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.

The Greens, electoral reform, and the Canadian leaders’ debate

Last week, Canadian party leaders participated in a debate. It is currently the only one scheduled to include the Greens leader, Elizabeth May (the party’s only MP).

The debate included an entire segment devoted to, as moderator Paul Wells put it, “Canada’s democracy — how it works, why it doesn’t always work as well as we hoped.” (From my south of the border perspective, I can only admire a debate that actually asks such a question, rather than implicitly assuming that the debate and election themselves are proof of how great democracy is working, but enough of that digression for now.)

The first question within this segment of the debate went to May, and the exchange, which you can read in the transcript, is very interesting.

Paul Wells: Our first question on this to Elizabeth May. Ms. May, you’ve called the government we have now an elected dictatorship and you’ve called for electoral reform, but this election will be won and lost under the current electoral system. Do you worry that Green candidates will take support away from other parties that could defeat this government? Might the Green Party help reelect this government?

Elizabeth May: When I refer to the government as an elected dictatorship, it’s not personal in any way to the Prime Minister nor to his party…

The only job description for a member of parliament is that found in the Constitution, which is to represent your constituencies.

So we need to actually revisit parliamentary democracy, understand that this election isn’t about electing a prime minister — we don’t do that in this country; we elect members of parliament. And their job is to find the government that will hold the confidence of the House, so we can work for Canadians…

As far as Greens being concerned about this, not at all. We have had success and we’ve now had election – my election in Saanich–Gulf Islands, but across provinces — in British Columbia Andrew Weaver, in New Brunswick David Coon, in Prince Edward Island Peter Bevan-Baker. All of us got elected by driving voter turnout.

So instead of fixating on this splitting the vote non-problem, vote-splitting, we need to focus on the real problem, which is 40 percent of Canadians in the last number of elections haven’t voted. And vote abandoning, in my view, is a much bigger problem than vote-splitting…

Paul Wells: You’ve said we don’t elect a prime minister, and that’s true, but we saw quite a mess of a coalition crisis in 2008. Are we headed towards that sort of arbitrage among parties after the next election if there’s no majority?

Elizabeth May: I can’t tell you how committed Green MPs as a caucus will be to working with other parties, working across party lines to ensure that we go from a precarious, perhaps two-year minority parliament to a stable, productive, effective parliament, because you look at really great parliaments in this country, and I refer viewers back to Lester B. Pearson where the small group of NDPers under David Lewis and Diefenbaker in the Conservatives and Lester B. Pearson delivered our social safety net.

I find the exchange interesting for the effort to drive the discussion way from vote-splitting and choosing a prime minister–two common perceptions of elections in parliamentary systems using first-past-the-post electoral systems. These are perceptions that are, of course, harmful to small parties. So May attempts to emphasize local viability of Greens, and the advantages of cross-party cooperation in a non-majority parliament.

Then things returned pretty quickly to business as more-or-less usual, with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau engaging NDP leader Thomas Mulcair in a debate over the Clarity Act (regarding another potential Quebec secession referendum).

A bit later, Wells raises the issue of electoral reform directly, referencing the proposal of the Liberal Party (see p. 8 of the linked PDF). I will just quote a few snippets here. PM Stephen Harper (Conservative):

Well, I think it’s a very fundamental change to the way our political system would work in this country. We have a Westminster system. Voters are able to elect governments. They don’t elect coalitions that make up the government later. And you know, Canadians – Paul, this has come up before. It was subject of a referendum and plebiscite in Ontario and Prince Edward Island and British Columbia. I have not found Canadians who want to make this fundamental change. In fact, whenever Canadians are asked, they reject it. We know the rules. Let’s play under the rules that Canadians support.

Mulcair did not use the immediate opportunity to talk up his party’s stated commitment to introducing proportional representation (MMP, specifically). Instead he talked about the current government’s “Unfair Elections Act” (it is, actually, of course, the Fair Elections Act). Later, however, Mulcair did say, “We think that there are three main things we can do with regard to our institutions. The first is to make sure that every vote counts with a proportional representation system.” (The others were “open up parliament” to more public scrutiny and abolish the Senate.)

