Elections and representation in the House of Commons / by Simmon Li

There's a lot of talk in my circle of friends about how the electoral system for the House seats doesn't represent actual political sentiment. A quick look at my Facebook wall (I know, super good research right?) shows that a lot of people feel unrepresented or under represented in the new Parliament. I think the criticisms are fair, but perhaps broken is too strong a word. Certainly, I sense that the electoral system doesn't do a good job of representing actual sentiment. I'm a good example. In my riding, the Conservative MP won the mandate with 39% of the vote. The Liberal candidate acquired 25% of the vote, while the NDP acquired around 18% of the vote.  That means the Conservative MP actually didn't gain a simple majority of registered and counted ballots. Since election night, this has been changed as the Conservative candidate in Oak Ridges-Markham won 51% of the votes. However, my neighbouring riding is a good example of what I'm talking about. Markham-Unionville elected elected a Liberal with only 38.9% of the vote. A whole 61.1% of the votes were, in effect, discarded because those voters selected "the loser." Now, this particular riding is the problem manifested extremely, but there are similar stories across the country (elected with 38-46% of popular vote, meaning at least half the voices of the riding are effectively ignored).

When 60%+ of the votes are more or less ignored, I think there is a problem. However, the solution is fairly easy though it will never get talked about seriously. The answer is instant run-off voting at the riding level, essentially a ranked ballot. Instead of picking one winner, you rank your preference. The votes are tallied, and if there is a simply majority winner (50%+1), then the system works as it does now, that MP gets sent to Ottawa. If there isn't a simple majority, the last place candidate is removed, and their ballots redistributed according to their next choice. The process repeats (ballots with all their choices used up are discarded, but I would think this situation would be fairly rare) until there is a candidate with a simple majority.

Now to the criticisms. First of all, the obvious: it will be more complicated. I will grant that the counting of the ballots will be more complicated (and thus more time consuming), but I think our elections deserve the kind of rigour and attention that such a counting system would warrant. I don't think it's too much to ask that people care about their elections. While the counting would be more complicated and take longer, I firmly believe this is worth the effort, as it will leave Canada with governments that better reflect the actual support levels. Second, it may be confusing for the electorate. I would argue that the transition from a simple pick one to a ranked ballot need not be confusing. If we invest in education, it will be a fairly transition. Third, it will open the door to manipulation and corruption. I think those that think this have a very cynical view of the electoral process. Are they right in that such a prolonged vote counting and verifying process opens the door up to more corruption and manipulation? I think it's fair to say the risk does increase. However, to take the lowest view seems to admit defeat and relegate ourselves to not trying. I think Canada is better than that, and I would like to believe that our electoral system is resilient enough to withstand these kinds of threats.

There are benefits to this system that lead me to recommend it over a truly proportional system. First and foremost, it will lead to election results that better reflect the wishes of the people. I think this, in the long run, will help to stem apathy and help to actually engage more people in the process of making our government work. Second, the reason I recommend this instant run-off voting system at the riding level over a truly proportional system is that it will fit fairly fast into our already established election and governance infrastructure and framework. With a truly proportional system, the chances are high that we would need to expand the number of seats in the House of Commons. I think a larger House of Commons is not something that we need right now (at least, not an enlargement of this scale, I think we could stand to split a few ridings to give urban areas more representation vs rural areas). With an instant run-off voting system, we would be better able to represent Canadians in government while minimizing changes to our current way of doing things. It's a small step forward in terms of reform and commitment that will net a return for Canada as a whole. Post or write as I might, I know this system will never be considered. Electoral reform is a large topic that's often forgotten, and it's not surprising why. First past the post works for the winners of elections, whether they are Conservative or Liberal. And so, it is in the majority's interest to keep the system that serves them well (this is true of the Conservatives in 2011 as it was of the Liberals in 1993).

