New Brunswick electoral reform proposal (yes, again)

The New Brunswick Commission on Electoral Reform has issued its report, “A pathway to an inclusive democracy”.

There are many recommendations regarding changes to voting procedures in the proposal, but those that focus directly on the electoral system are as follows (quoting form p. 19):

The government enhance the voting system by moving to Preferential Ballots.
Š Consideration be given to some form of Proportional Representation during the process of considering the redistribution of electoral boundaries.

While preferential ballots could mean STV, from the overall context of the report, it is clear that “Preferential Ballots” is a term limited in application to the alternative vote (instant runoff), in other words keeping single-seat ridings (districts). The weak “consideration” for “some form of” PR follows an indication earlier in the report that exploration of proportionality was “not within the mandate of the commission”, but that the commission would be “remiss” not to address the issue.

New Brunswick once had an electoral commission report in favor of a mixed-member proportional system. The recommendation was never put to a vote–notwithstanding that the decision to shelve the proposal came after yet another anomalous outcome in a provincial election. And that anomaly was not the last, so far, even if the latest election was somewhat “normal” (by FPTP standards).

Given its record, New Brunswick has an “objective” need for electoral reform if any democratic jurisdiction does. I doubt the alternative vote really is the answer to its electoral needs. And, given the recent past in the province and elsewhere in Canada, including at the federal level, it might be getting ahead of the story to expect even such a tepid reform to happen. But there the issue is, again, in a nice independent report.

No, the allies did not “impose” MMP on Germany

An entry on the Whoa! Canada blog claims that the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system Germany uses was an imposition of the allied occupational authorities.

For those who don’t know, at the end of Second World War the victorious Allies governments imposed Mixed Member Proportional Representation on West Germany.

They did this specifically to prevent the rise of another Hitler.

Further on, it makes a specific claim about the then British Prime Minister, in a bold subheading of a section that actually does not even try to elaborate on its claim:

Winston Churchill knew Proportional Representation was a defence against fascism.

This is all very fanciful. The allied occupation authorities did not “impose” MMP on Germany, and the British in particular favored reverting to Germany’s pre-Weimar majoritarian system, as did the Americans. MMP was a product of compromise among the various German parties and the American, British, and French occupation governments.

The (unsourced) claim that Churchill saw PR as a bulwark against fascism is especially creative. At the time, PR was widely (if inaccurately) seen as responsible for the rise of the Nazis. If anything in the German system was adopted to be a bulwark against fascism, it was the 5% threshold–the very most non-proportional feature of the system to this day.

For a good overview of the adoption of MMP in Germany, see Susan E. Scarrow, “Germany: The Mixed-Member System as a Political Compromise,” in Matthew S. Shugart and Martin P. Wattengerg, eds., Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? Oxford University Press, 2001.

Canadian electoral reform: No longer the government’s plan

The Liberal Party government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has abandoned its campaign pledge to reform the electoral system.

This is both a surprise and no surprise at all. On the one hand, it looked like a firm commitment: “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” On the other hand, since when do parties that can win parliamentary majorities on less than half the votes opt for systems that would make it harder for them to do so in the future?

In parliamentary questions the day the commitment was dropped, Trudeau again indicated his support for a “preferential ballot”. While that could mean STV, a form of proportional representation, it has been clear for a while that he means the Alternative Vote when he uses this expression. The third largest party, the center-left NDP, has no incentive to support this option, and prefers Mixed-Member Proportional (see p. 56 of their platform [PDF]). The Conservatives want a referendum on any proposal, presumably because they are confident the status quo would prevail. These conflicting positions led Trudeau to declare there is “no consensus” on how to move forward.

Were the government actually committed to moving forward, of course, it could have forged a consensus. The parliamentary committee that studied the matter produced a report that could provide the basis for crafting some form of proportional proposal, even with a referendum on it, were the government willing to go that way. It is true it did not propose a specific new model–that was not its mandate!

In remarks I made at a workshop at UBC last summer, I said that from the standpoint of my work on where electoral reform processes emerge, Canada was a surprise. The usual preconditions were not present, at least recently, at the federal level: there have been no plurality reversals and no opposition wipeouts. (Manufactured–or “false” majorities and occasional minority governments are not preconditions, according to my research. The former is expected under FPTP and the latter tends to be short-term and only partially disrupts the normal pattern of adversarial inter-party politics that is the hallmark of the Westminster model.)

In that sense, then, my surprise that Canada had an official process that might have led to a proposal for a new system is vindicated. It “should not” have gotten this far, and it won’t go any farther–at least if the Liberals have their way.

On the other hand, once a reform process is underway–and appointing a parliamentary committee to study electoral system options means it was underway if anything does–a government can lose control of it. That was the case in New Zealand, where a Royal Commission recommendation (for, it is worth making clear, a specific system model) eventually was put to a referendum despite the rather obvious reluctance of each major party in turn.

When the Canadian Liberals were forced by political pressure to relinquish their majority on the parliamentary committee on electoral reform, that seemed like a good sign for reform. Suddenly they could not just have the committee either bury the idea or else slant it towards their preferred variant. This looked like a classic “act contingency”–not wanting electoral reform for the gains a new system would offer the party (which would be “outcome contingency”), but wanting the votes that could come from appearing to be generally committed to “better” governance. On the other hand, the removal of the Liberal majority on the committee also made it easier in the end to claim “no consensus” (as I suggested in November might be the case).

So is electoral reform dead in Canada? I will let others who are closer to the situation tell us. However, I would say, not necessarily. The testimony and committee report are there. The issue has been studied now many times at both federal level and in several provinces. It will not just go away. Even this government could yet be forced to reconsider if the public pressure is there, or if the breaking of a promise looks likely to hurt them at the next election. However, the government presumably would not have taken this step had it not been reasonably confident that it could get away with it, politically.

