Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

PEI Disappoints Nirvana Bassist0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Red Earth, Red Hair (Thursday December 1, 2005 at 12:05 am)

Yes, Kurt Cobain’s former colleague would be disappointed. The voters of PEI, or at least 33% of them, voted against a new electoral system incorporating proportional representation in Monday’s plebescite.

This doesn’t likely tell us much about the popularity of PR and electoral reform. It is a small province, and turnout was notably low. There has certainly been a vocal lobby for PR in Canada. Whether it’s a popular one has yet to be determined.

For now, it’s status quo in PEI. The rest of Canada can, I suppose, go back to ignoring its smallest province.

Halfway done is ill-begun0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks, Red Earth, Red Hair (Monday November 28, 2005 at 12:00 am)

Why isn’t there more press on this:


Right now, the only thing I’ve found on the last weekday before the big event is the National Post’s page 2 reference to the support of a former colleague of Kurt Cobain’s.

Is Prince Edward Island not worth the attention? We’re talking about a major change here, potentially. Local experimentation has a history of providing Canada with new ideas (public health care, for instance). Diversity of ideas is one of the strengths of a federal system.

So let’s pay attention for a minute or two.

The voting system currently in place in Canada is a “First-Past-the-Post” system. It has been used for over three hundred years as part of the Westminister system of Parliamentary Government.

The First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system was designed for the purpose of electing local representatives. The convention that the Prime Minister be the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons had not yet been established. Prime Ministers were chosen by the Crown, which was still head of government. As Parliament’s deference to the Crown shrank, and as it asserted tighter control over taxation and funds, it became more important to choose a Prime Minister (or someone recognizable as such) who could persuade Parliament to pass legislation.

There were already parties in Parliament, but they were not entrenched in the system as they are now. Parliamentary positions like House Leader and Whip were far from official, and although the effects were similar in many cases, factions had no electoral rights like those enjoyed today. Prime Ministers were frequently chosen from among the Lords, rather than the Commons.

FPTP was, therefore, a system designed to ensure that each voting district sent the most popular representative to sit in the House of Commons. The most popular candidate would clearly be the one with more votes than anyone else.

But the strengthened role of parties and their firm control of Parliament have changed the system. Parties are more rigid and strictly organized, in contrast to the more loosely ordered factions which they once were. Given the increasingly direct connection between the position of parties in the House of Commons and the selection of government, voters could now indirectly vote for a government by selecting their representatives on the basis of party. If enough voters supported a given party, that party would be certain to control the House of Commons, and their leader would be chosen as Prime Minister.

This change revealed the flexibility of the method of voting for representatives. It could be used either to select one’s choice of a representative or to select one’s preferred party. But as voters tried to use it for the latter purpose, it became evident that FPTP was an inefficient way of voicing their interest.

Since FPTP selects the most popular candidate, the candidate can be elected with a very small proportion of the votes in a district, if there enough other less-popular candidates. In theory, a candidate who receives only 10% of the vote in a district will win if no other candidate receives as many votes. Depending, therefore, on the allocation of districts and votes, it is possible for a majority of representatives to come from a party which is not the most popular across the country. This worst-case result may be rare, but it is still common for a party to achieve a majority which is highly disproportionate to its share of the votes received.

Proportional representation is designed to solve this problem. Rather than voting for a representative, voters vote directly for their preferred parties, and the total number of elected representatives is allocated to the parties based on their share of the vote. Proportional representation (PR) is therefore a system for selecting parties to govern.

This difference is what makes the issue tough. PR doesn’t really solve a problem with FPTP. FPTP was meant to select popular representatives, not to choose governments. The fact that it doesn’t do the latter efficiently is only a problem if the purpose of voting is to choose parties, and that wasn’t what FPTP was meant to achieve. The system can’t be faulted. It’s rather like faulting a bowling ball for being inefficient at digging holes.

There has been a change in what elections are intended to do since the FTPT system was first put into play; and given that, it’s worth taking stock of what we seem to want from modern election systems, and what they provide.

There are good reasons to want representatives. Representatives’ offices do a tremendous amount of work lobbying directly for consituents, mostly to government agencies. Provincial representatives frequently help constituents with welfare applications, and federal representatives are frequently called upon to help constituents deal with difficulties with pensions, passports, and a variety of other concerns.

