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.

New Brunswick election 2014

The Canadian province of New Brunswick held a general election on 22 September. Notwithstanding some problems with the vote-tabulation system, and several lead changes during the night, the Liberals won by a good margin: 42.7% of the votes against 34.7% for the Progressive Conservatives (PC). The seats split 27-21, giving the Liberals 55.1% of the seats and an advantage ratio (%seats/%votes) of 1.29. This is not particularly remarkable by the standards of plurality (FPTP) systems, and is nothing compared to some significant anomalies the province has experienced in the past (see previous posts).

The Green Party won a seat. It had 6.6% of the vote province-wide. Its one victory was in the riding (district) of Fredericton South, where it won 31% of the vote, against 26% for the PC, 22% for the Liberal, and 20% for the NDP. Not even a third of the vote–sometimes plurality is good for small parties. But not as good, obviously, as the proportional system (of the MMP type) that was formally proposed but for which the planned referendum was cancelled–by a party that had just won on a plurality reversal. (I said NB elections had been anomalous!)

A “populist” party known as the Peoples Alliance elected no one on its 2.14% of the vote, but it did miss in one riding by a mere 27 votes. The NDP won no seats despite 13% of the vote. I am not sure how closely it missed in key ridings. Of course, it is hardly unheard of for a third party to win no seats under plurality rules despite such a substantial vote total. Nor is it unusual for a fourth party to win a seat despite having half the votes such a third party. It is a disproportional system, especially given the small assembly size, and regional distributions of support are critical. It is hard to argue against the proposition that New Brunswick should dust off that old proposal for a new electoral system.

New Brunswick 2010: Another anomaly

The eastern Canadian province of Canada has a history of anomalous results from its FPTP electoral system. Yet, despite the province’s record (of which I have written before–click “N.B.” above), a referendum planned on an MMP system was canceled three years ago–just after a spurious alternation! (In 2006, the incumbent Conservatives won a plurality of the vote, but the opposition Liberals won a majority of seats.)

In this year’s vote, the Conservatives won the vote by a wide margin, 48.9% to 34.4%. This translated into over three quarters of the seats for the plurality party. Meanwhile, the NDP won over 10% and the Greens 4.5%, but neither of these parties won a seat.

Yes, New Brunswick needs electoral reform. But that’s not news.

The shuffle demons

Britt Dysart, a lawyer who practises in Fredericton and president of the New Brunswick Liberal Association, reflects on the difficulties a PM faces in assembling, shuffling, and holding together, a single-party cabinet. The item begins:

From the day someone dreamed up the concept of an executive council, premiers, prime ministers, presidents and other heads of state [of course, a PM is a head of government] have at some time or another suffered from the shuffle demons.

While there might be a few exceptions to the rule, generally speaking every caucus member from outside of cabinet wants in. Those within cabinet generally want to stay.

That makes shuffling a cabinet, which happened this week [in New Brunswick], one of the most difficult job a premier faces. [continue at original source…]

New Brunswick government will not hold referendum on MMP

The Liberal Party government of New Brunswick, which took power in elections last fall, thanks to the existing FPTP system’s reversal of the popular-vote outcome, has called off the referendum on the electoral system planned for February, 2008. That referendum had been scheduled by the previous Conservative government in response to the recommendation of the independent Commission on Legislative Democracy. The major recommendation of the Commission had been to move the provincial legislative elections to MMP. Instead, the current government calls for a series of relatively timid steps towards political reform, not including any the reform of the very electoral system that produced the current spurious-majority government.

In the run-up to that election, I asked if electoral reform was “stalled” (on account of the major parties’ ignoring the already public reform recommendations in their platforms). After the anomaly of the plurality reversal, I speculated on whether a government that was based on the second-most vote thanks to the system the Commission proposed to abolish through referendum would have the nerve to call off a referendum that had been agreed to by the party that, in fact, obtained the plurality when seeking reelection. Well, now we know. Some nerve!

