems chose from preordained list of 'extra' candidates provided by the party however there are several methods by which voters may chose said candidates and how such choices translate into who on the list actually is chosen.

The ballots can become quite complex with some such systems with the necessity to list not only the local candidates but the party lists (chosen by the party hierarchy) of each of the partys vying for power. A national list for our system could have to contain as many as 25 names
per party but even if chosen on a regional basis the ballot could contain 20 or more names in total, with some folks complaining about the delays at the voting booth to just select one candidate this could become an issue. Even if reduced by having party lists for each province it is still will take longer to vote and remember there is no guarantee that any or all of these folks will ever see the floor of the HoC and how does one choose which province (or district) has the extra MP(s) if and when needed for top up? Presumably by the ones that get the highest number of vote (first past the post!) and would that mean that those in more populous Provinces / districts would get their choice over and above less populous areas.
In closed list systems, each political party has pre-decided who will receive the seats allocated to that party in the elections, so that the candidates positioned highest on this list tend to always get a seat in the parliament while the candidates positioned very low on the closed list will not. The party executive or party leaders generally control the list; consequently closed-list systems transfer political power to the un-elected persons who author the party's list of candidates. The choices at the ballot box would be simpler with just selecting a local candidate and a preferred party but I seriously doubt that many folks will not select the party that the candidate belongs to, unless perhaps an independent is running. It should be noted that in this, and most other, 'proportional' systems there is normally a limit set as to the minimum popular vote below which the 'party' will not be considered for 'top up' MPs. Where should this be set, 5%, 10%, higher , lower?

The problem with both open and closed list MMP systems is that a candidate who perhaps has received considerable support from his ridings voters but not quite enough to be elected would in some situations be replaced by an individual, put on a short list by the party hierarchy, who many of those voters do not know from Adam. Who does this individual represent and is accountable to, the party, the district, the province in which he resides or who? It is obvious that it will be the party thus increasing the already overly amount of power the party bosses hold over our MPs.

One possible partial solution to some of these problems is to use Local Lists, that is to NOT have any pre ordained lists but to choose the extra MPs from those in the party who were not elected but received the highest proportion of the votes in their riding as compared with all other ridings. This would reduce the party control over the choices, at least use individuals that stood for election in the usual fashion and received an endorsement from many of his or her local citizens. Of course this still brings into question as to who they represent and are accountable to, and adds the perception that said riding has two MPs, a situation that would probably also occur to some extent with party list choices. It would however somewhat balance the desires of an area that was strongly in favour of party 'A' when the national popular vote favoured part 'B' by giving that area a greater chance of getting some of those 'extra' MPs! As noted previously in all of the above variations a lower limit is set below which a given Party would receive NO extra MPs, the setting of this threshold could have an enormous impact upon the outcome. For instance in the example above if set at 5% the Block would retain their 22 MPs but the Greens would be reduced to just one, all of a sudden its NOT proportional! I also note that in some MMP systems there is also an upper limit on the percentage of 'list members' that can be appointed in relation to the directly elected members 20% , 39% etc.. These little 'details are important.


With the number of MPs varying depending upon results and possibly as many as 20-25% extra MPs having to be 'nominated' (and accountable to an unspecified authority) this is not an acceptable situation IMHO, the cost to the taxpayer alone, never mind the high percentage of 'appointed' MPs and where to put them, should make these systems (MMP, AV-PLUS) subject to a great deal of detailed study to see if the “cure” is worse than the problem. Any of those who openly promote “proportional voting” must in the same breath specify exactly which method of PR and which variation of said method they favour, anything less is meaningless. This is no less true of any of the alternative somewhat less proportional systems!
Non of the above will solve the real problem which is the apparent inability of our leaders and our MPs to drop the partisan rhetoric and work together for the good of the country (something which, given the probability of minority governments under PR they must learn to do) and the lack of any consequences (other than getting turfed from power when the electorate finally wakes up) when they fail to do so. We need parliamentary reform as much, if not more than electoral reform, let us hope that the new government will also work on that in the coming months and years..

Given the strong feeling about the various options, many of which unfortunately have been formed more upon the wish to change the results rather than any real knowledge on how such changes work in a practical sense, I expect my comment count to increase dramatically on this one. Please remember I am all for electoral reform (which encompasses far more than just the voting system) and more equitable results but see more problems than solutions in this option. Please dont shoot the messenger but do discuss the options.
The systems are many and varied and I hope to cover them in more detail in the future but for now check out the basics in my previous post on electoral reform here.
For much more information and opinion check out these post





Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

8 comments:

Kirby Evans said...

First of all, let me get this out of the way - "irregardless"????

Secondly, I believe that your "size of the country" argument is a complete red herring. Geography simply doesn't bear on the question in any meaningful way. Furthermore, Canada is considerably less diverse in political terms than many countries that use some form of PR. In fact, when you consider other countries, Canada has a shockingly narrow scope to its political field.

Thirdly, in analytical terms the question is not really what problems do voting systems have, rather the question is what problems don't voting systems have. In other words, it seems to me that real problem with any electoral reform is that it is a matter of weighing the strengths rather than the weaknesses. And when we are compelled to face a normative problem in this way, personal preferences will inevitably play a large role in what side of a question we come down on. Because there is not really any widespread agreement on exactly what representative democracy is supposed to achieve (beyond mere platitudes), there is going to be in turn little agreement on how we organize it. I prefer PR in almost any of its various shapes to FPTP for the simple reason that for me its strengths outweigh its weaknesses in finding some sense of a general will. I spent a lot of time studying the technical questions and found I was not swayed by any of them for the simple reason that, in the final analysis, PR in my mind would bring us, despite its technical problems, closer to a sense of a legitimate and meaningful reflection of politics as a discourse in the public sphere than other system. Thus, as much as so-called political "scientists" imagine that they can reduce this problem to a technical/rational discourse of the various weaknesses of the various systems, I think this is an instrumental colonization of what is actually a normative problem rather than a technical one. Technically NONE of the systems are very good, so it is a matter of which system we feel might create proper conditions for a civil society.

