Rethinking Canadian Elections

*Updated with a section on the BC Referendum 2018, this article seeks to address what’s wrong with the current FPTP system and how PR might resolve some of these issues, namely, voter turnout and voter representation locally, regionally, and nationally.

On a national scale…

In 2008, 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party sent no one to Parliament, setting a new historical record for the most votes cast for any party that gained no parliamentary representation. By comparison, 813,000 Conservative voters in Alberta alone were able to elect 27 MPs.

In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received about twice the vote of the Liberals and NDP, but took seven times as many seats. However, when it came to urban Conservatives, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one, nor did Conservative voters in Montreal. (In 2006, meanwhile, fewer than 500,000 Liberal voters in Atlantic Canada alone elected 20 MPs.)

Finally, The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 50 seats, the NDP 37.

-Democracy Watch

It doesn’t add up

The discrepancy should set off alarm bells. In a business, policies would change immediately. Yet Canadian politics has resisted change for a very long time. What’s worse is that Canada is falling behind the rest of the democratic world in voter participation. It may be because we are hanging on to a troubled system where it’s common to feel like one is not truly represented in government.

Win-Lose: feeling disenfranchised

The beauty of our current First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system is that it’s blissfully simple. You enter the voting booth, grab your pencil, and put an X on one local candidate. You drop it in the box and you walk out. In the public eye, simplicity is good.

But the problem that accompanies this simplicity is that this system allows a candidate to win with a tiny fraction (say, 26%) of support in their riding, because all the winner needs is a couple more votes than the next candidate. Meanwhile, the majority of votes don’t necessarily elect anyone.

The FPTP system of election, designed in the 17th century, is built to cater to clustered pockets of support in local ridings. But it largely ignores regional or national trends. It might feel good if everyone in your riding is voting for the candidate or party you want. But everyone else goes unrepresented. So FPTP is not a truly fair democratic system. It leave many people out.

What’s more, the FPTP system allows provincial parties (like the Bloc Quebecois) to win big – taking twice as many seats as a nationally popular party (like the NDP) – with half the votes! And this isn’t a hypothetical situation – look at a recent past election:

The Bloc: received 10% of national votes, but won 50 seats. The NDP claimed 18% of national votes, but gained only 37 seats.

If no change takes place, we maintain several losing propositions:

  • Parties lose through the hit-or-miss aspect of our electoral system. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
  • Voters lose as huge numbers of ballots are cast meaninglessly. In many ridings, the majority of ballots elect no-one.
  • Government is failed by an unfair allocation of representative seats. A party might be elected with 40% of the votes but hold 100% of the power.
  • Ultimately, Canada loses as a country that is already struggling with citizen participation because many people feel their vote won’t count simply because of the riding they are casting their vote in.

A different way

Are there ways to politically represent more people more accurately? Yes. Several alternate systems are alive and well in democracies around the world. Plenty of nations around the world have sought a system that allocates votes in proper proportions. The idea is called Proportional Representation and it comes in various forms.

The idea is for Proportional Representation (video) to allow voters to enjoy the best possible representation by making some adjustments to the way votes are processed. Ultimately, Proportional Representation aims to reflect regional or national demographics more accurately. Proportional Representation may also account better for political representation in aspects of gender, ethnicity, urban and rural populations.

The United States and Canada can be and have been global leaders in modern democracy, yet, there are other, arguably more democratic, systems of government at work all over the world. The  countries illustrated in this map use systems of Proportional Representation.

Countries using Proportional Representation systems

BC’s PR Referendum (2018)

So what are the options?

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)

MMP gives the voter one ballot with two votes.

  1. The voter casts one vote for a local candidate, and casts a second vote for any registered political party.
  2. Local candidates (one for each riding, as usual) are elected by the current “winner takes all” system.
  3. An amount of extra empty seats get filled in proportion to the second votes for the parties.
  4. These give the chance for popular parties to ‘top off’ their representation in the assembly according to the votes they get across the country.
  5. In practice, the MMP allows you to choose, for example, a Conservative candidate to represent your riding because you think they have good principles, but also cast a vote towards a Green party seat because you think they have some good policies.

Features of the MMP:

1. The system captures the broader preferences of citizens.
2. An individual vote is more decisive and more meaningful. MMP erases the need for the “do I vote with my head or with my heart?” question.
3. Parties that have general (eg. national) support but few elected representatives will gain a reasonable measure of influence.
4. The system allows for a more accurate representation of viewpoints.
5. There is opportunity for parties to work towards more proportional representation.

Ontario MPs, Senators, and over 150 university political science professors all agreed that the MMP system is more democratic and would better represent the diverse Ontario population than the current system. There was a lot of misinformation spread about MMP in the last referendum, and thus the vote was defeated.

Dual-Member Proportional (DMP)

  • DMP allows districts to combine with another and be represented by two MLAs. The candidate with the most votes wins the first seat.
  • The second seat is won by a party based on its share of the popular vote province-wide and their performance in each district
  • The voter will still vote for a candidate or pair of candidates with one mark on the ballot.

Rural-Urban Proportional (RUP)

  • Fair Vote Canada conceived of this system to basically cater to Canada’s unique geography, using both multi-member districts as well as top-up seats to meet the varied needs of both rural and urban areas.
  • Similar models are used in Sweden, Denmark and Iceland.
  • It blends the aspects of STV and MMP, depending on which area you live in (rural or urban).

