Friday, May 6, 2011

Proportionally fair: Debunking electoral reform bunk

As you can probably tell by my headline, I am not in favour of electoral reform in Canada. Or at the very least, it makes me uncomfortable when people tout statistics like "60% of people didn't vote for Harper!" Statements like that one make my blogger-red-flags go up.

Hopefully with this post (essay) I can convince you that no, our system is not broken or in need of reform. It works the way it was intended to and it works very well, and the election on May 2nd 2011 proves it.

I don't shy away from math, and I can recognize bad math and bad statistical analysis from a mile away. Being a numbers-inclined person and studying sciences for a number of years tends to do that to you. Without looking anything up, this magical "60%" number makes me think three things: 1) 40% did vote for Harper, 2) the 60% is divided into 4 other parties so lumping them all in one is circumspect and 3) this seems to be based on a fantasy that you need more than 50% to "win."

I need to preface the next bit of this post with an observation about pro-reform people. This is all anecdotal and I have no evidence to support my speculations. Almost all electoral reform people are lefties. They vote NDP, Green, or Liberal. The loudest cheerleaders are the people asking you to join "Anyone but Harper!" Facebook Groups and spam up your social media inboxes asking you to sign various petitions saying that you think because the Conservatives only got 39.6 percent of the vote, the system is "broken" and "unfair."

These folks also seem to have a massive hate-on for Stephen Harper (see "Anyone but Harper!" groups). He's an evil man, they tell you. He has a secret agenda, and if he gets a majority Canada will be ruined. Worst of all, he hates the arts and you should fear 24/7 for your baby's safety. You should be shaking in your little space boots at the mere thought of Stephen Harper getting a 4 year majority. I'm shaking in mine, but only because the mere thought of 4 years of Francis Russell columns is like a bad nightmare coming true.

Dippers and Greenies of course have been wanting "electoral reform" for awhile now. NDP and Green parties have been fringe parties for their entire existences. Electoral reform or proportional representation benefits these fringe parties the most.

In 2008, the NDP got 37 seats but 18.2% of the vote. But 18% of the House of Commons is 56 seats, not 37. The Green Party by contrast, did not win a single seat in the 2008 election but got 6.9% of the vote. I don't need to tell you that there is a big, big difference between zero seats and 6.9% of the House which equates to 21 seats.

Conversely, this works against the big parties. In 2008, instead of Harper's 143 seat minority, he would have had just a 116 seat minority by virtue of his 37.7% of the popular vote.

Seems like a cause to whine about unfairness to me. Especially, if you really don't like Stephen Harper and you voted for one of these lesser parties. You want to give more power to "your guys" and are trying to build a sound argument for doing just that.

Now I know what you're thinking, but Graham it isn't just about proportional representation, actually, "electoral reform" might not even mean this is how we move forward. And I say, true that.

During the first couple days of the 2011 campaign, on March 30th, Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff was in Winnipeg for a town hall meeting. He fielded questions on the fly from the audience about Liberal policies and the general concerns of people who spoke up. One question was about electoral reform, and the person asked if the Liberals would pursue this. In my opinion, the young lady asking the question was obviously a pro-reformer and Ignatieff naturally wanted to answer without committing to anything.

But what Ignatieff said about the issue was completely true. His answer was that (paraphrasing) before we do anything on the subject, we first have to ask ourselves, what are we talking about here, exactly? What is it that we want to solve? Questions such as what is it about or electoral system we don't like? The basic premise here is simple and I am in total agreement with it; we can't just say we want electoral reform because of a perception that the current system is unfair.

With that in mind, let's revisit the "60% of people voted against Harper" statement. This is, on the surface, a true statement. There are many things you can do with this number and many different ways you can spin it. So let's do just that.

If 60.4% of people in the 2011 Election voted against Stephen Harper, it is also true that...

69.4% of Canadians voted against the NDP.
81.8% of Canadians voted against the Liberals.
96.1% of Canadians voted against the Greens.

This might make it incredibly hard to ask questions about electoral reform or whether or not our electoral system is fair. It would seem that if you apply the same line of thought to the other parties, a very large majority of people really, really, really don't want anybody to govern.

So what does all this mean? Well, when you look at popular vote percentages, essentially what we are looking at here is what proportion of the country wanted which party to govern. Then, are these compiled percentages of who voted for or against so and so even worth the referendum ballots election reformists want? This is why I said at the beginning of this essay that the "60%" number makes me uncomfortable. 60% of people didn't really vote against one specific party. If you are using this 60% logic then it obviously falls flat that when someone votes, they are not necessarily voting against one party, they may be voting against two or three parties. There is no way to tell, and it is unfair to lump sum everyone on one side, just to further your argument.

Vote splitting works.