Finally, there is the problem (in addition to this first past the post issue) that seems to distort representation in the House of Commons. I will admit now, for this problem I have not thought of a solution. It is the problem of party whips and the sway they hold over MPs. MPs, more often than not, tow the party line. While, for the most part, this isn't an issue, it does force upon the electorate a presidential mindset when they do vote for their local MPs. I think the problem is heavily related to the electoral method that we use. I will also concede that an instant run-off voting system does not fix this problem either, but rather simply addresses the mismatch of popular vote and actual seats in the house. Both FPP and IRV don't address the problem of presidential voting mentality (ie, a vote for your local MP is a vote for the national leader). If I like a local MP that happens to be of a different party than the national leader I like, I'm caught in a bind (or if I like the national leader, but dislike the local MP, though this case is probably less of an issue because most people are likely to be more in touch with their local MP than the national leader). If we do pass an IRV system, I don't know how to resolve this issue without recommending a proportional representation ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mixed_member_proportional_representation)) voting system.

Alternatives to the Canadian electoral system? Well, I think it'd be wise to switch to a proportional system. I'm not sure the mixed member proportional system (as employed in Germany) is quite the system for us. It was recently suggested that Canadian ridings hold primaries so that candidate MPs are vetted by the populace as well, but I'm not sure that would be a good solution. At the end of the day, I think an MP candidate has to be responsible and accessible to their local riding. To that end, I think a party list doesn't work out in favour of the voters. I like the current riding association system (where a riding association appoints a local MP to stand for election). It's opaque, but I think it's something we can change by making sure the public has at least cursory access to oversee the process. To me, it's important to have candidates locally elected. I think one thing is extremely important: having local accountability. I'm not sure how well expanding riding representation based on population would work, but that way, people could vote how they wanted, and they would have a voice in parliament even if they're not part of the majority. I think you could keep the House of Commons the same size by merging ridings, but giving them more seats, though I would imagine that the total size of the House would have to increase, though you could have some ridings merge as well. I think though, that PopPR gives us a much higher chance of minority or coalition governments. I'm not sure that having a string of minority governments is in our interest (especially considering our tendency to import American political culture). It's a tough problem to tackle, and I think I'm going to do some more research on this front. I would really like to see our electoral system perform better, but I have no clue how to fix or change it in a constructive way, at the moment anyway. I'm personally leaning towards a majoritarian system. I feel it strikes a good balance between the need for pure PR, and the quirks of an FPP system. Naturally, a majoritarian system would likely lead to stronger governments, but I think it will only encourage polarization. The parallel MMP system seems to be a good solution. Two votes, one for local, and one for preferred national party. Mixed member proportional is actually fairly complicated as far as education goes. The system in Germany is a tad complicated because of the way they tabulate the winners. Though I think with this system, we'd likely have to expand the seats in the House. Here's how I would envision an MMP system playing out in Canada. Keep all the ridings (308), and add some proportion of seats that are elected based on national party support. I think it'd be IRV system for the local seats (308), and a pure PR system for the remaining seats. I think the national seats would have to be less than the local seats in total number. This way constituents have easier access. At the end of the day, the party would dictate a party list of candidates for the national seats that they would fill according to listed order (the party list). This system strikes me as balanced, but obviously I'd have to tinker with it a bit.

Another issue I haven't even touched on is the regionality of our national campaigns. I think our Senate should be reformed to actually be important and regionally represented. In this sense, I think our Senate should move closer to the US idea of Senate, in that each province has equal representation. If the House has some method of over-riding the Senate when it needs to (passes legislation with simple majority a twice, Senate can not block, etc), I think the system would work very well for us. However, I anticipate that Quebec would not like this, as FPP is very much to their advantage when they have a national voice like the BQ (less of an issue now ;P) representing them.

When all is done, I feel that a proportional representation system of some sort would be the final solution for the unbalanced electoral system. However, such a wild reform would entail restructuring Elections Canada and the institutions of governance that have been with Canada since the beginning. It would signal a switch from the parliamentary system to a more presidential system of elections. As long as our politicians are more eager to sing and dance than solve real problems, we will continue to be plagued by petty and parochial elections. I think it's a shame though. With the pending death of our official head of state, we have an unprecedented opportunity to really move Canada into the modern age. Australia is discussing the republic route, and it's interesting that in Canada, we have yet to even start a discussion about the possible options that we have. Perhaps this is radical republican talk, but I think it's something that we should be prepared for in Canada. Kings and queens can't live forever in flesh and blood.