Electoral Reform Proposal

By: Guillaume D'Aigle Laflèche

Posted: March 26, 2015

Last edited: July 22, 2015

    Stephen Harper won a majority in the 2011 election with just under 40% of votes for Conservative candidates, while voter turnout was at about 60%, which means that the number of eligible voters who didn't cast a ballot was close to twice those who voted for his party.  As Prime Minister, Harper enforced strict party discipline and concentrated control and influence in the Prime Minister's Office, further restricting diversity of opinion and freedom of speech among representatives "in power", thus severely impeding the democratic process.  As a result, with legitimacy gained from the support from a tiny fraction of eligible voters (about 1/5), one man could pass just about any law that pleases him (or his friends), no matter how unwise, and virtually nothing could be done to stop him until the next election, maybe.  However, this unfortunate scenario is likely to unfold again, sooner or later, with or without Harper.  As the electorate becomes increasingly disenchanted with politics or alienated by politicians, the stage is set for voter turnout and political involvement to keep sliding among moderate people, leaving increasingly disproportionate power to radicals and special interest groups.  The unfair and undemocratic electoral system in Canada is a major reason why this is happening: First-Past-The-Post elections are at best a very clumsy method for people to give their opinion.  Here is a suggestion to improve it.

    On each ballot, there would be the list of the local candidates, just like there is today, except instead of just one check box beside each name, there should be three. They would read FOR, AGAINST, and ABSTAIN.  That way, each voter would have the opportunity to give an opinion about each candidate in terms of approval or disapproval by checking one and only one box per line, and for each line.  Marking ABSTAIN or nothing could mean a neutral opinion or that the voter does not know enough about that candidate.  Rational voters would feel more motivated to learn about all candidates on the ballot, not just those with a good chance of winning.  Here's an example of a ballot in a fictitious all-star riding:

Stephen Harper -- Conservative Party of Canada          [  ] FOR      [X] AGAINST     [  ] ABSTAIN

Elizabeth May -- Green Party of Canada                      [X] FOR      [  ] AGAINST     [  ] ABSTAIN

Justin Trudeau -- Liberal Party of Canada                    [X] FOR      [  ] AGAINST     [  ] ABSTAIN

Thomas Mulcair -- New Democratic Party of Canada      [  ] FOR      [  ] AGAINST     [X] ABSTAIN

    When ballots are counted, this particular ballot would give -1 vote for Harper, +1 vote for May, +1 vote for Trudeau, and no change for Mulcair. This should allow electors to better express their choice.   If a voter just wants to get Harper out, for example, and doesn't know who else should get in, this type of ballot would allow them to say so. It could also minimize the effect of vote splitting, where a party gets a majority with less than 40% of the votes simply because there is more than one other party that appeals to a given crowd who is torn to choose.  By allowing voters to give an opinion on each candidate instead of just one check mark for only one candidate, or in other words by not treating voice as a rare commodity, democracy is allowed to flourish because a diversity of candidates, parties, and views can be represented.  Otherwise, so-called democracies with just the one check mark tend to promote strategic voting and tend to lead to a two party race, which is essentially a two-faced dictatorship that does not really represent the people and is very easy for money and lobbyists to hijack.  Just like a competitive market in business, a true democracy must also be open to new candidates, parties, and ideas and must allow turnover to replace old, corrupt parties, incompetent candidates, and obsolete ideas with newer, fresher ones that better represent the standards, views, and values of the people.  The more parties there are, the better for democracy, but vote splitting tends to make turnover difficult and keep the same party and person in power for too long.  Meanwhile, strategic voting keeps in obscurity or on the sidelines parties and candidates that may be qualified and have talent to contribute but are not likely to win because not well known or simply not in the top two or three parties by number of votes obtained.  By limiting voter input to one single check mark, First-Past-The-Post creates many perverse effects like these.  Giving voters more say should remedy the situation, as electors with more votes than one could afford to let politicians know how they really feel.

