By Danielle M. Cameron.
“I believe fundamentally that we can do better,” Justin Trudeau told an Ottawa University audience, just months ago. “We can have an electoral system that does a better job of reflecting the concerns, the voices of Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and give us a better level of governance,” he continued.
Whether the Liberals’s fervor on electoral reform has cooled has been an ongoing curiosity in the headlines of late. Many news outlets have been speculating if the party’s transformation from a come-from-behind third seed in the last election to now being the party of power has changed their minds.
That is just one of the problems of how mainstream media has been framing the issue – feeding into the accusations that electoral reform is being rigged to keep Liberals in power. There is no doubt that there are pros and cons to the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, as with the countless what ifs concealed in every single other options on the table.
To commandeer a gem out of Donald Rumsfeld’s rhetorical handbook, let’s just say, “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Got it? Good. I hope that makes it crystal clear.
Fear not, our Islanders are already on it
Prince Edward Island has assumed the federal debate at a provincial level, voting in a plebiscite on electoral reform this week. In-person polls opened Friday afternoon. The Islanders are making a big decision; they’re voting from a list of five different processes on how to best elect representatives to the legislative assembly.
Either way, it’s hard to choose: the more complex the system, the harder it might be to sell it to Canadians everywhere. So many already see voting as a chore, have lost faith in the system, or flat-out don’t trust politicians. I can’t help but believe it’s important to make the democratic process seem less like work and more like an opportunity.
Voting ends November 7, 2016.
Boulevard of broken ballots
As the debate on electoral dysfunction and mudslinging continues between the major parties, there is a narrative that must be challenged immediately. Canada’s democracy is not in crisis. In recent months, as electoral reform has once again taken centre stage in the realm of public dialogue, a tinge of democratic defeatism has emerged – that our system is broken.
Firstly, Canada’s democracy is not broken. To approach the discussion of hitting the refresh button on how we cast a ballot by assuming we’re setting out to solve a problem is, in fact, problematic. Instead of looking at it like we’re tearing down the pillars of democracy to build a new, complex system that will confuse us all, let’s just take a moment and calm down. As our country advances, so too must our visions for it. Where do we go from here? How best do we get there? Should we change the way we do things?
Rather than framing electoral reform as a traumatic system reset, we’d be better served to see it as a simple update – an update we’re extremely privileged to have the freedom to even consider. But to suggest we’re solving a problem frames the deliberation in a very black and white way. It’s not a matter of who wins and who loses. We cannot assume our democratic system is this utopian complex that pleases everyone every time, nor should we reduce current criticisms of it to a failed experiment that lets everyone down every time. The goal should be reforming our system to better represent Canadians’ voting preferences and preferred policy issues.
That being said, the most important question to consider is not whether our current system is or is not working, but rather who is it working for, who is it letting down?
A call to action
Winston Churchill, famous for his dry remarks and quick quips, once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” This grim commentary on the nature of the average voter may seem harsh, but don’t be offended. First and foremost, the electorate is responsible for the health of a nation’s democracy – not the lofty promises of politicians, no matter how we decide to elect them.
Us. It is up to Canadians, young and old, to decide how we want to proceed. Take it as a challenge. The joke goes, if you’re not paying attention, you’re not informed; if you’re only going to the media, you’re misinformed. I think if you’re under thirty, this is your best chance to make your vote count – becoming engaged with the debate.
Having a say, attending town halls, learning more about how we elect our governments. People, no matter what age, don’t want to waste their time and want to be heard. I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on the issue at Acadia University; I left the room not only knowing a lot more than I had walking in, but feeling more confident in asking better questions about our electoral system. There are so many voices and so many choices, taking the initiative to educate and inform yourself is a crucial first step to ensuring you see yourself and your views reflected in the halls of parliament.
Young people would like to see their government actually reflect the will of the people. It affects us as young voters, specifically, because we feel like our voices are not fairly represented in parliament – or could be better represented. Voter apathy, generational inequality due to our aging population, and disproportional representation of geographical regions in the house can be alleviated by a drafting a new way of doing things.
I can’t believe it’s not Stovetop! How best to stuff the ballot box?
Before he became our prime minister, Justin Trudeau swore the 2015 federal election was to be the last election decided under the old rules – where the candidate in each riding (we have 338 nationally) who comes away with most votes wins – and the rest are but dust in the wind. FPTP has been slammed for assembling false majorities and underrepresenting third and fourth-string parties. This means the current system encourages strategic voting because a great many then feel their vote did not count.
The options are keeping first-past-the-post (FPTP), proportional representation (PR), mixed member proportional representation (MMP), alternative vote (also known as ‘ranked ballot’, ‘preferential ballot’), and single transferable vote (STV).
Right now, the popular option appears to be proportional representation (PR). Globally, 83 countries use this procedure. Just don’t look to Italy, as the country’s seen 63 governments since WWII, none having the durability or strength to pass necessary reforms. Though there is the risk of instability, it’s designed to have the share of votes cast regionally to be equal to parties’ proportion of seats in legislature. So, if a party got 30% of the votes, then it gets 30% of the seats. Voters would cast their ballot for a single candidate based on a list produced by the party or a specific political party.
However, many find the idea of “open” and “closed” lists contentious. Before an election, a party would compile a list of candidates. Utilizing a closed-list, a voter would vote for their chosen party instead of a candidate from that party. So, if you trust your parties enough to internally set their candidate lists in an open-list system, then this isn’t an issue, but the voter has little control over who their respective representatives may be.
AV, however, is another viable option. It’s also used in Australia (their mandatory voting mandate aside.) It reduces the likelihood of strategic voting, which has become a huge issue. Under this system, the belief is no vote is a waste simply because two parties are traditionally more powerful than the other.
The hope is that it discourages negative attack style campaigns, and even the remaining two candidates aren’t barred from picking up representation for their parties. When casting a ballot, voters rank their preferred candidates running in their riding by first, second, third choice, etc. The ridings would stay the same too. This works well for staunch party loyalists as well, being able to just select a top candidate/party.
In a country as vast and as diverse as Canada, the question of regionalism also cannot be ignored. Currently, our system relies heavily on perceived notions of different regions. Many parties will in fact dominate a certain region – rewarded there federally and regionally by focusing on major pockets on the population. For example, outside of a Conservative voter stronghold, the party may have little to no representation elsewhere because ‘x’ number of votes cast in one specific part of Canada will actually give the Tories way more seats than the same support would nationally.
Confused? Consult Donald Rumsfeld once more.
Danielle M. Cameron is East Coast-born and returned after having lived in Ottawa. Besides crash-coursing in journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY) in N.Y.C., Danielle holds a B.A. Hon. Human Rights from Carleton University, B.J. Journalism from University of King’s College, and is currently working towards an M.A. in Political Science at Acadia University. Former intern at The Coast — Halifax’s Weekly.
Canadian and American politics are more precious to her than air – will watch anything on PBS American Experience and has probably read every presidential biography, twice. “New Deals with It” on a daily basis, and also recently discovered coffee is not a food group.