If it were possible for someone to write a column that was basically one long subtweet, then I’m pretty sure that it’s what Andrew Coyne did with his column on electoral reform, with me as his unspoken target – particularly as he parroted several of my arguments (that no one else seems to be making) without actually getting their substance correct. So here we go.
When proportional representation advocates complain that the allocation of seats among the parties in the legislature does not resemble their relative shares of the votes cast — with the especially unhappy effect of allowing a minority of the voters to rule over the majority — first past the post’s defenders reply: why should it? Members were elected in 338 separate riding elections, not in a single nationwide vote.
Yes, and that’s pointed out for a number of reasons – that the vote share figure that reformers cite as evidence is not actually real (hence its use as evidence is meaningless), and the fact that each MP is elected to a single seat in a separate election has a particular meaning that gives them individual agency rather than making them a thrall of a particular party. This is an important consideration in the electoral system because it gives a clear line for how MPs are empowered, which is what we keep insisting we want. It also demonstrates that if the complaint is that MPs aren’t empowered, it’s because it’s their own choice or ignorance – not the electoral system that is at fault.
When reformers point out the imbalance this creates between voters — in a given election it typically takes many more votes to elect a member from one party than another — first-past-the-posters look positively mystified: everyone gets one ballot. And when the former observe that under first past the post the votes cast for anyone but the leading candidate in a riding are “wasted,” in the sense that they do not contribute to electing anyone, the latter lose all patience. How could any of the votes have been wasted, they ask, if all were counted? The candidate who was elected may not have been everyone’s choice, but he still represents everyone.
Here Coyne adopts the same specious math that the Broadbent Institute was pushing over Twitter yesterday, which ignores how ridings actually work, and that elections are 338 separate events, and mashes the figures together and divides by 338, pretending that it’s a number with meaning when it’s not – just like the popular vote. It’s pretty much like bringing a unicorn to a logic exam. As well, he doesn’t make a compelling argument about why votes are “wasted” because it ignores the broader political ecosystem. It has little to do with the fact that the MP who won the seat represents everyone, but that the vote itself is but one small piece of political engagement. Casting a vote is not the end-all-be-all of political engagement. Rather, the system is built for people to be joining parties and engaging at a grassroots level to develop policy and for riding associations to act as interlocutors between the local community and the caucus, even when they don’t have a local MP in that party. As well, the percentage by which the MP won the seat is a figure that matters. If it’s by a slim margin, then those votes against are certainly not “wasted” – they have a meaning in the message that it sends to the MP about where his or her support lies. That matters.
To reformers’ complaints about how the system works, in other words, the answer commonly offered is: that’s how the system works. It is as if that were not just the system we have now, but the only system there is. And of course if you assume that then yes, reformers’ objections become literally incomprehensible. They might as well object to the weather. If only one member can be elected per riding, then obviously it’s silly to talk about wasted votes, or to complain that voters who supported another candidate are not represented. That’s life. Suck it up. The resulting parliament was not proportional? That’s not how our system works.
No, that’s not why one has to point out that it’s how the system works – one needs to point that out because you need to understand how the system works before you go about changing it, which usually means breaking things and making them worse. It has been proven that every time we tinker with our system, we make it worse, which leads us to want to tinker with it more, breaking it even further. Why? Because people don’t understand how the system works, so they assume that it’s broken, particularly if they get emotional that it doesn’t do what they think it should. This is the whole premise of my book – that we need to stop and understand how and why things work the way they do before we go about messing with the system some more because history has shown repeatedly that tinkering makes it worse. Ignorance is literally killing our democracy, and no matter how well intentioned its reformers tend to be, they almost always make it worse.
At any rate, it’s worth debating. Some might argue that single-member ridings give constituents a clearer sense of who to take their problems to, and who to hold to account. Others might reply that, with several members competing to represent them, constituents might get better service: if one didn’t answer your letter, another might.
From here, Coyne goes off about how maybe multi-member ridings would be better, possibly sprinkled in with single-member ones where they would be too large (hello, all of rural and remote Canada), which immediately brings up questions about how that could possibly be considered a more fair system. And while he touches ever so briefly on accountability, he gets the premise wrong – an MP’s job is not to “service” one’s constituents. It’s about holding the government to account. This, however, is lost on the reformers, whose fetishisation with fantastical notions about “representation” overshadow all other aspects of how the system works in its broader ecosystem. Yes, representation is a part of it, but it is not the totality, and yet that is what all of their reforms are geared toward with no regard for the bigger whole.
So no, it’s not about whether other systems are possible – it’s about not making things worse because you don’t understand how things work now. That’s a very different thing entirely.