Canadian electoral reform report

I never thought I would see politicians debating the Gallagher index, but since yesterday’s release of the report of the Canadian parliamentary Special Committee on Electoral Reform, that is indeed what is happening. The Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef has taken criticism (justified, in my view) for the way she has mocked the idea of relying on the index to guide reform.

While the governing Liberal Party ran on a platform last year saying the 2015 election would be the country’s last under FPTP, now that the Special Committee has reported, the Liberals appear spooked. The majority of the Committee has said there should be a referendum, and has stated a preference for some model of proportionality (preferably with a Gallagher index near 5%).

While the Committee was not specifically tasked with making a detailed recommendation of a new electoral system, the Minister is seizing on an alleged “lack of consensus” while simultaneously insisting there should not be a referendum. Unfortunately, this is looking exactly like the playbook I cynically suggested on 18 November was the Liberals’ intention.

When you combine cries of “no consensus” with “no referendum”, it might be because (1) you really do not want proportional representation, and (2) you fear the voters do.

The process is not over, by any means. But the government looks like it is running for cover, rather than embracing the report of the Committee that it established to carry out a campaign promise.

Canadian electoral reform process: NDP now says there could be a referendum

Canada’s New Democrats are now willing to support a referendum on electoral-system change, “if it means consensus among parties” on the parliamentary committee, which is to report on Dec. 1.

Previously, the NDP and the Liberals and other advocates of reform have been opposed to a referendum, either because they consider the Liberals’ platform pledge (and that of the NDP and Greens) a sufficient mandate for change, or because they fear a referendum can’t be won . Or both. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have consistently said such a big change must not happen without a referendum. Presumably they think they can defeat it.

The above-linked National Post story refers to this as not “the first time the NDP appeared to have out-maneuvered the Liberals on the electoral reform file.” This remark refers to the NDP having successfully forced the Liberals to make the composition of the committee reflect the parties’ shares of the popular vote instead of their shares of seats. The Liberals have a (manufactured) majority of seats, and the norm for committees is generally proportional representation according to seats.

At the time, I thought the Liberals’ concession to their not having a majority was a clear case of “act-contingency”–not wanting to appear opposed to a potentially popular concept of reform, whatever their sincere preferences on their platform commitment once they (surprisingly) won a majority of seats.

However, in recent weeks, I have thought that the non-majority on the committee was opening up a “perfect” opportunity for the Liberals to declare, “sorry, we tried, but could not get cross-party consensus”, and let the status quo remain. The NDP move may be an effort to head off that outcome and take their chances with a referendum. They might need to get a deal with the Conservatives to make it work.

That may not be quite as far-fetched as it seems. Both parties actually could benefit from a moderate PR system. For the NDP, usually the third-largest party nationally, the appeal of PR is obvious. For the Conservatives, the benefit would be from allowing the party’s disparate wings to appeal separately, either as factions competing within small multi-seat districts* or eventually as separate parties, as they were not so long ago.

The next several weeks may determine whether electoral reform can advance, at least to a referendum, against what remain pretty formidable hurdles.


* I am assuming it would have to be STV or open lists. Closed lists are probably out of the question, even as part of an MMP system. And while the NDP and Greens logically prefer MMP (more highly proportional, even with only province-level compensation), the Conservatives and Liberals would like small-magnitude PR, if keeping the status quo looks uncertain. (And if, for the Liberals, AV is not achievable.)

PEI 2016: Referendum favors MMP

The Canadian province of Prince Edward Island (PEI) held a referendum (“plebiscite”) on electoral reform. The voting, which could be done online or by phone, took place from 27 October to 7 November, Results have now been announced, and the majority preference is mixed-member proportional (MMP).

Interestingly, it was a vote among multiple options, conducted by alternative vote (instant runoff). The initial plurality choice was the status quo, first past the post (FPTP). But this was the first choice of only 31.2%. The runner up in first preferences was MMP, with 29%.

Through elimination of lower-ranking choices and transfer of preferences, MMP came out with a majority on the fourth round of counting, 55% to 45% over FPTP (leaving out exhausted ballots, which were just under 5%).

Other options were “FPTP with leaders” (status quo, except that party leaders who did not win a riding would get a seat if the party cleared 10%), “Preferential Voting” (i.e., alternative vote), and something new called “Dual-Member Proportional“.

Perhaps it is not at all surprising that the transfer patterns reveal a “change as little as possible if we must change” coalition and a “more change” coalition. FPTP took a bigger lead on the count following elimination of FPTP+, by far more timid of the reform proposals. After the elimination of AV, which would be the next most-similar proposal to the status quo, MMP actually got more of these voters (43.9% to 36.7% for FPTP). Given that DMPR got 19.5%, the pro-AV voters had a clear majority for some sort of PR over keeping majoritarianism. On the final count, MMP got 82.6% of the eliminated votes for DMPR. This adds up to quite a clear consensus for a move away from the majoritarian model. (Note that STV was not an option.)

PEI had a referendum on an official proposal for MMP in 2005, which went down to a big defeat. Since that time, the province has continued to have some of the odd results (e.g. 2007) that are inherent to FPTP, especially given such a small assembly. In the most recent provincial election (2015) there was another large manufactured majority, although the Green Party managed to win a seat despite just 11% of the provincewide vote.

The timing of the vote is interesting, given that the federal parliamentary committee studying electoral reform is due to report in just a few weeks.

The PEI referendum result is non-binding.