If you don't like it...perhaps everyone and their dog on the left shouldn't have their own party. The left, in Canada, is almost like some form of quad-partisanship, and none of them want to help the other three. Jack doesn't want to work with Iggy, and Iggy doesn't want to work with Jack. Neither of them want to work with Gilles. And all 3 of those people see themselves as the one and only official alternative to the Conservatives.

* * * *

For this section some personal background might help set things up. I've had a lot of voting experience for someone who has only been able to vote for 7 years, completely attributed to our minority government. Three Federal elections, one Provincial and two Civic elections. I've voted NDP, Green, Liberal, and Conservative. I'm hardly biased or partisan in any way. I hold no cards for any party affiliation. I have also worked/volunteered on several election campaigns, and the only party platform I haven't worked on in that regard is the NDP.

Aside from vague memories of my mother bringing my brother and I to voting stations, the first real exposure to politics I had was in junior high during social studies. I distinctly remember doing a project in Grade 8 in which I watched the federal debate (there was one going on at the time) and organized my thoughts on each leader's performance. In retrospect, I'm sure the teacher got a kick out of reading a 14 year old's opinions on political leaders.

I'm 25. I'm single and looking for women who have read up to this point of my post and are still interested in the subject matter...Okay. Enough with that. My institutional memory of elections and political happenings is pretty limited. Often I pick you "old people's" brains for insightful perspectives on events I didn't witness. But otherwise there is the internet, and a wonderfully accurate record of elections past.

One of any analyst's many tools is history. Political topics in general are very easy to find historical information on. Elections even more so, because elections define us, and the entire history of our country since Confederation.

I think to myself, if electoral reformists want to think that Stephen Harper is somehow undeserving of his majority government, what about past majorities? Especially past majorities with popular leaders...leaders I am not familiar with other than knowing they were popular. Jean Chretien was popular, yes? Was he "as deserving" of his majorities in the 90s as Stephen Harper is today? I'll frame this using their language:

2000: 59.2% of people voted against the Chretien government.
1997: 61.5% of people voted against the Chretien government.
1993: 58.7% of people voted against the Chretien government.

(Note: That Chretien sure was an unpopular man to be voted a majority 3 consecutive times! Let's keep going...)

1988: 57% of people voted against the Mulroney government
1984: 50% of people voted against the Mulroney government.
1980: 55.7% of people voted against the Trudeau government.

History tells us that the majority governments in the past have a pretty decent chance of getting around or close to 60% "rejection" by Canadians. I'm willing to bet that most people calling for electoral reform today wouldn't be nearly as vocal as they are if say, Ignatieff won a 167 seat majority with 39.6% of the popular vote.

In the last 100 years, there have been 30 elections, and only in 7 of those have there been majority governments that won with 50.0% of the popular vote or more.

Does this mean our electoral system is broken?

Hardly. The idea of Parliament and a House of Commons is a very locally-based one. To make up a Federal Government, each community of people selects one person to represent their interests. Every community (riding) has it's own set of problems and issues. An inner city riding obviously has different priorities than a rural farming riding, or a northern riding. An Eastern riding in BC has different pressures affecting it's local politics than a Maritime riding.

This is an important aspect of our electoral system. Local politics would be done away with or certainly marginalized to a large extent, in the different ideas people supporting electoral reform bounce around. Currently, a community has the ability to decide if an incumbent is doing a good job representing his or her people, by voting them back in or voting them out.

National election discourse does not usually focus on the super-local level. Some races are run on local issues, and only a small number of voters really examine their candidates. Fewer still criticize their elected representative's record in government, by following parliamentary or legislative debates, or by researching a politician's voting record. A large part of any federal candidate's success depends on the national tide of public opinion. This is perhaps best shown in the close race between Kevin Lamoreaux and Rebecca Blaikie.

Three things happened nationally this week: the Conservatives held an advantage because many people are in favour of a stable government, the NDP enjoyed a strong leadership presence, and the Liberals were the recipients of nation-wide rejection. Did all of these things happen in the Winnipeg North race? Absolutely, yes.

1) Almost 10 000 additional votes were cast in the 2011 election as compared to the November by-election, but Kevin Lamoureaux only increased his vote by about 1700. Of the 10 000 additional votes that were cast, 8300 people chose not to vote for the Liberal Party.

2) The NDP vote increased by about 2600. A marginal increase, considering the so-called NDP surge (which was really only in Quebec).

3) The Conservative candidate collected over 5000 votes more than last November. People really really don't like the Liberal Party right now.

So what did it come down to for Kevin Lamoureaux? It came down to local issues and vote splitting. If the Green Party didn't exist, Rebecca Blaikie may have won. But locally, Lamoureaux's presence and recognition for his work in the community is so strong, that he was able to hold onto his seat despite the unpopularity of the Liberal Party and Michael Ignatieff. That recognition is so strong that it is why he was able to wrestle the longtime NDP seat away in last November's by-election.

