Canada: Will PEI be the first province with PR?

Prince Edward Island will soon hold its referendum on adopting a form of mixed-member proportional representation for its provincial legislative assembly. (I previously wrote about this referendum and the provincial premier’s concerns about the clarity of the result if there is a low turnout and his actions to make a low turnout more likely.) If PEI were the first North American jurisdiction above the municipal level to take this significant reformist step towards better governance, it would be somewhat ironic, because, as Ron Ryder notes on November 5 in the Guardian of Charlottetown, PEI does not exactly have a history of reformist politics. Colorful, but not reformist.

Political historian Wayne MacKinnon notes that “ridings [districts] as they existed up until 1996 were well over 150 years old. Politicians were loath to make changes to the electoral system.”

Before this redistricting, there were hudge disparities in population between ridings.

Small ridings, fierce party loyalties and widespread poverty helped create a situation in which many people were prey to offerings of liquor, money or jobs from people seeking their vote.

Even more remarkable, the districts each elected two members, one designated a councilor and the other an assemblyman. Before 1966, councilors were defined as representing property owners, whether or not they resided in the district:

“The property vote gradually got very liberally interpreted so that you could exercise the vote where you had property. If you lived in Charlottetown and had a cottage in Stanhope, you had four votes,” MacKinnon said..

“If a farm crossed district boundaries (you could vote in both.) If your wife owned property you could vote there. Somebody even tried to vote based on ownership of a plot of land in Floral Hills Memorial Garden.”

The property vote may have reached its apex in the case of Will Jordan, a Murray Harbour resident who held property across the Island. Jordan found himself eligible to vote in virtually every district.

And then there was the 1966 election and a rather naked example of pork-barrel politics:

The most colourful recent election may have been the contest of 1966 where Liberal Alex Campbell faced Conservative Premier Walter Shaw. The voting in First Kings was deferred because of the death of candidate William Acorn, and the riding gained incredible importance when the results elsewhere ended in a 15-15 tie.

Both parties pulled out all the stops. Shaw named the Conservative candidate, Keith MacKenzie, as minister of highways and proceeded to pave 30 miles of road in the district.

Campbell also had to deal with requests for favours, including one woman who promised that her son would vote Liberal if only Campbell would pay to fly him home from Alberta.

“She also asked that since her son would be home could Campbell find him a job,” MacKinnon said.

The Liberals won both seats in the riding, resulting in a change in government. How ungrateful of the First Kings voters. They took their pavement and voted for the opposition.

In more recent times, politics has been a bit less colorful, but some elections have produced ridiculously lopsided results. In 1989 the Liberals won all but two seats in the assembly and then in 1993, all but one. The Conservatives returned the favor in 2000, winning all but one. But even these outcomes were not as bad as the one back in 1935 when the Liberals won all 3o seats.

While these elections were the extreme cases, the small legislature and plurality electoral rules have together helped ensure that many results have been far more lopsided in seats than in votes.

Referring to the history of lopsided results, the province’s acting elections commissioner, Lowell Crocken, said:

Life went on. Of course, at the time there wasn’t really any alternative that people were aware of. This whole question of proportional representation is something that has just come up in the last 20 years or so.

An interesting question, for which I do not have an answer, is why does PR come on the agenda at one point in history and not at others? For instance, while the UK continues to use FPTP, movements for PR have been around at least since the 1920s. Canada also has a long history of PR movements, but only now suddenly many provinces are getting serious about it, with governments and commissions making formal reform proposals.

PE Islanders can put an end to lopsided elections if they vote yes on November 28. Another Guardian story, from October 31, notes that a no organization has just formed, with the very catchy name of the No to the MMP Proposal Coalition. Their objections are the usual:

[MMP] inevitably will lead to a dramatic shift from a majority government culture to a minority government culture. Ongoing minority governments pose serious challenges for our province.

The representation of Island communities through electoral districts has been severely reduced from 27 to 17 seats without any assurances of effective representation on the party lists of 10.

[…]

The diminishment of democratic values such as direct election and neutrality to candidates under MMP is a concern to the coalition. These values appear to have been too readily set aside in the interests of achieving full proportionality through a closed ranked party-based list.

The idea that “the culture of majority government” is under threat makes little sense, especially in the PEI context. First, PEI elections typically have a majority party in the electorate; unlike in most Westminster systems, manufactured majorities are unheard of in PEI. If voters continue to trust a single party with a majority of the vote, the electoral system sure isn’t going to force that party to share power! Second, if voters do not coordinate on one party with a majority of the vote, then why should it be granted the right to rule over the majority who voted otherwise?

The objection on the diminishment of district election as a democratic value is, of course, traded off against the partially competing democratic value of fairness in the partisan distribution of power. But this MMP proposal retains 63% of legislators elected from districts. I will concede that the closed-list feature is an Achilles heal of many MMP systems and proposals, although not an inevitable one (lists could be open), but this proposal still has a very strong district element.

On balance, the MMP proposal seems like a reasonable tradeoff.

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