    The vote AGAINST one or more candidates might seem odd at first, even offensive, but it serves a purpose in giving more voice and power to the electorate.  Not only does it allow cynics a chance to express their opinion more effectively than by just not voting, it is also a protection against candidates with a poor ethic or even against those who are dangerous extremists.  Electors could vote AGAINST candidates or parties who engage in or are affiliated with personal attack ads against other candidates.  Candidates who have been known to lie or who give stale answers or can never be reached to avoid questions might also earn the NO vote.  The hope is that this feature would help persuade politicians to reach for a higher standard or integrity, honesty, and respect.  The vote AGAINST could also help avoid handing power to dangerous extremists and to candidates who hold hostile attitudes towards a given minority group.  Meanwhile, less controversial and more trustworthy candidates might not always generate a lot of excitement or get a lot of support, but they should be less likely to be voted against.  As a result of this new balance of political power, the political discourse might become more civil and professional.

    The above proposed system of FOR AGAINST ABSTAIN ballots, or maybe we'll call them FAA ballots for short, would increase work, complexity, and risk of error for poll workers.  At the close of polls, workers will not simply sort and count ballots by candidate, they may instead need to transcribe the information to a matrix before results can be compiled.  It is worth noting that partial automation of the polls could help a lot to improve both speed and accuracy of both transcribing and counting.  Full automation could come with problems, however, as the US seems to have experienced on occasion. Poll automation needs to be reliable in the eyes of the public, yet one difficulty with full automation is that no one is allowed to look inside the virtual box until polls close to verify that the ballots are recording properly.  The benefit of partial automation is that paper ballots remain more transparent than their electronic version, yet the faster process to tally results can be audited at any time to verify that there are no errors or manipulations.  The paper ballots remain and can be tallied up again if needed.  FAA ballots would be quick and easy to process with partial automation, but poll workers should also be able to complete the process manually, as preliminary tests should be able to confirm.

    It is worth noting that elections with FAA ballots should focus more on the character of the candidates than on the ideas, ambitions, and promises that they represent.  This is because candidates could be less desperate to attract attention to 'earn' the one vote of each elector and could afford to be more themselves, a bit like they were applying for a job in the real world.  The right candidate should be hired because they qualify, not because they offer to use their new powers, should they get the job, to the benefit of the recruitment team.  With parties and ideas not tied together as a bundled deal, there could be during elections a separate ballot to collect voter opinion about various ideas and propositions, such as whether or not to go to war, offer universal child care, change a given tax rate, or implement a carbon tax or other environmental measure.  This list of questions should be easily available ahead of time for everyone to prepare their response.  The wording and structure of those questions will be critical, as always, but at least the issues will be more of a separate conversation from the choice of a candidate.  If asked about whether they want lower taxes, most people would agree, but the answer would be different if it was a choice between that and a given service.  That's why political analysts will still be important to help people make sense of what's going on, but also to shoot down any empty, rhetorical questions that don't reveal anything.  Questions would have to be very precise.  Dissociating the tied deal of candidates and promises will help voters identify the quality of each candidates and not be fooled into buying something they don't want.  Also, by not being tied to ideas, candidates and parties would not necessarily risk their reputation when suggesting ideas and could be more creative in their suggestions.  They would also get a sense of what the population wants, which would help them make better or more popular decisions while promoting democracy.  Finally, with proper popular feedback on various issues, it would be clear to see whether a government is serving the people or their own interests or agenda.

    FAA ballots alone should improve proportional representation at least marginally, as voters will be able to express both their preferred choice and their strategic choice, thus increasing the chances of victory for all candidates who are not alone to appeal to a group of voters.  Currently with First-Past-The-Post elections, voters are torn between voting strategically and voting with their heart for the candidate that most excites them.  People even refer to the latter as "wasting your vote", which says a lot for how undemocratic the system is.  Thus, with the ability to vote for each candidate, less mainstream parties as well as independent candidates should get their fair share of votes because giving it to them will no longer be "waste".  However, still many votes would end up being ignored when comparing the proportion of elected MPs per party with national vote distribution.  True proportional representation has its merits but is not part of this suggestion, at least not in the early stages.  A few problems associated with proportional representation proposals will need to be resolved before such changes can be adopted, so this may take time.  First, complexity of the mechanics must not be overwhelming to the point of impairing functionality and transparency of the system.  People need to have a clear understanding or what they are getting into.  Second, proportional representation should not advantage parties and disadvantage independent candidates, who are arguably the essence of democracy--parties are brands that simplify the political game for voters and increase power through strength in numbers, but they can limit diversity of opinion and even impose undemocratic party discipline.  My view is that a debate on proportional representation is very welcome and needed, but that proportional representation could be part of another electoral reform after this one.  Rolling out the electoral system reform in steps might be more achievable, prudent, and simple, while being less confusing for many voters such as the elderly who are used to one way of voting.