At the same time, it is clear that, whether or not people support PR as an idea, they don’t like the relative standings of parties in terms of seats to vary greatly from the relative support each party receives at the polls. Moreover, some people are concerned that the votes made for a losing candidate are “wasted” in the sense that they fail to play a role in choosing the government.

FPTP offers a tried-and-true method for electing representatives, but can result in serious discrepancies between support and representation of parties and “wastes” votes.

PR offers a way to have representation of parties closely mirror support (given a lesser number of seats than voters, it’s impossible to mirror it past a certain point), and solves the “wasted vote” problem, but doesn’t provide representatives.

Perhaps this is why P.E.I.’s plebescite offers a system combining the two above:

  • 17 members will be elected by FPTP in defined districts
  • 10 members will be elected by PR in a separate, province-wide ballot
  • The PR method used is called the d’Hondt method

Seems like a sensible mix to start with, but let’s look at how this actually works.

The Commission report offers a vision based on the 1996 election campaign; but there are at least two serious flaws with their approach. First, they presume that the smaller number of FPTP seats will simply be apportioned proportionately between the parties. There is no good reason to believe this. A powerful plurality for a given party can be overcome by local safe ridings and powerful candidates. Most often, these considerations play at least some part in the electoral results.

Following this line of thinking demonstrates the second problem: a dual-vote system. The casting of separate ballots for representatives and for determining the governing party is a new twist. Assuming that the two votes would be identical neglects the effect of particular candidates on the voting pattern, an effect likely to be exaggerated by the ability to separate intentions for representatives from intentions for parties. Voters may no longer fear voting for candidates they prefer at the expense of the party which they prefer. Moreover, strategic voting might begin to take hold, with voters hedging their bets by voting for one party on one ballot and another on the second. How would this affect the outcome?

Let’s look at the effect of this system on the 2003 election results. I prefer thesee results because the returns in the 4 ridings taken by the Liberal party were far enough out-of-line with the overall numbers that we can likely attribute them to the candidates involved, rather than party support. On that basis, it’s more likely that we can reasonably predict the representative, FPTP standings, unless the new seats are strongly gerrymandered.

In that election, 23 Conservatives were elected with 54% of the vote, as compared to 4 Liberals with 42.4% of the vote, and no NDP members with 3% of the vote. How would this work out if we retain the assumption that the separate, PR vote would mirror the representative vote:

  • The Conservatives would take 13 FPTP seats, and the Liberals 4
  • The Liberals would take 7 PR seats, and the Conservatives 3
  • The NDP would take no seats, having failed to achieve at least 5% of the total vote (the number suggested by the Commission)

Improvement? By the measure of determining the government, yes. The Conservatives would end up with 16 of 27 seats, or 60% of the seats, with 54% of the vote. The Liberals would have 40% of the seats, with 42% of the vote.

What happens if we assume a certain amount of contrary voting? Say, 15%, based on 5% response to strong local candidates and 10% strategic vote-hedging, supposing that 4% goes to the third party (to the NDP, shared 3-1 between the Tories and Liberals), 8% to the Liberals from the preferred Tories, and 2% from the Liberals to the Tories (based on local candidates). Therefore, the Tories are down 9%, the Liberals up 7%, and the NDP up 4%. The representative votes would remain the same in this case, but the totals on the PR vote would be as follows:

  • Conservatives: 36,415 votes for 45%
  • Liberals: 39,652 votes for 49%
  • NDP: 4,855 votes for 6%

What’s the result?

  • Representative seats: 13/4/0
  • PR seats: 0/9/1
  • Totals: 13/13/1

Which leaves us with a relatively balanced reflection of the popular vote totals.

Of course, there are a lot of assumptions being made here. We simply don’t know how voters would react to the simultaneous casting of two ballots, one for government and one for representatives, in this way.

More importantly, we really don’t know whether this will result in better government. Remember, we’re solving a problem based on people’s desire to select government. How that will play out will depend. There remain a few concerns:

  • If a party that receives many votes doesn’t govern, are the votes for it “wasted”, regardless of whether it received seats or not? Does this matter?
  • Can parties use the “list” of candidates selected based on the PR vote to keep undesirable but loyal party politicians in office?
  • As the system focuses more sharply on political parties, will representatives be able to remain independent enough to be effective advocates? Will their scope of action become limited as parties gain in strength through a direct appeal for support?

All these questions are important. The frosty wonk’s going to keep them on ice for now, and watch what PEI decides.