Thoughts on Electoral Reform, and the Abandonment Thereof

The government has abandoned its promise of electoral reform, and a lot of people — including many of my friends — are hopping mad about it.

I have some (likely unpopular) thoughts on this.

1. Trudeau promised an end to first-past-the-post electoral system. He did not promise proportional representation. They’re not equivalent.

2. Every party’s position on electoral reform reflects their narrow self-interest, not just the Liberals’. The Greens and NDP would stand to benefit from PR, the Liberals from ranked/preferential ballots, the Conservatives from the status quo. Any change will benefit one or more parties at the expense of the others.

3. This was never going to work except by general consensus among the political parties. But because any electoral reform would reward some parties and punish others (see #2), such consensus would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Any party left out of that consensus would litigate the hell out of it, work to undermine its legitimacy and campaign against it in any referendum that followed.

4. The polls I’ve seen (e.g., this one) suggest that

(a) a majority of the population supports some kind of electoral reform;

(b) mixed-member proportional representation is the most popular electoral reform option; BUT

(c) a plurality of poll respondents preferred the status quo — first-past-the-post — over any single electoral reform option.

5. It’s a logical fallacy to assume that support for some kind of reform translates to support for this particular reform. Again: they’re not equivalent. Proponents of ranked/preferential ballots will not necessarily prefer PR over the status quo. (I support ranked ballots but have strong reservations about PR: you better believe I’d support the status quo over PR.)

6. Canadians appear to be strongly in favour of a referendum on any major change to the electoral system. I predict that if put to a referendum, any electoral reform proposal — any proposal — would be defeated. Because absent a general consensus, there will be too many people campaigning against it: the parties that stand to lose from it, people who prefer a different kind of electoral reform, and people who actually like first-past-the-post voting. In other words, lots of reasons to say no: there’s a reason referenda on electoral reform at the provincial level have always failed.

(This is leaving aside the legitimacy questions that would inevitably arise from low voter turnout or a narrow result.)

I don’t blame Trudeau for giving up; under the current circumstances, this wasn’t going anywhere. And it’s now clear that the Liberals’ heart wasn’t really in it.

For this to work, literally everybody needs to be on board — needs to agree that (a) the system needs fixing and (b) this is the right fix. We aren’t there yet. We may never be — especially not if electoral reform is seen by some as a way of changing the rules for someone else’s benefit.

Postscript: I’ve talked about electoral reform before. My blog posts from the earlier iteration of this website are collected on this page.

Expatriate Voting Rights

At the moment, Canadians living outside the country for more than five years are no longer able to vote in Canadian elections. (This is actually a fairly common practice: plenty of countries have limits on expatriates voting — except, notably, the Americans, who also have to file tax returns from abroad.) The Hufffington Post is reporting that the federal government plans to change this, giving every Canadian abroad the right to vote by special ballot regardless of time spent outside the country.

Dale Smith is skeptical, pointing out that Canadians vote for members of Parliament, not governments: “[A]s an expat who has been out of the country — and in particular that riding — for more than five years, does it really make sense for you to continue to cast a ballot in said riding if you don’t actually live there?” Dale’s got a point. If we decide that Canadians should retain the right to vote no matter how long they spend outside the country, it doesn’t make sense that their votes should be applied to a constituency they might not have set foot in for decades.

There’s a solution to that, though I’m not sure Canada would go for it: overseas constituencies. More than a dozen countries, including France, Italy and Portugal, set aside a small number of constituencies for their overseas citizens. In practice they can be problematic: voter turnout for said seats is often tiny. Now there are 2.8 million Canadians abroad, more than live in the Atlantic provinces: what fraction of them will actually vote, and to what extent should that determine how many seats they get? (Do we want two dozen seats elected by a few hundred or few thousand voters each, for example?) The details would be messy. But I suspect that this is the only logical outcome for perpetual absentee voting rights.