Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Tag: electoral reform

The German Federal Election and Electoral Reform

Advocates of proportional representation in Canada tend to be supporters of parties that would benefit if our electoral system switched from the current first-past-the-post system to a system that allocates at least some seats based on parties’ popular vote. But what’s sauce for the goose is, unfortunately, also sauce for the gander, as the results from yesterday’s federal elections in Germany remind us.

Germany elects its Bundestag by a mixed-member system that combines members elected via single-member constituencies in a first-past-the-post system with additional members elected by state-level party lists. Each voter gets two ballots: a constituency ballot and a list ballot. When a party wins fewer seats via the constituency ballot than its popular vote would entitle it to, additional members are added from the party list.

In yesterday’s election, those list votes enabled not only the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and the Left Party (Die Linke) to go from one and five seats to 67 and 69 seats, respectively, it also allowed the centrist FDP to re-enter the Bundestag with 80 seats: despite getting nearly 3.2 million constituency votes, the FDP failed to elect a single member via the constituency ballot, whereas FDP lists got nearly five million votes.

But the German system also enabled the far-right Alternative für Deutschland to add 91 seats to the three seats elected via the constituency ballot. And here’s the problem: that which gives smaller centrist, leftist and environmentalist parties a voice in national politics also enables the extreme right.

In favour of an electoral system because you think it’ll benefit your side? Be careful: any system you create can also be turned by your opponents to their advantage.

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.

Electoral Reform and By-Elections

In a piece discussing four upcoming by-electionsiPolitics’s Susan Delacourt mentioned in passing that “unless electoral reform happens really quickly, those seats will be filled the old-fashioned way — no preferential ballots, winner take all.”

Which made me wonder: how exactly would electoral reform deal with vacancies in Parliament? By-elections, after all, only work if MPs are elected from individual constituencies; you can’t run a campaign across an entire province or country just to fill one or two seats out of more than three hundred.

I could speculate, but instead I had a look at the website of Fair Vote Canada, a group advocating for proportional representation in Canada, to see what their solution would be. In their submission to the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform, FVC proposed three options, one of which was mixed-member proportional representation, in which regional seats, elected from party lists, are added to MPs directly elected by their constitutencies. In that option, regional seat vacancies would be filled from party lists.

In case of a resignation or death of a regional MP during a term, the party’s runner-up moves up into the seat. No working MMP model has by-elections for regional MPs. As the Jenkins Commission pointed out, if a region-wide contest were to take place “it would almost by definition result in the victory of the predominant party in the area, thus negating the essential purpose of the Top-up seats.”

I have to say, this isn’t something that makes me more likely to support proportional representation.

Proportional Representation: Who Benefits?

In my post on electoral reform and the preferential ballot, I remarked that changing the rules benefits some players more than others. This is true of any change, and I suspect it’s one reason why electoral reform has been so difficult: the sense that the rules are being tweaked for someone else’s benefit.

As the centrist party, the Liberals would probably benefit from ranked or preferential ballots (and modelling appears to bear that out), and, funnily enough, ranked or preferential ballots happen to be Prime Minister Trudeau’s preferred option. So it’s easy to complain that the Liberals are rigging the game in their own favour.

But it’s important to keep in mind that, despite the lofty rhetoric about a “fairer” electoral system in which “every vote counts,” proportional representation also benefits some players more than others. The question is, which players?

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The Preferential Ballot: Who Benefits?

Of the electoral reform proposals on offer, the one I’m most in favour of is the preferential or ranked ballot, also known as the alternative vote, where voters mark their first, second and third (and so on) choices (rather than simply an X). If no candidate wins 50 percent on the first round, the candidate finishing last is dropped and their voters’ second preferences are redistributed, and then the next candidate, and so on and so on until someone gets 50 percent.

It’s a bit more complicated than marking an X, and counting (and calculating!) the votes will almost certainly take longer, but a preferential ballot has a couple of things going for it. For one, it ensures that any member of Parliament will eventually be elected by 50 percent of the vote, once second- and third-place preferences are redistributed—we won’t have close three- or four-way races where the winner ends up with only a handful of votes more than the others, and less than 40 percent support.

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The Unintended Consequences of Proportional Representation

Now that the election is over, many disappointed Canadians are talking about proportional representation, and how much fairer it would have been than our first-past-the-post electoral system.

I have never been a fan of proportional representation, partly because I think its supporters are mostly unhappy with the results of the most recent election and want to re-run it under different rules that they think are more favourable to their side, and partly because I’m a big fan of holding members of Parliament accountable to a constituency. But also because I’ve seen how PR systems operate in other countries. Not in the intricate, technical, here’s-how-it-works terms that PR advocates like geeking over — the real-world effects. And some of those real-world effects are precisely the opposite of what PR advocates want.

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