Electoral Reform – Seize the day

A shorter version of this text first appeared in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal, February 19, 2016.

Do you believe the number of seats that a political party gets after an election should have some relation to the number of votes they got?

Have you thought of not voting because your preferred candidate or party had no chance of being elected? Or perhaps you are sick of voting strategically, instead of sincerely?

If yes, the majority of Canadians agrees with you.

Discussion of electoral reform, I am told, can put some Canadians to sleep, or worse.  But we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t seize every occasion to improve our system, since it works against the interests of ordinary Canadians like us, and of regional and minority issues.

During the recent federal election campaign, electoral reform was a surprisingly big issue. Three of the parties proposed that, if elected, they would modify the system by which we elect governments. Those parties obtained 68 per cent of the vote and the new government has begun a process towards change.

Expect to hear a lot more about this in the next months.

Given the importance of such a change, and in order to, first, stay awake, and mostly, not get bamboozled, we may need a course in self-defence against the misinformation which will come from those who are confused and, most certainly, from those who have long been well served by our current dysfunctional system.

The occasion is not likely to present itself again soon: we have a majority government, which has, frankly, benefitted from the unfairness of the current system, but which wants to modify it so that no future government wins such a jackpot without a majority of votes, and so that Canadians’ diversity is better reflected in our elected body.

This is an unlikely scenario, so it certainly is in our interest to play along and see what can be won from the exercise.

The great majority of countries, and, more to the point, about 90 percent of developed countries have adopted a more proportional electoral system than our medieval one. Canada has had several expensive Commissions and studies on the issue of reform, but their recommendations, all advocating changes towards a more accurate rendering of people’s votes into seats, were all set aside.

New Brunswick actually has an advantage on this issue: About 10 years ago, the Bernard Lord multi-party Commission on Electoral Democracy produced a much-acclaimed report on how to improve democracy, no less, including how to reform our voting system.  The commission concluded that our system does not meet our values, especially those of fairness and equality, and it recommended changing to a mixed-member proportional voting system, which, to be brief, reminds me of the system used by several local municipalities of having us vote for a ward councillor and an at-large councillor. New Brunswickers could get a head start on this issue by revisiting that Commission’s report, still available on Elections NB site.

A final word on the misinformation to be expected soon, and for months to come. Some will show us what they say would have been the results of recent elections if we had had another voting system, but think of this: the whole idea is that another system would change everything: most of us would have voted differently under a different voting system where all votes counted, parties might have nominated different candidates, had different platforms, run different campaigns. Some will try to get us to fixate on whether or not a referendum should be held – not that most countries with a truer voting system held referendums nor that it has been a Canadian tradition for questions related to electoral or democratic issues. But if we’re talking of referendums, we’re not having the conversation we could be having, and anyway, couldn’t we test drive the preferred option in the next election?

If our apathy, which is partly caused by our silly voting system, kills this rare chance to change that system to something more democratic, then we are chumps.


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