Why you should read “Should we change how we vote?”

Last summer, a lot of us expected that roundabout now the Liberal government would be either introducing legislation to change the electoral system, or making preparations for a national referendum on a proposal to change the electoral system. That’s because Justin Trudeau promised, during the 2015 campaign, that the upcoming election would be that last one held under the “first past the post” electoral system, and by summer 2016, it was clear that time was running out on the government’s ability to make good on that pledge.

Hoping to both intervene in the government’s decision-making process and contribute to the public debate, Daniel Weinstock, Peter Loewen, and I organized a pair of conferences last fall, one in Ottawa and Montreal. We also arranged for MQUP to publish a “quickie” book out of the conference, one that would do a shortcut on the usual academic press publishing timelines and get something out in time to contribute to the anticipated debate we would be having this spring.

The book is now out. It’s called “Should We Change How We Vote? Evaluating Canada’s Electoral System,” and its overarching mission is to help remedy what Ned Franks once said was the biggest problem with Canada’s political institutions, namely, that they aren’t well understood. And so while the conferences and the book were not deliberately set up to simply defend the status quo, they were designed to focus more on explaining and understanding how the current electoral system works than on exploring which system Canada ought to switch to.

The model for the book is the groundbreaking volume put out by the UofT Press in 2001 called The Security of Freedom, which is the proceedings of an instant conference organized by the UofT law faculty in response to the Chretien government’s hastily thrown together anti-terrorism legislation. The papers in that book are short, somewhat polemical, and largely stripped of the usual scaffolding of academic throat clearing, handwaving, and footnoting.  Sixteen years later, that book remains essential reading.

We gave our contributors similar directions. Keep things short and to the point, and make your claim in as clear and forceful a manner as you can. The book contains seventeen essays organized around four main topics: First, what are the guiding principles we should use in evaluating and changing an electoral system? Second, what is the best evidence and experience we have regarding how our electoral system performs in light of these principles? Third, are there alternatives to electoral reform that would help address some of the defects of the current electoral system? And fourth, if we do want to change the electoral system, how should we do so? Should we have a referendum, or ought we not have one?

Despite the fact that electoral reform is no longer on the table, my admittedly biased view is that the book is outstanding in its own right, remains enormously relevant, and that anyone interested in the subject should buy it and read it and give it to friends to read and then have long arguments about it over drinks. I’m hugely tempted to go through the book essay by essay, explaining why each paper matters and what is its main contribution to the debate. But instead, at the risk of annoying those left out, I’d like to explain why five of the essays have current and lasting importance. My co-editors probably have different thoughts, and maybe they’ll weigh in as well.

First, there is Ken Carty’s opening essay, “Evaluating How We Vote — Again”, which Carty wrote as a “target paper” for the conference. It is basically an analysis of the various failed attempts by some provinces a decade or so ago to reform their electoral systems. His conclusion: “All five provincial reform proposals failed for want of committed leadership. In its absence the same fate would seem most likely for any significant national reform.” We can leave the question of any resonance with the current situation as an exercise for the reader.

Second, there is Emmett Macfarlane’s paper, “Electoral Reform is Not a Rights Issue.” This might seem like a narrow point, but it’s crucial, because reform advocates are starting to look to the courts to do what the politicians won’t. Elizabeth May has taken to arguing that first past the post violates the constitutional right to effective representation, and now there is a group that is raising money to launch a Charter challenge against the electoral system. Macfarlane takes that argument completely apart.

Third, you should read Melissa Williams’ contribution entitled “Indigenous Representation, Self-Determination, and Electoral Reform.” Her central concern is to flag what she calls the “glaring gap” in the electoral reform debate, which is the systematic under-representation of indigenous people in Parliament. Set within the frame of Trudeau’s promise to “reset” Canada’s relationship with indigenous people, her piece becomes all the more pressing. She had an oped in the Globe summarizing her argument, which you can read here.

Fourth, I would like to point you to the paper “Should We Have a Referendum?” by Dominique Leydet. Going into this whole enterprise, I was more or less of the view that any substantial change to the electoral system ought to be put to a referendum. More than anything else I’ve read, Leydet’s paper convinced me that a referendum was neither obligatory nor advisable.

