BC electoral reform options for referendum

The electoral-reform process in British Columbia has advanced another step with the Attorney General’s release of recommendations. The existence of this process is a product of the deal struck after the 2017 election, which resulted in a minority NDP government, backed by the Green Party.

In either October or November, there will be a province-wide vote consisting of two questions: First, do you want to keep the current FPTP system or replace it with a proportional system? Second, which of three PR options would you prefer if the province were to adopt PR? The second part will permit voters to rank-order their choices.

The choices being put to the voters are (using the names given in the recommendations):

Dual-Member PR (DMP)

Mixed-Member PR (MMP)

Rural-Urban PR

I will take the three in order of most familiar to least.

Readers of this blog are probably generally pretty familiar with what MMP is. The short version is: a system in which some percentage of seats (the proposal is for no more than 40%) are elected as “compensatory” list seats, while the rest continue to be elected as under FPTP, in single-seat districts (ridings) by plurality. The key feature is the compensatory nature of the process, so that any party’s number of seats in the provincial assembly are roughly proportional to its province-wide votes. Any seats the party wins in individual ridings are deducted from this total, and remaining seats a party is entitled to hold under the proportionality principle come from the list. It should be noted that the report says “List PR seats are to be allocated within defined regions, not on a province-wide basis.” This could limit proportionality somewhat, but this proposal is likely to be the most proportional of the three (unless perhaps if the compensation regions are quite small).

Rural-Urban PR is mostly single transferable vote (STV), but in the rural parts of the province MMP would be used. This is an unusual system in that it actually is two electoral systems, depending in where you are in the province: STV in urban and “semi-urban” areas, but MMP elsewhere. Under STV, voters rank candidates, but under MMP it seems that it would remain plurality. The logic is to prevent rural ridings from being significantly larger than they are now–one of the concerns raised with “BC-STV” when it was proposed in the province’s previous electoral reform process. The provision for MMP compensation regions in rural areas is obviously an effort to allow for proportional representation even in the areas where the districts will be single-seat. The proposal suggests district magnitudes of 2-9, with a preference for the higher end of that range.

Both MMP proposals–the full province-wide one or the rural component of Rural-Urban PR–could have either a single vote or two votes. The proposal explicitly leaves this (important!) detail to the legislature after the referendum. If there were one vote, then votes for candidates in single-seat ridings would be aggregated by party for the purposes of carrying out proportional compensation (which, for Rural-Urban, would be taking place only over the regions in which the single-seat districts were located). With a two-vote MMP (as found in Germany and New Zealand), voters can vote directly for a list of their preferred party, and thus vote for a party that is different from that of their preferred local candidate. Yet another feature to be left to the legislature to decide would be whether lists would be closed (as is typical for MMP systems), open, or flexible (also known as semi-open, but misleadingly called in the recommendations “open list with party option”).

DMP is a system not actually used anywhere (but see the earlier P.E.I. proposal), and it is a bit complex. In general, each district would elect two members, although the recommendations allow that the “largest rural districts could remain unchanged as single-member districts.” Each party could nominate two candidates, and they would be ranked by the party. Thus we have a closed-list system. Voters would cast a single party vote. The first seat in each 2-seat district would be won by the first-ranked candidate on the party with the most votes in the district. The second seat would actually be allocated based on province-wide votes. It is thus a two-tier compensatory closed-list PR system. How would the assignment of the compensatory seats to districts–given that there is no separate list or compensation district–be done? The proposal says only, “The process for allocating the second seat in each district is fairly complicated.” (Perhaps it would be something like the provisions in Slovenia or as an option for parties in Denmark.)

DMP ensures that all candidates, even those elected on province-wide votes, would represent a riding. It also ensures that one member in each 2-seat riding is elected based on the riding’s own votes. (Exception: it seems there would be a 5% threshold for any party to win seats under any of the list-based provisions being proposed; if that is correct, then it is conceivable that a party could win a plurality of votes in some riding but not be entitled to a seat.)

A puzzling aspect of DMP is the one on independents. If an independent places first in a district, that candidate is elected. That is straightforward enough. However, it is also the case that if an independent places second, that candidate is elected and “the district is removed from the remainder of the second-seat allocation process.” I don’t understand the logic of that provision.

Each proposal allows for the assembly to be increased from its present 87 members up to a maximum of 95, but does not require that the assembly size be increased.

An observation: Why not do DMP with open lists? Have the voter vote for a candidate, rather than a party. It would be a lesser break with FPTP while still being quite proportional. A potential answer: it could mean the candidate with the most personal votes is not elected (because that candidate is on a party that is overall less popular than another in the district). That could be addressed by making it more like MMP–the leading candidate wins the first seat, but that seat is deducted from the compensation entitlement. Otherwise, the DMP provisions would apply. It is interesting that the DMP proposal is explicitly closed list, whereas the list type in the MMP variants would be left up to the legislature.

