Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Case for Electoral Reform from a Liberal Perspective

This is something I actually wrote one week after the Oct. 14 federal election but never got around to posting (it's left unchanged). I've put off putting this up for some time, and I figure today is about as good of day as any to finally lay down my major thoughts on this issue. I think everything I wrote in Oct. has mostly stood the test of time and while my thinking on which system might be best to replace First Past the Post has changed a little, I feel just as strongly as I did then that our current electoral system needs to change. See below you can see my thinking before all the coalition business happened, I'll be following up with two more posts reflecting the current context and thoughts on the matter later today...
Everything below is what I wrote in mid-October and remains completely unchanged from what I wrote then (the last line of this post is probably the most outdated one):
Below are four good reasons why electoral reform from First-Past-the Post to a fairer system would not just be the right thing to do, but in Liberals’ partisan interests. Liberals at the federal level are overdue to have a discussion about this. Electoral Reform has been discussed and voted on in many provinces, some votes were complete failures (like MMP in Ontario), others qualified successes (like the 58% support for STV in BC, with another referendum coming in the May provincial election). But I think there is actually a much stronger case to be made for electoral reform federally, then there ever was in each of the individual provinces. So let me list four good overall reasons as to why Liberals should seriously consider pledging to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system to either Single-Transferable Vote (STV) or Instant-Run-Off Voting (IRV) (I would say MMP is off the table given the optics of sending that back to Ontario voters again). I will not be debating which is better of the two, though I recognize IRV is not really proportional representation and that STV does not guarantee proportionality but in practice STV has been far better at reflecting the popular vote than FPTP. Either way I believe the system that would end up a referendum ballot should be decided by broad public consultations. It is my hope that the progressive majority in this country can get behind the idea.
Reasons Liberals Should Support Electoral Reform
1) Every Vote Counts:

People who want to vote Liberal in Alberta or in Francophone Quebec, or other rural communities consistently feel each election like their vote doesn’t matter. Sure there is the public subsidy, but not all Canadians are even aware of that, and for many they won’t venture out to go to the polls unless they feel their vote will matter to the overall outcome. We could put a stop to this with either STV or IRV.

You’d rank your choices and even if your top choice doesn’t win your ballot is never wasted as your other choices still contribute to the winner.

2) An End to Regional and Urban-Rural Divides:

I don’t think it’s good for national unity to see each election, the Liberals either wiped out, or severely diminished, in numbers in places like Alberta, Manitoba, Francophone Quebec, and much of rural Canada. When we form government in breeds resentment in all those areas where we are underrepresented. The current First Past the Post (FPTP) system however is a strong contributor to this. If we had IRV or STV any seat that Conservatives used to win with 40% or so of the vote due to vote-splitting would probably fall to the Liberals (or in some cases the NDP, since they might be the second choice of many Liberal and Green voters).

3) An End to Conservative Rule with less than 40% support:

I for one was saddened to see two elections in a row to see a party of the right win with still being opposed by over 60% of the population. Last Parliament the Conservatives governed as if they had a majority anyway and we’ll await what happens in this Parliament.

Reforming the electoral system to using IRV or STV would virtually assure that the Conservatives would never have a majority in the Commons and would likely always be unable to form a governing coalition, given that the Liberals have more in common policy-wise with the other parties than do the Conservatives.

Now I know some Liberals may be concerned that without FPTP we could then no longer appeal to NDPers and Greens to vote strategically for us to stop a Conservative victory, but even though I strongly believe in these appeals under our current system (as I happen to believe that those who voted Green especially have done harm to the prospect of a governing party adopting a Green tax shift again), there’s not much evidence that they worked much in our favour for the last two elections and working against a new electoral system on that basis would portray a lack of confidence in our own party to be able avoid bleeding votes further left.

Others might be concerned this would eliminate the change of the Liberals ever having a majority. Well Brian Mulroney’s PC’s got 50% of the nation-wide vote in 1984 (yes I know there was no Bloc then, but they might not be around forever), can we not equal that some day? The current system creates an incentive for parties to strive for only ~40% of the vote, a new system that is based more on proportionality would create an incentive for 50%, I think that would be an improvement. But with a system like IRV or STV, if we are the second choice of a majority of voters across the country we might actually stand a BETTER chance a majority than under First Past the Post. But we are looking at minorities at best for the next election, and probably the next 2 or 3 with the current system regardless anyway so the concern doesn’t have as much relevance for the short-term.

