Four key steps were taken toward electoral reform in 2016. A multi-partisan committee of MPs worked together to submit a majority report recommending proportional representation. A new alliance of 62 groups called Every Voter Counts was formed to advocate for equal and effective votes. Prince Edward Island rejected the majoritarian options on the ballot in a plebiscite and a majority voted for a mixed-member proportional voting system. Finally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reasserted his promise to change the voting system and confirmed he will introduce legislation in May 2017.
The 2015 election promise to make every vote count and make 2015 the last first-past-the-post election was launched when the Liberals were behind in the polls. When they unexpectedly won a majority of seats on 39.5 per cent of the votes, many pundits scoffed that this promise was dead. To the surprise of many, the central platform promise was reiterated in the first Speech From the Throne and continued to reverberate throughout 2016.
Those advocating for fairer elections have landmark achievements to celebrate, yet the events that ended the year suggest we may be in for a bumpy road in 2017.
The strength of support for proportional representation by both expert witnesses and citizens who appeared before the Special Committee on Electoral Reform may have surprised the government. Eighty-eight per cent of experts who expressed an opinion on system design suggested some form of proportional representation. This response was mirrored in the open-microphone events hosted by the committee.
In particular, the lack of support for the alternative vote (which involves the use of ranked ballots in single-member ridings as part of a majoritarian system) as an alternative to proportional representation was noted by the committee and even by the Liberals on the committee.
In December, the Liberal MPs on the House Electoral Reform Committee signed on to a majority report that recommended a form of proportional representation be put to a referendum. However, they proceeded to throw that recommendation under the bus by calling the reform too radical and rushed.
The then-minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, followed their lead with dramatic statements that drew attention away from the recommendation suggesting the government develop a proportional electoral system that achieves a Gallagher score of five or less. This implies a fair (though still moderate) level of proportionality.
The minister then launched a survey that has been widely derided by politicians, the media, and citizens. She commissioned an expensive survey platform and sent out nondescript postcards to every household in Canada inviting them to participate. According to JWM Business Services, the general rate of return on a direct mail campaign is typically less than two per cent. This seems to be consistent with the minister’s initiative, which is tracking participation at approximately that level.
These issues, combined with mixed messages from the prime minister and the minister for democratic reform in 2016, suggest that the government may decide either to (a) seek ways to avoid its electoral campaign commitments; or (b) deliver on its promises in a manner not yet determined.
The current situation leaves the government with several reform scenarios. A first decision that will need to be made is whether it will comply with the two key House Electoral Reform recommendations to implement proportional representation with a Gallagher index of five or less and hold a referendum.
The government is still on track to meet its timelines, but it must decide soon how to move forward with electoral reform if it’s going to meet its campaign promise to introduce legislation by May 2017. It must assess alternative proportional systems and choose which design features are appropriate to Canada’s demographics and geography.
Among the features to decide upon will be: the use of top-up seats and/or multi-member ridings; the use of open or closed party lists; the size of ridings and top-up regions; the use of multi-member districts; the addition of new seats to the House and/or redistricting of current electoral boundaries; and whether or not to use ranked ballots as part of whatever reform is proposed.
There are two scenarios that can be considered out of the running at this stage. First, the alternative vote as an independent reform is not a viable option, given the lack of public support for that option during consultations and a widespread perception that AV would favour the Liberal Party. The use of ranked or preferential ballots as part of a majoritarian system could produce results even less fair and proportional than first past the post.
Second, complete abandonment of the Liberal electoral reform promises would most likely cost the government too much politically in 2019. The 2015 election was a unique situation where the electorate was determined to remove the former prime minister without splitting the progressive vote. This led voters to rally around Liberal promises with a massive strategic voting campaign. Such a scenario is unlikely to reproduce itself in 2019. Voters were looking for a leader who promised to be bold and lead with “real change” and forward-thinking. They are unlikely to reward a leader who appears to be heavy on slogans but thin on substance.
The referendum option would be a risky one for the Liberals in several ways as well. A referendum would create a major distraction for the government, prolonging the political pain associated with an issue that has been poorly managed to date. Referendums also expose the electorate to fake news campaigns that could potentially damage the government’s brand. It could take decades to recover from the divisiveness left behind should results of a referendum differ markedly from one part of the country to another. Finally, a “no” vote on electoral reform would also represent a failure by the government to deliver on its electoral reform promise.
While the House Electoral Reform Committee majority report recommended a referendum, a majority of its members also expressed deep reservations about the referendum option.
This suggests the following options for the government to avoid a referendum.
First, if the government develops an electoral reform solution with multi-party support in Parliament, then the reforms would have sufficient legitimacy. The government would have an electoral mandate to bring in reform. A referendum would not be needed. Three parties promised to make every vote count and 63 per cent of voters supported candidates from those parties in 2015. The only solution that would garner such cross-party support is a proportional representation option.
Secondly, as suggested by many, the government could commit to holding a referendum after two elections have been held under the new system.
Going forward, a key issue for the government will be the management of its caucus. While most Liberal candidates in 2015 indicated a degree of openness to different proportional representation options, all candidates pledged to support platform promises.
Leadership will be needed to advocate for a more democratic electoral system and to educate the public. Protecting partisan self-interest will increase cynicism and should be avoided.
Reformers recognize two main families of voting systems: winner-take-all majoritarian systems and proportional systems. Sticking with a majoritarian system would indicate that the government has ignored what citizens are telling them: that it’s time to end false majorities and join the rest of the world (including 80 per cent of OECD countries) to provide citizens an opportunity to not only vote, but to make every vote count towards the election of a representative aligned with each voter’s political values. Citizens want leaders who stand behind their ideas and who are not afraid to debate those ideas on a level playing field.
In this context, a key challenge for the government continues to be the identification of electoral reform options that will enable it to meet its campaign commitments.
The government has considerable information available about what Canadians are saying about their values, as represented in various surveys, including the House Electoral Reform Committee online survey (see appendices E and F of its report), MP town hall meetings, numerous previous studies and commissions, and various polls. The majority call has been for equal and effective votes: proportional representation.
We thank Monsef for all her hard work on this file and look forward to meeting with her again to talk about how countries with proportional representation elect up to eight per cent more women. We welcome Karina Gould to her new portfolio and look forward to working with her to uphold the Liberal promise to make every vote count with a fairer, evidence-based voting system in time for Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations.
Kelly Carmichael is executive director of Fair Vote Canada.
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