    FAA ballots would clearly improve the satisfaction that elections provide to most people.  However, even more satisfying would be to have ranked FAA ballots, where electors can rank the candidates they are voting for.  For example, the same fantasy election from earlier could look like this:

Stephen Harper -- Conservative Party of Canada          [  ] FOR       [X] AGAINST     [  ] ABSTAIN

Elizabeth May -- Green Party of Canada                      [ 1] FOR      [  ] AGAINST     [  ] ABSTAIN

Justin Trudeau -- Liberal Party of Canada                    [ 2] FOR      [  ] AGAINST     [  ] ABSTAIN

Thomas Mulcair -- New Democratic Party of Canada      [  ] FOR       [  ] AGAINST     [X] ABSTAIN

    Therefore, votes could express preference, while also expressing alternative choices.  In this example, May would be getting the vote, but if she has the least votes of all the candidates in the riding (as an example of a criteria), this ballot would offer a vote to Trudeau instead.  If Trudeau also has the fewest votes of all the remaining candidates of the riding (now that May is out of the race), then this ballot will not have served to elect anyone directly.  However, the elector's disapproval of Harper will still have earned the latter a -1 vote added to his total.

    As suggested earlier, with FAA and especially with ranked FAA ballots, bad politicians could be more severely penalized for their transgressions, dishonesty, or lame performance, and would not be as immune and unaccountable as they are now. Meanwhile, decent and honest politicians, who are not too controversial but are still relatively unknown, those politicians would not be penalized as much as under the current system and could at least gain more credibility in the polls than they do now.  It would also encourage voters to think outside of the box, or at least consider more possibilities than always trying the same strategy while hoping for different results.  A given candidate having obtained few votes in past elections would no longer be, in itself, a valid reason not to vote for them.  By allowing more parties to co-exist than in First-Past-The-Post elections, since those parties wouldn't necessarily cannibalize each other's votes, more views would be represented and democracy would flourish.  Politicians with various views would have to learn to negotiate responsibly and not just impose, and those who don't play fair and create problems would be heavily voted against.   By allowing some turnover among the politicians in power, it would oppose the tendency of many politicians and political parties to succumb to corruption and undemocratic practices.

    This idea of ranked FAA ballots would be brought to the attention of many people if an MP could talk about it.  It could be introduced as a bill, even though it is unlikely to pass.  Ultimately, however, an electoral reform such as ranked FAA ballots should be adopted by referendum because that would make it legitimate, fair, and transparent.  Voters could cast a separate ballot for this when they vote at a regular election.  Both ballots would go in the same box, as was done for the 2007 referendum about MMP in Ontario. If passed, the changes would take effect at the following election.

    As suggested earlier, an ambitious and possibly complex electoral reform might be easier to adopt if it is broken down into smaller changes that can be rolled out over the course of many elections.  Anticipation of new changes could even generate excitement among some voters and increase voter turnout.  The steps to improving our democracy could be to introduce simple FAA ballots in a first election, then ranked FAA ballots in another election after that, and finally some sort of proportional representation at yet another future election.  This way, each change can also be assessed to address execution glitches and verify that the effects are more beneficial than perverse.

    Ideally, future changes after that should increase consultation and participatory democracy.  The goal is to shift some power and influence out of the Prime Minister's hands and into the people's.  However, the trend in recent decades has been one of increasing corruption and concentration of power into the Prime Minister's hands, which is not only bad for democracy, but also means that consultation and participatory democracy are completely out of reach at this time as they would constantly be overruled or ignored if they even could exist.  This is why I believe that we urgently need better ballots like ranked FAA, or at least simple FAA to begin, so that voters can better share their opinion and flush rotten apples and corruption out of the system.  This should restore some of the public's faith in the political system and also make it possible for Canada to march towards real democracy, not towards tyranny.