Fair Vote Canada Seminar on Electoral Reform

Last night I attended a seminar on electoral reform hosted by the Toronto chapter of Fair Vote Canada. There was a good turn out, and many in the audience didn’t necessarily know a whole lot about our voting system, the alternatives, or what it means to have proportional representation. Many also left feeling better informed, and prepared to be advocates for electoral reform in Canada (likely starting in BC or Ontario).

There were four presentations. Gregory Laxton began by explaining the need for electoral reform in Canada, which he described as “one of the only meta-issues in political science,” meaning it’s one of the only political issues that effects how all other issues are debated and decided. Even though we don’t have a two-party system, Laxton explained, we do have a “two-party dynamic,” where there usually are only two parties who have a chance to form government or win any single riding (Wayne Smith later pointed out that, in many ridings, there’s actually a one-party dynamic). This motivates the two most popular parties to present themselves as binary opposites (even though they almost never are), which in turn leads to a binary-decision making process in parliament, and wrongly convinces many voters that there are only two sides to every issue. Laxton emphasized that our voting system was designed in 1265, before political parties or universal education. We now have a much more sophisticated electorate that can handle more sophisticated options. He concluded by explaining that a “winner takes all” system is a zero-sum game, meaning there’s no culture of consensus or compromise. A proportional model is a consensus model, which means everyone (parties, politicians, media, voters) starts thinking differently about their options. We need to get over the cultural belief that “compromise is week.”

Wayne Smith then spoke about Fair Vote Canada’s founding principals, and outlined various discrepancies between how people voted and who ended up in parliament. He talked about Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, and said that over the next 18 months we’ll need a lot of activists to spread the word about why our voting system needs to be changed.

The third speaker was June Macdonald, with a presentation called “Size Matters to Women.” She said there are two kinds of representation: Substantive Representation of policy issues and concerns, and Descriptive/Mirror Representation that reflects the diversity of the electorate. Canada ranks 44th in the world for representation of women in government, and our system is largely to blame. (There are obviously cultural issues at play as well, but Macdonald pointed out that it’s actually easier–as a first step–to change our electoral system than to change all of the cultural attitudes around women.) She argued that the current candidate selection process favours “comfortable, Homo Politicus” candidates, and that party list systems create more diverse candidates.

Finally, Bruce Budd got in to the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of three different proportional voting systems: the party list system, mixed member proportional (MMP), and single transferable vote (STV). His presentation was extremely technical, and, while interesting, would not be well-replicated here. The important thing to emphasize is that perhaps even more important than which voting system we choose are the details of how it is implemented. Each system has many small nuances that can make a big difference.

That’s why it’s so important for this decision to be made by a citizens’ assembly, because the strength of our voting system goes straight to the health of our democracy. And because, as Wayne Smith pointed out, “our voting system belongs to us, not politicians or political parties.”

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