Wishful thinking and unrealistic expectations – Dion’s proposed electoral reform

Last weekend, Stéphane Dion took to the pages of the National Post to suggest that Canada needs a new voting system. It’s not the first time such suggestions have been made, and it certainly won’t be the last, but that doesn’t make each new suggestion any better than the last, and Dion’s suggestion is certainly problematic.

Dion proposes that Canada adopt what he calls a “P3” voting system – proportional-preferential-personal. The theory is that there would be the same number of ridings, but super-sized to have three to five MPs per riding, which voters would select party preferences by means of preferential ballot, while at the same time choosing one of the candidates put forward by each party. The proposed method of counting is that first seats are apportioned according to the preferential ballot, and those seats are assigned by highest-ranking candidates for those parties.

Dion’s rationale is that this will diminish what he terms the “distortion” effect that seems to concentrate party power in certain regions, making it appear that certain parties hold monopolies in some regions or that they’re absent in others. But we need to remember that these appearances are just that – appearances. They are borne out of flawed readings of election results, and indeed of the way the electoral system actually works currently.

I will remind you that much of this apparent distortion is a result of looking at the national numbers when general elections are in fact 308 individual elections taking place simultaneously, and the distortions are a result of the aggregate. It’s not an accurate reflection of the way in which votes are actually counted, and yet it is a number that we have come to rely upon. It shouldn’t be used as a justification to distort the system to better reflect what is actually a distorted figure. Also, I will remind Dion – and every other proponent of proportional representation – that every vote already counts, and they count equally. To suggest otherwise is not only false but also misleading.

There is no guarantee that the proportional aspect will substantially change the party seat count that this hopes to achieve. Is it frustrating that some parties seem perpetually shut out of certain areas? Sure. But it’s also incumbent upon the parties themselves to ensure that outreach continues, that riding associations respond to the grassroots members and community organisations, and that they connect them to the party’s MPs and ministers or critics that are engaged on the issues that concern the community. That’s the way our system works, and the way our parties are supposed to work. If the party isn’t doing that currently because they feel the area is somehow “hopeless” or “lost” to them, then that’s a problem for the party to solve – not the electoral system.

This proposal also seems tone-deaf to the rural and remote realities of many of the ridings in the country. If Dion proposes we keep 308 (or 338, as it will be in the next election) seats, but simply to super-size the ridings to accommodate having multiple members each, it makes the size of many ridings untenable. There are already rural ridings larger than France that a single MP is expected to serve, while combining three to five of these ridings becomes untenable. Imagine having the entire North as one three-member electoral district. It’s an outrageous proposal. It means that major urban centres would have a mere three or four ridings to deal with diverse concerns, and that smaller cities and their unique concerns would be swallowed up entirely in a gigantic rural or hinterland riding. The only way such a proposal would at all be tenable is if it meant substantially increasing the size of the House of Commons, which the Liberals – and Dion in particular – have a stated aversion to. And that’s not what is being proposed.

Dion also believes that this complicated system will reinforce “the level of cooperation that should exist between parties.” And it might also increase the distribution of unicorns to little girls across Canadian households too. That’s a certain amount of wishful thinking considering that there is zero guarantee that the perpetual minority governments that proportional systems produce would either enforce cooperation or stability. In fact, recent history has shown quite the opposite – that parties became even more hyper-partisan because they had to be continually on guard for a potential election. The current political discourse has poisoned the well for coalition governments, and even if one were to happen, it is hard to see how cabinet solidarity and secrecy would be enforced given some of the players involved. Given this reality, I find it hard to take this goal of a system creating and enforcing cooperation seriously.

I will also say that changing the voting system will do nothing to address the more systemic problems of civic literacy and the disengagement that stems from it. In fact, it only serves to complicate the system, which would only serve to frustrate an electorate, which already does not understand the mechanics of a straightforward electoral process. It’s not a solution to any of the problems we actually face, but simply an invitation to create more instead.