Any of these systems would seem like a clear improvement for BC. Rural-Urban is an odd mix, but it could work. MMP is proven. DMP is unusual but not based on wholly unknown principles.

(For further reading, see On Elections or Sightline)

Ontario 2018: Dramatic polling shift and an anomaly watch

With just over a week to go till the provincial assembly election of 7 June, polls in Ontario have shifted quite dramatically.

Here is what it looked like, according to the CBC Poll Tracker, on 18 May:

The Progressive Conservatives (PC) were well ahead in votes, and strongly favored to win a manufactured majority of seats with 41% of the vote. It’s good to be a 40-percent party under FPTP, especially when you are in a highly non-Duvergerian party system with two other large parties splitting most of the remaining three fifths of the vote. The New Democrats (NDP) were far behind, at not quite 30%, and the incumbent Liberals not even polling a quarter of the votes.

Ten days later, here is how things have shifted:

Well, it is a little more “Duvergerian” in that it looks like a close race between two parties, the PCs and the NDP. But not anything like your supposed lawlike “two-party system”, with a third party at over 20% and the fourth just below 5%.

As to what has has led to this shift, and the possible echoes of the 1990 election (which resulted in the only NDP government in the province’s history, to date), see Eric Grenier’s explanation at CBC.

This being a FPTP system, even with a polling lead as of now that is almost two percentage points, it is not as simple as the party with the most votes being assured of governing (whether with a majority, minority, or as head of a coalition). Note how in today’s projection the NDP is favored to win fewer seats than the PCs and the latter party is still quite likely to win a majority of seats.

Thus I hereby declare Ontario 2018 to be on anomaly watch.

 

BC deal between NDP and Greens

In the wake of British Columbia’s provincial assembly election, which did not result in a single-party majority, a deal has been stuck that would see the government change. The NDP (41 seats) and the Greens (3) would topple the incumbent Liberals (43).

It is a “confidence and supply” arrangement. That is, the NDP and Greens are not forming a coalition cabinet; rather, the Greens are promising support to the NDP to form and maintain a minority government. The deal is intended to last for four years.

Details remain scant at this point, but regarding Greens’ priorities, the Globe and Mail (second link above) reports that the party

had set out three “deal breakers” that include official party status, campaign finance reform and proportional representation, although other issues, including the party’s opposition to several Liberal resource priorities, also would have factored into such talks.

BC 2017: Non-Duvergerian watch

British Columbia votes for its provincial assembly on 9 May. Eric Grenier’s vote and seat projections at CBC suggest it could be a “non-Duvergerian” outcome, especially in the votes. The NDP looks likely to win a majority of seats, manufactured by the electoral system, as its votes are likeliest to stay below 45%. The Liberals are running well behind, but are also likely to be over-represented due to their more efficient votes distribution: Grenier’s average projection for the party would put them on just under 35% of votes but 39% of seats.

The non-Duvergerian aspect of the election is the Greens: average projection of 20% of the votes, which is on the high side for a third party under FPTP. The mechanical effect will crush them, however: average seats only 2 of 87. That, of course, is “typical” FPTP.

Where things get interesting is if the Greens rise even just a few percentage points. The “high” projection takes their votes up only to around 23% but their seats to 12 or more (around 14%)! Clearly, they are running second in many districts–particularly on Vancouver Island.

The reason this pattern is non-Duvergerian is that the so-called Duverger’s law says voters tend not to want to waste their votes on a third party. They should “coordinate” with the more-preferred of the two big parties. Further, this defection should be more likely after the third party has suffered from the mechanical effect of FPTP in past elections, as the Greens in BC have. Instead, their support is evidently growing.

But there is not much incentive to choose between the major parties when you have three-party competition throughout much of the province, and the third party could win a significant number of seats even if it stays well below 50% in the districts where it is most viable.

The BC NDP platform promises: “We’ll hold a referendum – and campaign for the “yes” side – on replacing our outdated voting system with a proportional one.”

Will they follow through if FPTP delivers them a majority?

Update: The tracker of where the party leaders are campaigning is interesting. Of course, there is much emphasis on swing districts, particularly for the NDP. However, this quotation from Richard Johnston (UBC political scientist) is spot on:
“You do have to campaign everywhere; you have to validate the existence of your candidates.” In Chapter 10 of Votes from Seats (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press), Rein Taagepera and I refer to this phenomenon as the “embeddedness” of districts in nationwide (here, provincewide) politics. We do not consider non-Duvergerian districts to be quite the puzzle that others do, because we expect voters to be more oriented towards the aggregate outcome than towards their own district, and parties to care about “showing the flag” even in districts they may not be very likely to win.

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.