Changing the way we vote

Dorothy Dobbie Issues in the News
Dorothy Dobbie
Issues in the News

If you want to make your head hurt, start examining the many possibilities and permutations of the voting systems that could be proposed to replace our 150-year-old method of electing our governments. Everyone who favours reform has a different twist and a new label to mark their brilliance in band-aiding proposed alternatives when one of them is shown to be just as defective, in its own way, as First Past the Post, known hereafter as FPTP for simplicity.

This is the last simple thing I will show you here.

Everyone seems to have a bias. If you’re under 35, you are likely highly susceptible to media claims that the current system is broken and needs to be radically changed. That doesn’t mean you have a solution, but it’s obvious, isn’t it? If it doesn’t work, change it. How stupid can we old guys be?

If you feel under-represented in any way, you are again likely to be all for change. After all, if they pick the right method, your party might get to Parliament and you can have a say. Hey, why not start your own party to be sure you get on some ballot, in say, the MMP (mixed member proportional representation) system, where you get two votes, one for a candidate your party picks and one for your direct elected member.

New Zealand does it this way. They have 120 seats. Since 1993, they have set aside 71 of them for your direct representation and the other 49 for the parties’ picks, chosen in numbers to represent the popular vote. They have given the Maoris, who get a special vote, representation proportional to their population – right now that number is seven. (In Canada, we can elect as many First Nations reps as we want and they are there to represent all of us, just as do other MPs, whether we voted for them or not.)

By the way, there are 13 parties in New Zealand (population 4.5 million). Any party needs to get five per cent of the vote, or one elected seat, to receive an allocation for the multi-member party seats.

Don’t like the idea of your party selecting their buds as candidates? Maybe you’ll like Australia’s system better. Here they make you rank your choices and have a run-off to select the winner. Voting – and ranking – is mandatory. Even if you hate all other candidates but the one from your own party, you have to number everyone on the ballot in order of your preference.

Australians vote for both houses, using what they call “majority-preferential instant-runoff voting in single-member seats” to elect members to the lower house and “single-transferable proportional voting” to elect the senate. Each senate seat is a multi-member seat, with senators elected according to the party’s proportional percentage of the vote. Five to six five per cent of the votes for the lower house are spoiled, apparently to protest mandatory voting and ranking.

There are around 75 to 80 registered parties in Australia, although four have them have formed a coalition called The Coalition, to fight the Australian Labor Party. Those two, plus the Greens, take up most of the vote. Even so, 10 parties are currently represented in the two houses. Coalitions are formed after the election and are often forming and re-forming behind the scenes.

Not that this is all there is to it – Australians are constantly tinkering with a system that doesn’t work very well, partly because there are two elected houses, but also because of many of the same complaints we hear about FPTP here at home: it’s unfair, it doesn’t really represent the true demographics of the country, it’s too adversarial . .

Canadian proponents of this system laud the co-operation and harmony that is supposed to occur among representatives who “have to get along in a coalition”. Not so, say the critics in Australia. D. Klass Woldring, a professor at Southern Cross University, says that there is an urgent need for a fairer, simpler and less adversarial model. He goes on to say that “Politicians are recruited from an extremely small number of people,” because party membership is at an all-time low.

Nevertheless, those who like preferential voting claim that it solves the “wasted votes” of FPTP. I can’t see how that works when your first choice is likely to be discarded and allocated in favour of a person supported by some other group that you may heartily dislike. If that isn’t waste, what is?

The two alternative systems above illustrate the kind of choices that may be faced by Canadians soon. They are clumsy, complicated, subject to manipulation, and they require greater third party intervention between the electorate and their representative.

Before you get all excited about Germany’s proportional representation system, know that, according to Der Spiegel, it is considered so complicated that most Germans don’t understand it. And again, Germany has just tinkered with their PR system – really it’s a mixed member system now. It elects some 598 members to the Bundestag but the new system could see the numbers swell to 800 seats. There are 299 constituencies at the moment. Basically, the voter gets two votes: one for a general candidate, who is elected according to FPTP rules, the second, and more important, for the party list candidate. After this, it gets much more complicated as the exact ultimate representation is decided on some proportional representation formula that seems to have been subject to many changes.

Nor do you know who the leader will be until after the election: the chancellor is nominated by the winning party after the vote. The president is elected by a special assembly. Germany has 34 parties.

So with all these complications, why ditch FPTP? According to Canadians, in a recent Internet poll conducted by the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance and Environics among 2,000 respondents, we are not particularly interested in doing so. When it comes to electoral reform, most people (58 per cent in the poll) just want to vote online. Of the respondents, 45 per cent were opposed to mandatory voting. For the most part, even those with enough interest to take an Internet poll just weren’t sure what any changed system might be and what they would prefer.

As for those final results on election night? Apparently, not much changes under alternative systems: the party that was ahead before the vote is usually the party that wins, despite convoluted voting systems. Elections do get a lot more expensive and confusing, though, and your ability to choose your own direct representation is diluted. A lot more power goes to the back rooms.

As for getting the system right? Not likely for at least a hundred years (Germany and Australia have been trying since 1918).

On the other hand, First Past the Post has been the most stable system since voting became the way governments were created. Why change it now?

Dorothy Dobbie, PC MP for Winnipeg South from 1988 to 1993, co-chaired a constitutional committee, the joint Senate House committee on the renewal of Canada which studied this issue.

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