This kind of community support isn't often that strong, and you cannot fault people for not paying attention to politics, or for not knowing what each of their elected politicians at each level of government is doing. If anything, the onus is on you, to get your neighbours and friends involved in the process, and being more vocal as a citizen in your riding. Blaming the system and calling for "reform" because of the perception that your vote did not count, because your guy/gal didn't win, or because the person who you want to lead the country is not, is kind of silly. Blaming the practice of democracy in Canada because you lost is quite the oxymoron.

Moving away from a locally-based system means either proportional representation (which raises the question: who gets to choose who represents who locally? Or, who gets to dictate who gets to represent who? Not the voters) or a preference system which means each voter numbers in preference who they would like to represent them.

The preferential voting system actually existed here in Manitoba. Provincially, between 1920 and 1955 (Thanks, Sam!). The "riding" of Winnipeg was awarded 10 seats, chosen by the citizens of the "riding" in preferential order. During my research on this I discovered a politician by the name of Lewis St George Stubbs whose Wikipedia states:

"[Stubbs] served in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba from 1936 to 1949 as an Independent, and was known for promoting left-wing and socially progressive causes."

Ah! A lefty. But most interestingly, his article also states:

"Stubbs made frequent calls for electoral reform in Manitoba, noting that the riding's urban centres were grossly under-represented in comparison to the rural areas."

A lefty clamouring for electoral reform...before 1950. Except it was the opposite of what people are saying now. His reasoning if we are to believe his Wikipedia page, is that communities do not have direct control over who represents a specific neighbourhood. This is an important aspect of our politics today not only Federally but Provincially and at the Municipal level as well.

If the system is broken Federally, then it would follow that it is also broken Provincially and Municipally. However only at the Provincial and more so the Municipal level do we recognize the value of a community electing the person whom they want to represent them.

Electoral reform won't change voter turnout either. You can't force anybody to pay attention to politics any more than you can force someone to read a newspaper. Electoral reform won't change activities in the House of Commons and it won't change party policy. All it would change, is how you cast your vote, and how much value you perceive your vote to have.

Many who do not vote claim that they don't see how it matters...but clearly this election showed that it does in fact matter. The close races right here in Manitoba could have been won by other people had just a couple hundred more people showed up to vote, out of the thousands in each riding that did not.

If Stephen Harper and a majority Conservative government was really as hated and unpopular as pro-electoral reformists would lead me to believe, he wouldn't have won as many seats as he did, simple as that. There are three seats here right in Manitoba, Joyce Batemen in Winnipeg South Centre, and Lawrence Toet in Elmwood-Transcona, two seats that could easily have gone to a Liberal and NDP candidate respectively. But that anti-Harper vote just did not materialize. Plain and simple.

* * * *

What did materialize? A very interesting trend, which in my eyes, validates the current government in their majority rule. The trend I speak of started in 2000. What has gone on in the past 11 years? Three major parties have made three major moves up and down the popular vote chart.

The Conservative popular vote since 2000:

2000: 12.2% (See: vote splitting, PCs/CA)
2004: 29.6%
2006: 36.3%
2008: 37.7%
2011: 39.6%

Yikes. The Conservative Party has tripled their popular vote in the past eleven years. What happened to the Liberal Party in the past 11 years is almost a mirror inverse, and probably directly correlated with Conservative gains.

The Liberal popular vote since 2000:

2000: 40.8%
2004: 36%
2006: 30.2%
2008: 26.3%
2011: 18.9%

While the Conservatives were busy tripling their popular vote, in the same timespan which included 7 years of Minority Governments, the Liberals more than halved their popular support.

The NDP popular vote since 2000:

2000: 8.5%
2004: 15.7%
2006: 17.5%
2008: 18.2%
2011: 30.6%

The jump between 2008 and 2011 can of course be explained by the complete decimation of the Bloc Quebecois. Which was bound to happen eventually. The elimination, or near-elimination, of a Quebec separatist party will have a major impact on national politics.

I have a hard time supporting the notion that a majority of Canadians "didn't support Harper," while technically true, their support has risen greatly in the last decade while support for the official opposition party has all but lost it's legs. If we eliminate Quebec from the picture for a moment, Conservatives absolutely do have a stronghold majority on the country.

The Bloc Quebecois for almost two decades was a factor in whether or not a majority government was elected. This was the case in 2008, where the country watched Quebec closely as it was possible the Conservatives could swing enough Bloc seats to capture a slim majority.

The political landscape in Canada is a big factor here. Quebec has been a major point of contention since the Bloc formed. Is it worth reforming our system which accounts for and allows parties like the Bloc to exist? Though their causes are irrelevant to the rest of the country, they are very relevant to the people of Quebec (see: local issues).