Single-Transferable Vote (STV)

*STV is not on the referendum in 2018 as a stand-alone system; it is incorporated partly in RUP.

In 2005, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly proposed the BC-STV as an equitable voting system. It came within three percent of passing in 2005 and was offered again for referendum in 2009, failing once more, arguably because of misinformation.

Single-Transferable Vote (STV) is designed to reduce wasted votes by giving greater weight to multiple preferences. On an STV ballot, each voter ranks the candidates on the list in order of preference. A candidate must make a certain quota of votes to win.
An STV election proceeds like this:
1. Any candidate who has reached or exceeded the required quota is declared elected.
2. If not enough candidates have been elected, the count continues.
3. If a candidate has more votes than the quota, then their surplus is transferred to other candidates according to the next preference on each voter’s ballot.
4. If no one meets the quota, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are transferred.
This process repeats from step 1 until the required numbers of candidates have been elected . By allowing the voter to state their preferences, this system eliminates the hit-or-miss aspect of FPTP.

Expert views

Kimberley Earles and Tammy Findlay from York University argue that the current system of representation in both the House of Commons and the Senate fails to:

1. Reflect the diversity of the Canadian people (In 2003, Aboriginal peoples occupied 1 per cent of House of Commons seats, no Cabinet positions, and 6 per cent of Senate seats. People of colour occupied approximately 5 per cent of House seats and 7 per cent of Cabinet positions).
2. Reflect gender equality (In 2003, Women sat in only 21 per cent of House seats and 35 per cent of Senate seats). This decade, Canada ranked 36th in women’s representation in legislative assemblies.

Earles and Findlay demonstrate in their findings that Proportional Representation systems elect more women. The top five countries with most women in legislative assemblies all have Proportional Representation. The Hon. Senator Lucie Pépin agrees that there has been little change in Canada.

Conclusion

Pressure for reforming democracy in Canada comes from a variety of sources inside and outside of government. Each party ought to have a concern for democratic renewal in their platform. Regrettably, some leading parties are the least concerned. We wonder why more Canadians don’t participate in voting, but when we see how meaninglessly broken our system is, we find some reasons. We should be prompted to fix the root cause of our political despondency: whether your vote counts. With a more representative system, voters have more opportunities to re-engage the governance of the country and to have their voice heard. Is it so easy to forget that that is the reason the democratic system exists at all?

An Interview with Bruce Cockburn

I had the sincere privilege of meeting with Bruce Cockburn for an hour this winter. We talked taboo: faith and politics, and discussed his recently published memoir Rumours of Glory (HarperCollins). Visit http://convergemagazine.com/interview-with-bruce-cockburn-15500/ for the story.

BCeSIS Must Die

**Summer 2014 update: BCeSIS has finally gone! A new program, Aspen, has been selected to take its place. Teachers everywhere smile.**

BCeSIS is a nightmarish grade-reporting program mandated for use in all BC schools. When droves of teachers began to report problems with the program, the British Columbia government spent over $50 million to fix it, with basically no results. It’s buggy, heavy-handed, and reminiscent of software from the early 1990’s. This is what we use to create your children’s report cards that attempt to guide them through the formative years of their lives.

bcesis ss

Any business would quickly ask why anyone would use something so pathetic across the province. There are twitter accounts and YouTube videos dubbed over old German WW2 movies (see below) dedicated to mocking and berating the existence of this digital problem package. In private industry, an agile, user-friendly, service-oriented competitor would have quickly pitched their platform and earned the contract. Alas, red tape and provincial mandates.

And today, in the middle of report card writing season, BCeSIS won’t even open on any of my internet browsers, since it was built on an old version of Java and the update renders it inaccessible.

It’s bitter, ridiculous irony: a report-writing program designed to “support student achievement” has done so little towards that goal; I would go so far as to say BCeSIS has negatively affected reporting in British Columbia. The space it provides teachers to summarize the total personal, intellectual, social and emotional learning of their students is an inadequate three sentences. The amount of headaches caused to teachers during report writing weeks and weekends have been enough to begin the next week of teaching exasperated and grumpy. This software is supposed to make our jobs easier, not harder.

And with the incredible amount of great tech start-ups even right in Vancouver (like the world-class Hootsuite) almost anyone could have done it better. Imagine a beautiful, local solution we could be proud of. But somehow, in this stupid catastrophe, we have ended up with a worthless and meaningless platform produced by a technology company whose work in general has been less than superior; technology which makes us feel like we’re doing data entry on lab rats or testing out retro software that feels like you should have accessed it using MS-DOS prompt.

Government of British Columbia, I implore you. Quickly axe BCeSIS as suggested in 2011. This living nightmare has lasted long enough.

Kyross – EP

If you haven’t heard of Kyross, it’s for two understandable reasons: First, he’s 16, and second, this is his first EP. Still in high school, he’s been honing his production skills remixing. You can hear all that on Soundcloud.

With the help of Midwest Collective, Maple Ridge-based Kyross released this 3-track EP that combines R&B grooves with gritty electronica and floating ambiences.

I might also mention that he’s a student at the school I teach at, so I’m proud of him pursuing what he’s passionate about. Listen here, pay what you will at Bandcamp.