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Does Voter Reform Require a Referendum? That Depends on what "Voter Reform" Means.

August 09, 2016

There is no doubt that a majority of Canadians (roughly 62%) in the last federal election voted for political parties whose platforms were committed to voter reform.  Because of that majority vote, the Trudeau government has a mandate to proceed with voter reform.  However, as the old saw goes, “the devil is in the details”.  The devil here is to figure out just what “voter reform” really means.  

Advocates for and against a referendum usually don’t talk about the fact that voter reform covers a variety of possibilities, that is, different ways to collect and calculate what the voters really want.  Some of these ways to collect the vote could justifiably be implemented without a referendum and some of them could not.  Hence, the question “is a referendum needed on voter reform?” is not a simple “yes” or “no” question.  The answer depends on what kind of voter reform one implements. 

The kinds of reform that Canadians are to consider can be found in the federal government’s online guide for discussing voter reform. The guide clearly states that there are three possibilities for replacing our current First Past the Post System:

  1. Majority Systems
  2. Proportional Representation Systems
  3. Mixed Systems.  

The government’s guide has made things a little more complex than necessary.  In fact, there really are only two basic kinds of systems: Majority Systems and Proportional-Style Systems. 

However, there is a vast difference between Majority Systems and Proportional-Style Systems.  

Majority Systems shape the vote by driving all voting towards centrist parties.  Majority Systems tend to produce, in the end, two dominant parties, leaving the other surviving parties extremely weak, that is, inaccurately represented.  Majority Systems in Canada would favour the Liberals and the Conservatives. 

Proportional-Style Systems shape the vote to a much lesser degree and tend to capture the spread of the voters’ desires.  Proportional-Style Systems tend to produce, in the end, several parties of varying strengths.  Proportional-Style systems in Canada would not necessarily favour any particular parties, but would allow smaller parties, like the NDP and the Green Party, to be more accurately represented in parliament. 

In sum: implementing a Majority System would require a referendum but implementing a Proportional-Style System would not. 

Why the difference?  Simply put, in a democracy we don’t vote on issues that concern human rights.  

As Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin stated in 1991, Canada is an evolving democracy; citizens have the right to be represented in parliament in increasingly better ways.  Hence, we did not, for example, have a referendum on whether or not women were to have the vote.  Women had the right to be represented in parliament and that right to representation was not something to be decided by a referendum.   

The same reasoning would apply to implementing Proportional-Style Systems.  They increase the amount of representation of the citizenry in parliament by capturing the voting spread and not driving it towards any particular party.  Proportional-Style Systems could be implemented without a referendum.  Indeed, they should be implemented without a referendum.  The government, one could argue, has a moral obligation to constantly find better ways to represent its citizens in parliament. 

Majority Systems, however, are a much different beast.  

Because they heavily shape the vote, one could argue that they are not all that different from First Past the Post in their final outcomes.  In fact, one could argue that Majority Systems lead to fewer parties surviving than in First Past the Post Systems.  

Also, Majority Systems do not necessarily increase representation of the citizenry.  

Because a Majority System does not necessarily make things better (and could even make them worse), implementing a Majority System is not another step forward in Canada’s journey to a better means of representing its citizens in Parliament.  

Implementing a Majority System is more like a step backward. 

For these reasons, implementing a Majority System in Canada definitely requires a referendum for its justification.  

In fact, it would be difficult to justify even holding a referendum on implementing a Majority System unless one could clearly show, in advance, that a Majority System would increase the parliamentary representation of the citizenry. 

But let us put aside the technicalities of the referendum discussion for a moment and consider the broader picture. 

Majority systems tend to favour those parties who put forward centrist views.  That is why it comes as no surprise that the federal Liberals have already expressed that they are leaning towards Preferential Balloting, which is a kind of Majority System. 

Some argue that driving parties and voters towards the centre is, ultimately, a good thing.  After all, would that not tend to eradicate extremism?  Hence, a Majority System might seem like a good idea and so implementing it without a referendum could be justified on the grounds that it will produce a more moderate body of elected politicians. 

But this effort to shape the vote comes with a lot of baggage. 

The first piece of baggage is the stifling of the freedom of expression.  If political parties know that only centrist parties have any chance of being elected, then there will be a crowding of the middle and no innovative ideas will emerge.  Parties could then differ merely in name.  Such political “group-think” is detrimental to creativity and innovation, two aspects increasingly necessary to our increasingly complex society. 

The second piece of baggage is that Majority Systems force many voters to constantly vote strategically and never strictly according to their conscience. 

From time to time strategic voting might be necessary, but isn’t strategic voting itself indicative of a flaw in the system?  Don’t we all want a system that allows us to truly vote for whom we want and have our conscience-driven vote truly count? 

A system that constrains several citizens to constantly vote strategically strikes me as a paradox: a fundamentally anti-democratic manner of voting.  

The final piece of baggage—and the darkest perhaps—is that while driving all votes towards the political centre sounds nice, it sounds good because many people tend to presuppose that the centre is always the place of moderation, reason and goodness.  

But history teaches us that the political centre moves from time to time and sometimes settles in dark places.  A voting system that could drive votes to nasty centres is another paradox of anti-democratic voting, one that could have extremely anti-democratic consequences for all kinds of groups in society. 

The upshot, it seems to me, is that voter reform should be understood as modernization, as part of Canada’s step to an ever-increasing representation of its citizens in Parliament.  And that step forward is to implement a Proportional-Style System without holding a referendum.  Anything else is a step backward. 


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Raphael Morin      August 19, 2016 at 20:33
Proportional representation would be the most fair and productive voting system in my opinion as well. I think that most would be in agreement, as long as they understood the differences in voting systems.

Nicely written!
Marcel Roy      August 11, 2016 at 09:15
I prefer more the proportional vote than first pass the post.