If anything, the elimination of the Bloc Quebecois should count as significant electoral system reform. That's 75 seats automatically returned and restored to the Canadian collective right there.

Between the clear, steady, indisputable climb in support of the Conservative Party since 2000, and the election this week that reduced the Bloc to de facto Independent status, nobody should be contesting Harper's majority. He won it fair and square, by steadily increasing his popular vote every election, and he even won it without Quebec or a Bloc Quebecois to speak of.

Why are we even talking about electoral reform, again?

* * * *

Our election system hasn't changed for my entire lifetime. Yet there is nothing to suggest that our system is "broken," it works as well as it did when I was born as it did on May 2nd 2011. Majority governments have come and gone, often flipping poles by alternating between Liberal and Conservative majorities.

Maybe there is something to be said about 7 years of minority rule and how it has affected our opinion. If it hasn't, it certainly has affected our politics. The past 7 years of minority government and weak Liberal Party leaders have been a large part why the NDP was able to produce a historic and unbeleiveable 2011 election result of 102 seats.

If there is any reason for me to doubt that our electoral system is broken, I cannot find it. All we can do for the moment, is sit and watch how well the Conservative Party that has been seeking majority since 2006 governs the country. Maybe he does well in the eyes of Canadians and is rewarded with a second majority, which if it happens, I can look forward to a much more vocal crowd of electoral reformers in 2015.


WEB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WEB said...

Interesting POV. I agree with much of what you say ... such as (paraphrasing) if you want to have your own little party for your particular flavour of a mainstream perspective then you are of course doomed to non election. The conservatives held their noses and all joined into one party that was either too or not enough conservative for many voters - in order to be represented.

But that doesn't mean the system is not broken. Your idea that the idea of parliament is about representing local interests is historically true and to an extent valid. But it is definitely pre-internet in that it completely misses representing ideological communities which are non geographical. Most of the world has recognized this flaw which makes first past the post systems clearly non-democratic to the extent that as little as 35% of the population can completely call the shots and the best the rest can do is hope that the damage won't be too devastating for another 4 years.

ty said...

1) I can honestly say that I would still be off-put by our current system even if my chosen party, the Greens, won a majority with only 40% of the popular vote. It's wrong. It doesn't matter who benefits, it's still wrong.

2) Local is important, I agree. But there's a fine line between localism (ie. a representative for a constituency keeping an eye out for things that will benefit or annoy their constituents) and regionalism (ie. a representative for a constituency that puts the interests of the constituency ahead of the interests of the country - and the planet - thus dividing us rather than uniting us). Canada is one country. One. We need a system that weakens the power of the regionalist vote. I don't know what system that is. Maybe MMP.

3) I don't know how far back the call for electoral reform goes, but I distinctly remember reading an article by Harper and Flanagan recently (published in the 90s) suggesting just that. Regular folks, "ordinary" Canadians, are just catching on now (yes, probably because we have a government that does not reflect Canadian values as we know/feel/understand/believe them).

Outlaw said...

Fascinating read. Very well done as always Graham.

John Dobbin said...

It will be interesting if the NDP continues to push for proportional representation. My feeling is no.

If we are indeed headed for a mostly two party system, I suspect that the federal Conservatives might be in power as long as Ontario's PCs were: 4 decades.

Anonymous said...

When electoral reform is put to a vote, it usually only succeeds under one circumstance: when there is a pent-up anger against a government for going too far, too fast in trying to change the country.

This was the prevailing condition in New Zealand when it voted for electoral reform in 1993 after nearly a decade of deep economic restructuring. Electoral reform initiatives would also have had good chances of success in Canada in 1993 (when PM Brian Mulroney's approval rating was languishing in the low teens) or in the immediate post-Thatcher U.K.

The most important thing for any government wanting to avoid a vote on electoral reform to do is consult, consult, consult. If you have to make unpopular changes, let people know how and why you're making them, ask for their advice, tell them what to expect, and never make unpopular changes by surprise or by stealth or leave people feeling like they've just been mugged.

If a government can manage that, then electoral reform will merely remain an academic debate for those with an interest in parliamentary operations.

Reed Solomon said...

late to the thread, but I disagree. The reform party/conservatives used to be big fans of electoral reform. now probably not so much now that they're in power.

And yes, 60% of people who voted did not vote for Stephen Harper's conservatives. That's not even including people who didn't vote for whatever reason. Does that mean they all voted "against Harper?" Certainly not. Unfortunately theres no easy way to know because we don't have a system of voting that allows runoffs.

I think some of the points you made are based on spurious reasoning. We needed electoral reform when the Liberals were in power, and we need it today. Harper is irrelevant to that. He'd still have the most seats under proportional representation anyways. Especially if Aberta and Ontario and BC get more seats as is the plan.