Finally, I want to mention Mark Warren’s essay, “Can Proportional Representation Lead to Better Political System Performance,” because it picks up on a consequence of the current electoral system that doesn’t get enough attention. Most critiques of FPP focus on its (supposed) deficiencies on the issue of representation (though that claim gets a pretty thorough rebuttal in the contributions from Erin Tolley and Angelia Wagner and Elisabeth Gidengil)

But Warren is working a different seam: The failure of Canada to live up to its potential in areas such as environmental stewardship, indigenous governance, and innovation and growth, in ways that can be plausibly attributed to the weakness and lack of legitimacy of the federal government. Anyone following the gong show that is the resolution of interprovincial trade barriers knows what Warren is getting at; here is what I think is his money quote:

“It is probable that a PR system would transform our Westminster system from a relatively weak and mistake-prone system into a more capable, more legitimately powerful system… A federal government that can claim greater legitimacy is also one less subject to the downward leveling vetoes of the provinces in those policy areas where we need greater national-level direction.”

This is not the last word on this, far from it. There is a lot in this book to chew on, and not just because the subject is theoretically interesting. If the past is a guide to the future, electoral reform will be back on the agenda soon enough. Partly because opposition parties find it useful to blame their lot in life on the electoral system, but also because the first past the post system is not perfect. “Should We Change How We Vote?” is an excellent critical guide to the electoral system we have — its successes, its failures, and its possible reform.


Why you should read “Should we change how we vote?” — 1 Comment

  1. I’m surprised that Trudeau’s “promise” prompted such intense activity when his promise was an obvious non-starter.

    Changing the constitution is a difficult process in Canada. Historically, it has often failed and led to much grief. Many successful politicians (e.g. Chretien, who won three consecutive majorities) simply avoided such matters as much as they could. For those of us who love democracy, there is much that is problematic in the constitution. How can we have Senators and a Head of State (Governor General) who are not elected? In 2017? In Canada? Both institutions are key in the passage of legislation, yet they do not obtain their mandates from the electorate.

    Similarly, the Canadian electoral system is not perfect, and leads to majority governments with few, if any, parties actually scoring over 50% of the popular vote in general elections. I believe the media has in the past reported that any party getting over 38% support in public opinion polls during elections are in the “zone” where they may pull off a majority government. Clearly, something amiss there.

    However, when Justin Trudeau was so dismissive of the “first past the post” system and categorically stated that if he won the 2015 election that he would change the electoral system in time for the next election (normally expected in the fourth year of a majority government’s term), I was struck by his naivete and the naivete of those who believed him.

    This is Canada. Constitutions and institutions as deeply entrenched as the electoral system are rarely changed without much study, debate, endless discussion, the usual academic conferences, papers, books, court references, law suits, appeals, etc. The process would necessitate tabling and passing a Bill, which would trigger a lot of study at the “committee stage” between the second and third readings in both the House and the Senate. I think most liberal democrats would expect that something as important as this, which would dramatically change the political landscape, would necessitate a referendum, which would involve a major campaign. And then the Bill would have to be passed early enough in the mandate to provide “Elections Canada” with enough time to get the logistics and administration in place to put theory and law into practice (i.e., a lot more than just a few months).

    Given that Trudeau did not actually present a proposal during the 2015 with which to replace the existing system and was going to start the process from scratch, I thought it was remarkably naive of him to say that we would be saying “good-bye” to the old system that has served us relatively well for such a long time. In fact, given the enormity of what was involved, and the great likelihood that it was doomed to failure, I thought his “promise” was a perfect example of his youthful inexperience and his belief in magic (like Bouchard making references to a magic wand during the 1995 campaign). It was obvious that he had no idea of the complexity of what he was embarking on, and his promise was demonstration enough of his lack of understanding of Canada and our political institutions and his lack of qualifications for the job he was seeking.

    Trudeau could have been more reasonable and committed to having a Parliamentary committee study electoral reform with a view to implementing another system as soon as possible, but he did not…presummably because he felt that making a categorical statement and “promise” would be a greater demonstration of resolve and fortitude.

    After the election I listened to many episodes of news and political talk shows on CBC radio about the project and how it was coming along, and the many opinions that stakeholders had, etc. The more I listened, the more I was convinced that this “ain’t gonna happen”.

    By the second year of the mandate there was still no concrete proposal and no Bill. Was it really any surprise that the project was cancelled? The only thing that surprised me was when it was revealed that Trudeau decided to cancel it because he realized that some “extremists” might win seats in the House under a proportional representation system, and he did not like the vision that it created in his mind. Is that not proof that he never really thought this through before he made his campaign promise?

    The book may find company in the libraries next to all the great academic books about the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, as well as all the “yes to separation” books that came out in the lead up to the 1980 and 1995 referendums.