We remain the party that appeals to the broadest section of Canadians and I’m sure we could consistently win the popular vote within a new electoral system because a plurality agree most with our policies and approach to government. We also remain a party that would likely remain strong and in tact whereas the NDP, Greens and Conservatives would be much more likely to all break into separate smaller parties under a new electoral system.

4) An End to the Permanent Campaign – Giving Us MORE Stable Government:

I know one of the arguments against MMP in Ontario was it would lead to continual minorities, but federally minorities have become the norm with 3 in a row now with no end of them in sight. This has created an atmosphere of a permanent campaign where there are huge incentives for parties to all focus more on the next election than on providing good governance to Canadians in the meantime. This is a huge drain on party volunteers who are constantly forced to be in election mode and it diverts parties from providing the best policies for the lifetime of a parliament.

With electoral reform we could have informal or formal coalitions that could govern stably for 3-4 year periods. I know opponents of proportional systems say the coalitions are formed in backroom deals after the election but there’s no reason that if we had a new electoral system that coalition partners couldn’t be put out in the open in advance like most European countries with PR do. Far from PR creating unstable government, with the current pattern of unending minorities FPTP, government would be MORE stable. And if the Liberals got close to 50% of the vote as Mulroney did in 1984 under a proportional system or if they were the second choice of a large majority of voters in preferential balloting system there would be no need for a coalition either.
There are many more reasons for Liberals to support electoral reform at the federal level, but I hope that our party finally starts to take seriously the idea of giving Canadians a referendum on a system of electoral reform if they form the government next time. Obviously whatever system(s) are on the ballot would have to be decided based on wide ranging public consultations (not just a citizen’s assembly, and probably a citizen’s assembly is not the best route anyway). A referendum may not pass, but if we never let Canadians have a say in what electoral system they want I think Liberals and progressives on the whole will lose out in the long run.

Many Liberals will not agree with me on the need to change our current electoral system, but at the least I hope no one is opposed having a serious detailed debate on this issue.

Therefore, I strongly hope this will be a point of discussion among the leadership candidates in the months ahead.

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Ian said...

As a New Democrat it's great to see a Lib support these sorts of changes, even if it makes future Liberal majorities less likely.

Here's my couple of points though:
1. The Chretien Liberals held power with <50% popular vote throughout the 90s, now with Harper holding minorities/brink of majority with slightly less than the same percentage, every party starts to see the issue with FPTP.

2. Not sure about this statement:
"We also remain a party that would likely remain strong and in tact whereas the NDP, Greens and Conservatives would be much more likely to all break into separate smaller parties under a new electoral system."
I could agree that the Cons may fracture into a PC and Reform type again, but the NDP and Greens are small enough that their base of support would be unlikely to leave. I'd be more worried about the "big tent" parties like the Libs and Cons, but at least the Libs have history.

Finally, the best thing about PR is that people get their voice back. They get to vote for who they want to, not the parties. In Edmonton-Strathcona here that may mean less first-round NDP votes, but enough 2nd choice votes that Linda Duncan would have still won.

Thank-you for writing this and I hope you win over your party.

Chrystal Ocean said...

Instant Runoff Vote (or Alternative Vote) and Single Transferable Vote should not be used in the same sentence. They share only one thing in common, their use of the preferential ballot. Beyond that, they couldn't be more different.

STV is a proportional electoral system which applies the preferential ballot to multi-member ridings.

IRV, like FPTP, is a non-proportional system which applies the preferential ballot to single-member ridings. It is a majoritarian, winner-take-all system.

Changing from FPTP to IRV would be like changing one's diet to include Gala apples rather than Macs. They're still apples.

Danielle Takacs said...

Chrystal: I disagree. I'll give a couple examples as to why.

In many ridings across the country, Conservatives won the seat with less than 50% of the vote. I can bet if NDP voters were able to rank their choices they would ranked Conservatives last and (at least in many cases) Liberals 2nd (and vice-versa for many Liberal voters).

Under IRV the Conservatives would have won many fewer seats and the actual MP that did win could be said to enjoy a greater spectrum of support (50% or more from 1st and 2nd choice of votes) than the candidate who won with 35% of 1st choice votes but would have been the LAST choice of every other voter there.

I don't know about you but I'd rather see my second choice win than my last choice if my first choice couldn't win (you could also choose to just cast a first choice vote and leave other choices blank if you were so inclined).

And IRV doesn't preclude small parties from winning either. In fact I bet Mike Nagy of the Green Party might have won under an IRV system in the 4 way battle that happened in Guelph. Instead Gloria Kovach came within 3% of winning when she would have been the last choice most likely of the rest of the voters.