Given how much thought you have obviously put into the technical side of the issue, this approach probably looks frustratingly wishy-washy. But I believe that it is simply a pragmatist approach in the best tradition of James and Dewey, and is in the end the only one that will bear fruit.

Rural said...

Thank you for your response Kirby, I have always found your blog content interesting and reasonable. Without getting into a lengthy debate I will just say that I look at it pragmatically also, just more from a how is this going to actually work point of view. I DO believe the size of our country must be a consideration if only from the number of riding's and thus the number of MPs (and for PR the number of 'extra' representatives) involved.
I do agree that NONE of the available systems are without their problems and I will be looking at some of them in the next few weeks!

Northern PoV said...

I lived through two referendums ... one in Ontario and one (the second) in BC. I really dislike Terry Milewski and it started with his infantile coverage of the BC situation... claiming he (and thus everyone) could not make sense or understand the PR proposal.

The media wants a referendum because it gives them a story to cover (and shape). We have a system of representative democracy (rather than direct democracy ie referendums) cause it works - informed people discuss, make compromises and reach workable solutions for problems that do not get solved by simple Y/N questions.

Predicting the outcome under either IRV (ranked ballots) or PR using FPTP historical data is a mug's game. Both Australia and NZ have forms of PR and both have rightwing gov'ts at the moment. In NZ the right got 50% of the raw vote in the last election!

I like ranked ballots. I could live with PR, though I agree with much of your post. Let's let the process run for a while before we pre-judge it.

Rural said...

It is very much a wait and see situation NPV, and as you say predicting the probable outcome of any particular system is unreliable at best. I just want those promoting one form or another to FULLY understand the complexity's and possible problems of such a change.

JImL said...

Can we please get one thing straight, Australia, for its MP selection, only uses a form of PR in two small area: the capital region and Tasmania. They do use PR for senate seats. My source, in Australia, tells me that this results in a plethora of senate candidates some of whom are simply muddying the water while wheeling and dealing with others for whatever gains they can get.

If my source is wrong I would like to know on what point.

I, too, like Ranked Balloting. My reason is simply that I refuse to vote for a candidate of a particular party just because my mother and father did or I consider myself belonging to a certain class or why ever people vote by party. I look at the positions of all parties. None of them is completely wrong but I prefer the policies of each party to varying degree. I have a spreadsheet on which is listed the policies important to me and some that don't matter much. From this I rate the parties and candidates.

With Ranked Balloting I can vote first, second, third according to how they have rated on my spreadsheet.

But just this discussion shows how difficult it is to decide which system we should use. Small wonder the Conservatives want FPTP and know people will take that. It's simpler for them.

Rural said...

Thanks for your input Jiml, so far as I am aware Australia uses a variety of systems depending upon the state and / or they are electing.

Anonymous said...

Since it takes only a few minutes to read up on the Wikipedia entry for voting systems in Australia, both for Federal and also for State elections, the comment entry above is somewhat amazing in its level of non-understanding and error.

Good article, though, irregardless (recognized by the OED for some time as legit, if feeble). Similar thoughts have occurred to me about the wisdom of changing our voting system just like that, not helped by those on the bandwagon who have already galloped ten miles into the future and urged the rest of us to follow them to nirvana.

I'd much rather evaluate proposals from a commitee struck to look at new voting systems for federal elections than take for granted the biases of internet nobodies (I am one myself) who have already decided what's best for me.

As for referendums,that's a mugs game. We have representative government as it stands, and no amount of frantic hand-waving by the Conservative-led press to have a referendum impresses me in the least. It's a delaying tactic, because all Federal referendums (of which there have been only 3 since 1867) must have a yes/no answer to the question posed - which would be what, exactly? Something like: "Do you approve of a change in Canada's federal election system to proportional representation?"

The furor over the wording of the question would dwarf the squabbles over which PR method, AV, MMP or whatever system would be the best if we did vote for change. That's what the money behind our reprehensibly Non-Representative press wants, mass confusion. I see no reason why the Liberals should take the slighest bit of notice of their desire for a referendum. Harper took no notice of anything that didn't square with his warped vision, and the press sure didn't ask him to run referendums on his nitwitted schemes. Double standards for the rich right wing? Standard Operating Procedure for scribblers without an ethical bone in their body trying to earn an income. They'll write any old cr*p for bux and do it every day.

Kirby Evans said...

Hi Rural. I too enjoy your blog, and I hope I didn't give the impression of dismissing your effort here. I agree that it is obviously important for people to understand how these processes work. However, the complexity of the various PR systems makes a referendum inherently problematic. Ultimately my main point is that even if everyone understood each system thoroughly, it would not necessarily lead to a properly "rational" decision based on the evidence because all the systems are inherently problematical and we have basically failed to form a clear vision of democracy and its goals. As I said, the real issue (and one that is, of course, not talked about by anyone in the MSM) is which system really generates an effective civil society and allows the maximum or participation and active citizenship. Given the complexity of democracy, there is no "right" answer to this dilemma. Anyway, I am enjoying your thoughts on the subject either way.