An Approach to Electoral Reform

Par John Ausman

A hand with ballot and ballot box

I have long been interested in political issues in Canada but have also served abroad, where I have had the occasion to study the workings of several political systems. In particular, I served as Canada’s observer at the European Parliament from 1980 to 1984, travelling back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg each month to report on its activities, assist Canadian parliamentary delegations and lobby MEPs on Canadian interests (including, oh my, yes, the seal hunt). It was while at the European Parliament that I developed an interest in the comparative value of various electoral systems.

When designing an electoral system, it may be wise to set out some key principles and criteria which sum up what you want to achieve, what you want to avoid and what you want your legislature to look like. Here are a few that could prove useful.

Some Basic Principles

The electorate and its representatives must be – and feel they are – responsible for the system they select.

Electoral systems cannot be considered in isolation from constitutional and institutional design.

Political actors must have sufficient information that the choice they make does not lead to significant unintended consequences.

An electoral system must be flexible enough to accommodate not just present political realities but also unknowable future changes to political values and to Canada’s demographics.

A particular electoral system can, for better or worse, have a profound impact on democratic participation, gender equity, regional tensions and community political engagement.

Suggested Criteria

Functionality – a new system should:

  • Ensure that voters believe their vote counts, regardless of the province or region in which they reside.
  • Promote the expectation that parties and MPs will work together in whatever format is effective to enact legislation and to govern.
  • Promote the presence of a viable opposition that can critically assess legislation, question the performance of the executive, safeguard minority rights and represent its constituents despite its opposition status.

Representation – a new system should:

  • Increase perceived fairness by allowing the legislature to mirror the nation in terms of communities of ideas, gender, age, income, religions, linguistic and ethnic communities.
  • Increase the opportunity for independent candidates while encouraging strong, accountable political parties.
  • Provide opportunities for conciliation between regions and ethno-linguistic groups.

Accessibility – a new system should:

  • Balance increased voter choice with system accessibility and simplicity.
  • Encourage growth and maintenance of strong and effective political parties based on broad political values and ideologies and specific policy programs rather than ethnic, racial or regional concerns.
  • Make elections financially sustainable and embrace available technology to increase voter turn-out and accessibility.

Comfort/reassurance – a new system should:

  • Resemble as much as possible traditions that voters understand and appreciate, including the maintenance of a relationship between voters and “their MP.”

So How Do We Start?

Two years ago, the Liberal Party of Canada supported electoral reform and specifically endorsed the preferential ballot. The New Democratic Party is on record as supporting “a new, more democratic voting system that preserves the connection between MPs and their constituents, while ensuring parties are represented in Parliament in better proportion to how Canadians voted.” Yet there is no broad understanding or consensus in Canada at this time for either the preferential ballot or for some form of proportional representation or, in fact, for any change to the status quo.

Before either of these progressive parties, separately or together, can pursue reform to our electoral system, an essential first step has to be a national conversation to build consensus for change and for a proposed solution. Such a consultation must be broad, thorough, well-publicized, adequately financed and carried out by a politically neutral and respected national authority.

Recent Experience in Canada

In recent years, British Columbia and Ontario launched citizen consultation mechanisms, called Citizens’ Assemblies, to explore the options and to make recommendations on changing their electoral systems. Both Assemblies studied the issue in depth and each made a serious recommendation to their respective provincial government. It was useful to have randomly selected citizens make the recommendation in each case. The process was designed to give the recommendation more credibility than one selected by a political party, including the governing party, would enjoy. Subsequently, efforts were made, during the three separate referenda that followed (two in BC, one in Ontario) to explain the proposed option to the electorate at large.

Drawbacks to the BC & Ontario processes

The extensive learning period for the two Assemblies ensured that the few hundred members involved became very knowledgeable about forms of proportional representation. Unfortunately, this did not help educate the broader public that was only brought into the picture during the referenda. Most Assembly members, although they had served as representatives of the larger public, were not personally active in explaining the rationale for their choice (either restricted from doing so, not personally inclined or not skilled in public communication). The two provincial governments (especially Ontario) did not commit sufficient time or resources for public education before and during the referendum period. Holding the referendum during an election period in both provinces may have added confusion in voters’ minds. The media paid little attention to the issue and, when it did, its focus was less on a useful explanation of the issue at stake and more on process and the usual myths about proportional representation.

A National Consultation

A Citizens’ Assembly at the national level would be too large and unwieldy an instrument to use, and it would carry the same drawback of educating a few hundred people extremely well but keeping the issue from the general public until late in the process. A national consultation should be led by something akin to a Royal Commission, supported a dedicated unit of Elections Canada set up and funded for a one-year period.

The Commission could be led by a former Chief Electoral Officer or by a retired Supreme Court Judge. Sufficient funds should be committed from the outset for a strong campaign of public information. The consultation should be composed of two separate periods: pre-recommendation and post-recommendation.

The Pre-recommendation Period

This first period, lasting at least six months but not more than a year, should be devoted to explaining the drawbacks of the current First-Past-The-Post system and exploring the main options that one might consider. Emphasis should be on consultation, not on selling any one option. Priority should be given to providing the clearest possible explanations of the options and to debunking myths. The dedicated unit should, without attempting to exert undue influence, ask senior editors and broadcasters to take a serious interest in the substance of the matter, and should offer them privileged access to experts in the field and to senior politicians in countries where various electoral systems are in use (particularly those with federal systems).

The pre-recommendation period should culminate in a consultation between the Commission and an ad hoc Committee of the House of Commons to agree on the electoral system that is to be recommended to Canadians.

The Post-recommendation Period

This second period should begin with a 4-6 week neutral “learning” stage, in which the details of the option selected are explained to Canadians by Elections Canada. Up that point, the discussion will have been about numerous options, so this period is important to clear the decks and get Canadians to focus on just the one recommended. One challenge in earlier referenda in BC and Ontario was that voters who favoured change were divided by their continuing allegiance to alternative systems, or to fine variations of such systems, with the result that the “perfect” too often became the enemy of the “good.” It must be made clear to all during this phase of the process that the selection of a proposed system was both fair and legitimate and that the focus of the referendum must be limited to that one proposal. Yes and No Committees would be formed during this period but would not be allowed to start presenting their position in public.

The “learning” stage should then be followed by the referendum period of 4-6 weeks, during which the Yes and No Committees would present their respective cases. Elections Canada should, of course, manage the referendum as neutrally and objectively as it does federal elections.

Approval of the new electoral reform system would require a significant vote in favour (possibly 60% nationally?) including a simple majority in most (say 6?) provinces. The referendum would be scheduled so as to avoid any federal or provincial election so that the attention of voters can be focused, to the extent possible, on the electoral reform proposal rather than party politics, policy or local issues.

John L. Ausman earned a Ph.D. in African history from Dalhousie University, served for 34 years as a foreign service officer, and is now retired and living in Ottawa. He recently championed a resolution on Democratic Reform within the policy processes of the Liberal Party of Canada, which included a call for a national conversation on electoral reform.

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