Anomaly watch: New Brunswick

UPDATED below

Well, so the party that appointed an Independent Commission that recommended MMP, scheduled a referendum for May, 2008, then called yesterday’s election, was reelected. Yes, it was. The voters rewarded it with a plurality of the vote (47.7% to 47%), and a higher share than in 2003.

But hold on just a moment. A funny thing happened on the way to the seat allocation. While the Conservatives won the most votes, the Liberals won the seats, 29-26, and will have sole control over the next provincial government.*

Folks, we have here a reversed plurality. A spurious majority. A wrong winner. And right smack dab in the middle of an electoral reform debate. Well, not much of a debate; as I noted in previous posts on this campaign, the Commission on Legislative Democracy and its recommendations, and the favorable government response to them, and the scheduled referendum were mentioned only in the platform of the third party (no seats, over 5% of the vote).

So, the Conservatives had committed to a referendum that would make future reversed pluralities impossible. The Liberals are in power only because of an electoral system that makes reversed pluralities possible. Will the referendum go ahead?

This was not New Brunswick’s first anomalous outcome. Will it be its last?

Pardon my glee, but I just love real-time experiments for my theories.


* The new district boundaries may have had an effect, as changing demographics meant that “two rural seats were lost and two urban seats were created,” according to the CBC.

How refreshing that districts are not drawn by the incumbents, but by an independent boundaries commission, such that the incumbent government can actually lose districts. I mean, that is almost, well, democratic. Voters get to pick their legislators, rather than vice versa. But of course, they still can only do so within the confines that the line-makers create for them–a reminder of the limits of fair redistricting.

Of course, any electoral system that assigns political power to parties but does so according to regional distributions has an inherent tendency to produce votes-to-seats anomalies. Districting, even the fairest, can’t prevent anomalies in single-seat district systems. Only an electoral system that distributes power among parties based on the parties’ actual voting strength can do that.


Update: Check out the comment thread on the NB election at Idealistic Pragmatist. It is interesting in that the comments encapsulate the various threads of my ongoing work on electoral reform in first-past-the-post systems.

One commentator says that the reversed plurality is no big deal because the Tories gained most of their votes in districts they already held. This could be considered the inherent-conditions argument, in that it defends the system against normative charges of “anomaly” by reference to the way FPTP works: a series of self-contained regionally circumscribed contests. (The logical extension would be that those votes deserved to be wasted, because they simply weren’t needed in the districts where they happened to have been cast. Such an argument, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that the aggregation of these races determines who controls the agenda of the body so elected; in a parliamentary system, that means the majority party–in seats, the aggregated votes being irrrelevant–monopolizes the government itself.)

Another comment suggests that the Liberals would have no interest in continuing with the referendum because–as I alluded to above–they just benefited from the status quo system. This is the outcome-contingency argument: the party in power weighs its position on electoral reform based upon calculations of which electoral system will benefit it. If it is better off under FPTP, it will cancel the referendum to prevent PR from being adopted.

And another notes that it would be quite an act of “chutzpah” for the new government to call off the referendum, inplying they might not be willing to do it. This is the act-contingency argument: the party in power will weigh its position with respect to electoral reform according to its calculation of the political cost of appearing to stand in the way of reform (whether or not it actually wants the reform).


Credit where credit is due: The whole outcome/act contingency argument is my adaptation from occasional F&V propagator Mike. The inherent vs. contingent concept is my adaptation of the late Harry Eckstein’s clasification of explanations of revolution.

New Brunswick voting today

Today’s election for New Brunswick’s provincial legislative assembly is too close to call, and the outcome could depend on about fifteen “volatile” ridings (out of 55).

Please see previous discussion here.

CBC will have on-line coverage of the results (thanks to Late Night for the pointer).

UPDATE: As results come in, it looks like the Liberals have won a majority of seats–perhaps by a few seats. The votes remain a dead heat, and a reversed plurality/spurious majority remains possible.