15 thoughts on “Wishful thinking and unrealistic expectations – Dion’s proposed electoral reform

  1. “I will remind Dion – and every other proponent of proportional representation – that every vote already counts, and they count equally. To suggest otherwise is not only false but also misleading.” So you mean that all votes count, even those that do not elect anyone? I fail to understand your logic; please elaborate on this point.

    • I don’t see how a vote doesn’t count even if the person doesn’t win. It doesn’t render the vote meaningless – you expressed your desire as to whom you wanted to elect. Therefore, the vote counts. If your desired candidate doesn’t win, then it gives you incentive to organise, to fundraise, to build support. Politics is a process and a continual one that goes beyond casting a ballot and treating the next four years as a spectator sport.

      • Nonesense. The votes for the winning candidate send someone to Ottawa. The votes for the second place finisher merely establish the threshold for the first place finisher – they need one vote more than the second place finisher. The votes for anyone else have no impact on the election – they simply don’t count.

        Moreover, in many ridings, one party or another can run a dead man and still win. These safe seats allow the parties to reward their hacks with lucrative employment while denying voters there any real hope of effective representation. You have to vote for the candidate to vote for the party.

        Dion’s proposal allows you to select the candidate and the party you want to represent you. Moreover, it doesn’t do so just for the lucky winners but for the vast majority of voters.

  2. The purpose of a vote is not to “express your desire”—it is to choose your representative. If you end up “represented” by someone you voted against, your vote did not count.

    • So by that logic, votes only count if they win? That’s a rather…entitled view of the universe is it no? Democracy, as in life, has winners and losers. Just because you didn’t win this time, it doesn’t mean that your participation in the process is somehow invalid.

      • Democracy is NOT about picking winners and losers. You are thinking of sports, or perhaps capitalism. Democracy is about working together to accomplish more than we can do as individuals. It is about bringing all stakeholders to the table so everyone can get what they need. When democracy functions as it should, we are all winners. For that, you need a fair voting system

  3. When someone writes a blog post on a proposal, and criticizes that proposal for something that is specifically not in there, his credibility is in question. When he then goes on to slag the comprehension abilities of the electorate–whether we adopt this new proposal, a different one, or do nothing–his lack of concern for those our electoral system is actually to serve becomes evident.

    Dion spent about a paragraph detailing how the “entire North would *not* become a three-member district.” If you read the proposal, you’d know that so you either didn’t read it, or are intentionally misleading what it says.

    “an electorate, which already does not understand the mechanics of a straightforward electoral process” By virtue of the fact that more and more of our electorate does not vote, you conclude that our electorate is stupid. You offer absolutely nothing to back that conclusion up, other than more of the electorate is not voting. This is, obviously, a superficial and circular argument that shows a lot more of your condescending attitude than it does the intelligence of our electorate.

  4. You say “There is no guarantee that the proportional aspect will substantially change the party seat count that this hopes to achieve. Is it frustrating that some parties seem perpetually shut out of certain areas? Sure.” Okay, Dion’s model might let Alberta Liberal voters elect only one Liberal MP from Alberta because of his very small regions, not the three those voters deserved by their numbers. And it might let Greater Montreal Conservative voters elect only one MP, not the four they deserved by their numbers. But that’s on the votes cast in 2011. As the Law Commisson of Canada noted, reducing the number of disregarded votes will give discouraged voters more reason to vote, increasing the turnout. Dion’s principle is unimpeachable: “I do not see why we should maintain a voting system that makes our major parties appear less national and our regions more politically opposed than they really are. I no longer want a voting system that gives the impression that certain parties have given up on Quebec, or on the West.” His other principle is mportant: “moderate proportional representation, which corrects the regional distortions of the current electoral system” but “still providing stability, accountability and territoriality.”

