OPINION: ELECTORAL REFORM -- A Proposal
Editor’s Note: Nick Loenen, the author of this proposal, served as an MLA in BC from 1987 to 1991, as a Social Credit member for the constituency of Richmond. He is now free of political affiliations, and enjoys sailing his beautiful Dragon-class sailboat as well as giving thought and expression to potential improvements in governance. He had sent a draft of this proposal to Andre Carrel, and Carrel responded. Carrel’s response appears as a separate item. Both have given permission for publication by the Rossland Telegraph.
Election 2015: Liberal Electoral Reform Promise
Aproposalprepared by Nick Loenen, Dec. 2015
Replace Canada’s voting system with the Preferential Ballot, using single-seat districts for rural constituencies and multi-seat districts for urban constituencies.
Proportional Representation is too much change, the Preferential Ballot in single-seat districts is too little change. A mixture of single and multi-seat districts is a prudent, balanced, in-between step. It will give some proportional representation without going all the way and risking instability. In the largest cities there could be up to 10 seats per district, where density decreases there would be fewer seats per district and some of the most far-flung constituencies would have a single seat.
Preferential Ballot with a mixture of district sizes is not new. The components are tried and true. They have been in use for a hundred years in Ireland and Australia. Also, the Preferential Ballot with a different number of seats per district was used in both Manitoba and Alberta from the early 1920s to mid 1950s. Its discontinuance was at the hands of politicians. The voters had no say.
This proposal maintains a strong local connection to meet Canada’s political culture. In addition, the variety of district sizes meets Canada’s unique representation challenge – a vast geography with very uneven population distribution. The impossible task to draw constituency boundaries that yield both effective representation and votes of equal value will be lightened significantly.
Why not just single-seat districts? Single-seat Preferential is no more proportional than what we have. The number of votes it wastes remains high. It does not make every vote count. Party discipline remains severe, loyalty to voters weak and the concentration of power in the PMO unchecked. In short, change, but noreal change. It may for that reason appeal to Liberal partisans given the election 2015 results. Some projections using 2015 results suggest the Liberals would have had even more seats with single-seat Preferential. Such thinking is short-sighted. Don’t judge by one election. Results will vary greatly from election to election. With a ranked ballot, as in this proposal, all depends on second-place support. Sometimes, single-seat Preferential is perverse, in the 1952, BC election the Socreds won one more seat than the CCF, even though the CCF had 28,000 more votes.
In addition, because winning candidates must have majority support, some mistakenly assume that under single-seat Preferential, majority governments have majority popular support. Not true! A party with a majority of seats, each seat won on a simple majority, can in the extreme, win majority government on just 26 percent of the popular vote. Single-seat Preferential is no improvement of what we have and in some ways is worse.
More positively, ranked ballots offer an incentive to be civil to opponents and in multi-seat districts voters participate in the parties’ nomination process. This restricts undue back room deals, leader interference and “instant” members that taint party nominations. Best of all, the built-in primary ensures that MPs are more beholden to their voters than to their party. These benefits improve democracy significantly, exactly what Canadians long for.
Representation of what?
Voting systems determine what is worthy of representation. Two extremes should be avoided. Like the current system, single-seat Preferential assumes geographic area, rather than voters’ political interests should be represented. The other extreme, Proportional Representation, assumes voters want political parties represented. It may be true and it might be an improvement over representation by geographic area. But how well does Proportional Representation fit Canadian political culture? Canadians are more practical than ideological. Most are not fond of political parties, and if they could, would do without them. Proportional Representation, unmodified, is foreign to our political culture and difficult to sell.
The genius of multi-seat Preferential is that it makes no assumptions about representation and what is important to voters. It leaves those crucial decisions to the voters themselves. It gives more choice to voters than any other voting system. Voters can choose to support a party, they can choose to spread their support among several parties, they can choose to not support any party. They can choose to support their local constituency through a local candidate, an independent, or a champion of a particular project, they can vote for women, for minority candidates, they can vote exclusively for women or minority candidates. Under multi-seat Preferential you can think of a vote as one dollar. Every voter has 100 pennies to spend. The number of pennies allocated to each candidate is directly related to how the voter ranks the candidates. Few votes are wasted and votes are fully used. You don’t have to spend every last penny, but you may. That is power to people!
JS Mill, the great 19th century political theorist was an early and ardent supporter of multi-seat Preferential, he called it Personal Representation. Mill, better than most, understood that proportional representation is all about parties, while multi-seat Preferential is all about voters.
Empowering voters empowers MPs. Our Westminster parliamentary system works best when MPs enjoy a measure of independence from parties. In Canada this has been a challenge from since Confederation. As early as 1892, Sir Sandford Fleming (of Greenwich time fame), following JS Mill, suggested Canada switch to multi-seat Preferential to lessen party discipline, restore the role of MPs and make parliament truly a House of the people. His address to the Canadian Institute he titled: On the Rectification of Parliament. The same considerations motivated the 2005, BC Citizens Assembly on electoral reform to near-unanimously recommend multi-seat Preferential. In the subsequent referendum multi-seat Preferential enjoyed 58 percent support overall and majority support in all but two constituencies. Yet, it failed because political interests had decreed the referendum must fail unless support reached 60 percent.
Would the 2017, 150th anniversary not be a fitting time to enlarge democracy for citizens, shift MPs allegiance from party to voters and make parliament the House of the people? The Liberal party’s offer to explore electoral reform holds great promise for a renewed, more robust Canadian democracy.