Unless I missed it, Trudeau himself never mentioned his own party’s commitment to electoral reform. Perhaps he thought it was enough that Wells invoked it and gave Harper a chance to denounce it.

Italy’s new electoral law

Guest post by Filippo Tronconi

 

On Monday, 4 May, 2015 the Chamber of deputies has finally approved Italy’s new electoral system. It has not been a consensual decision, as Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had initially hoped. Although Berlusconi’s Forza Italia had voted in favor of an identical text in the previous passage at the Senate, it subsequently withdrew its support. Part of the Democratic Party led by Renzi himself has opposed the reform too, together with Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and other minor opposition parties.

The new electoral law, similar to the one adopted in 2005 and invalidated by the Constitutional Court in 2013 is a bonus-adjusted proportional representation system. At the same time, many differences have been introduced, the most important of which are 1) the fact that the majority bonus is now allocated to the most voted list, and not to a coalition of parties; 2) a run-off between the two most voted lists is foreseen in the event that no one reaches 40% of valid votes in the first round; 3) a national threshold is set at 3% of valid votes, in place of the multiple thresholds of the old system; 4) preference voting has been re-introduced.

Let’s analyze the functioning of the new system in detail.

Italy’s 630 Deputies are divided into 618 members elected from the national territory, and 12 members elected by Italians living abroad. The latter are elected through proportional representation. Of the 618 national MPs, 340 are allocated to the most voted list, provided that it reaches 40% of the valid votes nationwide. In case no lists reach this threshold, a run-off is held two weeks later between the two most voted lists. Of course, in the unlikely event that a party obtains 340 seats thanks to the proportional distribution, no further bonus is awarded. Therefore, whatever the result, this is a majority-assuring system. Either after the first or the second round, one list gets 340 seats, equal to 54%. A few additional seats are likely to join the majority from the ones elected by Italians living abroad. The remaining seats are allocated proportionally (via Hare quota and largest remainders) to the other parties obtaining at least 3% of the valid votes nationwide; parties below this threshold do not get any parliamentary representation.

While the bonus is allocated in a nationwide arena of competition, intraparty competition is based on 100 districts electing 3 to 9 MPs, depending on the resident population (with particular arrangements for the two Alpine regions of Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, characterized by the presence of Francophone and German linguistic minorities). In each district, lists are made of a head-of-list, whose name is printed beside the symbol of the respective party, and the remaining candidates, whose number range from half to the full number of seats to be allocated in that district. Voters can express one or two preferences for the “open” candidates (i.e. excluding the head-of-list) of their party, writing the corresponding name or names on the ballot. If a party is entitled to only one seat in a district, that is reserved to the head-of list. If more than one seat must be allocated, they go, after the head-of-list, to the candidates obtaining more preference votes. Heads-of-list (and only they) can be candidates in up to ten different districts; if elected in more than one district they will opt for one after the elections. The remaining districts where a head-of-list has been elected will allocate those seats to candidates chosen by preference vote.

In sum, this is a flexible list system, where voters are allowed to choose among candidates only beyond the head-of-list. The most voted list will have 340 seats, with 10 to 100 of them being filled by “closed” candidates and the remaining 240 to 330 by “open” candidates, depending on how extensively the multi-candidacy rule is used. For opposition parties, the balance between “closed” and “open” MPs will mainly depend on vote fragmentation. In general, the smaller the party, the higher the chances to have only heads-of-list elected.

Several rules are oriented to increase a gender-balanced representation: 1) heads-of-list of the same gender cannot exceed 60% within the districts of each region; 2) “open” candidates are alternated by gender; failing to comply with such rules determines the exclusion of the list from the ballot; 3) voters who express two preference votes need to choose one man and one woman; if not, the second preference is invalid.