    Dion says “I may not have come up with the best formula, and I do keep an open mind.” This is good, since on one point you are correct: Dion’s model makes the size of many ridings untenable. By the census, 44% of Canadians live in communities smaller than metropolitan Halifax’s 390,328 people. A three-MP district for the whole Stratford-Bruce Peninsula region? A four-MP district for the whole Bas-St-Laurent–Gaspesie? A three-MP district running from North Bay to Moosonee? A five-MP district for the whole Simcoe County-Muskoka region? Yet, large as they are, these are still not large enough to elect a single Liberal MP on the votes cast in 2011. So a mixed-member model like the one proposed by the Law Commission of Canada is essential. But it can be the moderate model Dion wants. A moderate MMP model might have regions ranging from six MPs (four local, two regional compensatory) to eight MPs (five local, three regional compensatory), with a handful of exceptional smaller regions.

  5. Representative Democracy is supposed to provide all citizens with representation in government. Voting isn’t an end in and of itself, it is the mechanism that is supposed to secure our representation. The reality is that most Canadians are not represented most of the time. Not very democratic, that.

    Votes that aren’t equal, or worse, that don’t count, are the biggest disincentive to voter turnout. Civic illiteracy isn’t the problem. Frustration with our antiquated inequitable voting system ~ exercises in futility ~ lead to disengagement. The single biggest condemnation of our electoral system is that Canadians have come to consider consider strategic voting as a legitimate option.

    It’s easy to explain away our current system’s inequities when one is accustomed to having his vote count. The minority whose votes do count hold a disproportionate amount of power under our current winner take all system.

    Today’s world is very different from the one which spawned this antiquated system. Modern day Canadians use the Internet to communicate nearly instantaneously with our elected representatives. It isn’t the size of the riding that matters but the quality of the representation.

    Like M. Dione, you place a disproportional emphasis on political parties. The recent trend toward increased concentration of power within parties only disenfranchises Canadian citizens further. Rather than solving inequity, fundraising gives unfair advantage to those with funds, or access to funds. Whether First Past The Post or Alternative Vote, winner take all systems is by nature divisive, creating a culture of winners and losers.

    Proportional Representation seeks to represent all citizens, so whichever version of PR Canadians choose will be more democratic than the system we have now. It’s time Canada had real democracy where we all have some representation in our government.

    [I’ll blog an expansion of this in “Whoa! Canada”]

  6. “The purpose of holding elections for ‘representative assemblies’, like city councils, provincial assemblies and national parliaments, is to obtain assemblies that are as representative as possible of those who vote. That provides a very simple and unambiguous measure by which to compare the merits of different voting systems.

    Look at the “represented voters” and the “unrepresented voters”. If you do that you will see very clearly how FPTP, at all levels of government in Canada, does a poor job for the voters and how PR (almost any system of PR) would do a very much better job for the voters.” (Credit to Prof. James Gilmour.)

    • So by that logic, because a mayor only receives a certain percentage of votes he or she should only sit as may for that percentage of the term, so that the other “unrepresented voters” can get a chance?

      • Of course not: we are talking of elections for ‘representative assemblies’, like city councils, provincial assemblies and national parliaments

        • Actually Wilf, there is little wrong with Dale’s proposal that in a signle-winner election the winners should serve only part of their term. Let the second place finisher serve a similar share of their term in proportion to their share of the vote. Obviously there would need to be cutoff point so that each mayor gets to serve long enought to have some impact – say at least 3 – 5% of the term.

          Of course, a better system would be to eliminate the mayor entirely and have the city council elect a chair for their meetings. Or they could elect an executive committee proportionally so that all groups get a share of the government, The exeuctive committee share the mayoralty duties according to portfolio rather than giving the entire load to a single person.

          • Are you serious? Do you understand the concept of governance? Or accountability? I’m guessing not.

          • I see what Gary is saying. Maybe we should reconsider the “presidential” style of election for mayors. Prime ministers and premiers are, effectively, elected by the legislatures. Maybe its time to consider an indirect election of the “chair” or mayor in a similar way.

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