One final important remark is in order. All the above refers to the Chamber of Deputies only. The electoral system for the Senate is currently the 2005 one as modified by the ruling of the Constitutional Court, which means open-list proportional representation without majority bonus. A comprehensive Constitutional reform is currently under way in Parliament, which would transform the Senate into a sort of federal chamber, indirectly elected by Regional assemblies and without the power to vote the confidence to the executive. For this reason the new electoral rule for the Chamber will be effective only from July 2016, when the Constitutional reform is expected to complete its second reading in Parliament. It is clear that the effects of the electoral reform would be seriously jeopardized in the event that the current symmetrical bicameralism remains in place.

Overall, the new electoral law is intended to have a strong majoritarian imprinting, similar to the 2005 system for the Chamber of Deputies. The nationwide competition for the bonus makes the Italian territory similar to one big district, and this is expected to lead towards a two-party equilibrium in the long run. On the other hand, the relatively low threshold will leave room for small parties, though preventing them from gaining a pivotal coalitional power, as currently happens. Clearly, nothing prevents parties from agreeing to form ad hoc joint lists before elections and splitting once in parliament, although this will have the cost of not displaying their own symbol on the ballot. Furthermore, the new electoral system cannot be expected to reduce the traditional factionalism of Italian parties, nor the trasformismo of elected representatives. But this is probably something one would better avoid to expect from any electoral system.

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Model of the new ballot:
new ballot italy

Electoral reform and the (un)importance of simplicity

By JD Mussel

Perhaps among the most frivolous arguments one is likely to hear against any electoral reform is that a proposed system is ‘too complex’. Let me illustrate:

The 1953 Dutch State Commission on the electoral system had this (among other things) to say in consideration of a reform along the lines of the Danish system:

After further consideration of the pros and cons, the commission will not conceal that there are also reservations to be expressed against this system. We fear that a large part of the electorate, accustomed as it is in principle to a simple system, as is established by our present electoral law, will not be attracted by it, probably at the expense of the so desired political interest.

Under the ‘Danish system’ as reviewed by the commission, voters can vote either for a candidate on a party list or for the list as a whole. Seats are first divided proportionally among parties in multi-seat districts, while an ample number of ‘levelling seats’ are then distributed in a compensatory fashion, resulting in a very proportional result overall.

To be fair, the system used in the Netherlands is, on the face of it, quite a bit simpler: seats are simply distributed to parties in proportion to their national vote in one nationwide district, being allocated first to candidates having received more than a certain threshold (in 1953: half of the quota) and then according to the party-list ordering.

However, on a closer look, the Dutch system also includes nomination-districts, within which parties can, but do not have to, propose different lists (a practice which was still relatively common, although limited, in 1953, but which has all but disappeared by 2006). This does not affect the allocation of seats to parties, but can rather complicate the allocation to candidates.

But does any of that really matter? I somewhat doubt that there are too many voters in the Netherlands, or in Denmark, for that matter*, know the intricacies of the D’Hondt formula, the workings of nomination districts or even the number of preference votes candidates need to be elected in their own right.

Does this undermine the electoral process or people’s interest in politics? Of course not. As long as the system is generally responsive and the act of voting is not a complicated or confusing hassle, the complexity of an electoral system shouldn’t pose any problems. Few systems have ever really made voting difficult after voters got used to them, even in countries with illiteracy problems. Australian Senate STV before the introduction of above-the-line ticket voting was one of them, though even then the vast majority of voters still managed to cast a formal ballot despite the increasingly onerous nature of the task. In the case of the Netherlands, adopting the Danish system could actually make voting simpler, considering that the current bed-sheet sized ballot would become smaller (due to the lower district magnitude) with otherwise no changes to it; apart from the candidates, most voters would hardly notice any difference.

When it comes to electoral reform, ‘it’s too complex’ is usually little more than a red herring.

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* Although the commission would seem to imply that Danish voters are better at this than the Dutch…