PEI’s Electoral Reform Saga

A referendum on electoral reform will begin this Saturday, October 29, 2016.  No, not a federal referendum to decide the electoral system for all of Canada, but it may well have a big impact on how things might play out federally.

Prince Edward Island is holding a referendum (actually, it’s a plebiscite, meaning it is non-binding) like no one has ever done before… ever… in the history of mankind.

Much has been said about referenda in the federal conversation on electoral systems.  There is an assumption on all sides that a referendum is not likely to result in changing our current First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system.  If voters are asked to choose between one new system and the status quo, I would agree.  In a previous post, I made a few recommendations for a federal referendum, which I do believe should be held, including:

1. Do not hold it simultaneously with a general election
2. Allow ballot access to any proposal by citizens that gets enough signatures
3. Allow voters to rank their preferred options, including the status quo, and count the results using an instant run-off.

PEI is doing two of those three things.  Bravo.

First some history: PEI used to have an upper and lower house of Parliament.  In 1893, it merged these two houses into a unicameral parliament, where each of the 15 districts elected two members each.  The two positions were distinct from each other, meaning they were held (at the same time) as two separate elections with different sets of candidates.

Between 1893 and 1996, the only change to the district boundaries was the splitting of one district in Charlottetown into two in 1966.

By 1996, demographics had shifted.  The system was overhauled into 27 single member districts with roughly equal populations.  However, that did not solve another issue that the PEI Legislature regularly dealt with.  With a relatively small number of elected representatives, it was common for one party to completely dominate.  In 1935, the Liberal Party had won every single seat in the PEI legislature, the first time this had happened in any Westminster system in the Commonwealth.

In 1993, the Liberals had won every seat except one.  After the move to single member districts, in 2000, the tables were turned as the PC Party won every seat except one (with 58% of the overall vote).  It made Question Period very difficult when the one opposition member got sick with the flu.  As a result, a referendum was eventually called in 2005, which gave Islanders the option of sticking with the current system, or moving to a Mixed Member Proportional system.  They voted for the status quo by 64%-36%, with voter turnout at less than half what it usually was for a general election.

Of note, unlike the later referenda in BC and Ontario, the PEI plebiscite was not held concurrently with a provincial general election.  Although this approach does result in a reduced overall turnout and higher cost, it should ensure that voters who do participate have actually considered the options and made a decision on the electoral reform question before arriving at the polling station, resulting in more meaningful results.

A weakness, however, is that it only asked about one alternative: Mixed Member Proportional (MMP).  Every system has its drawbacks.  One cannot interpret the results to mean that Islanders prefer FPTP to any alternative system, just that they prefer it to the one that was offered.

This time, things will be different.  Five options, including FPTP will appear on the ballot.  Voters will be able to rank them in their preferred order.  An instant runoff will be used to find the ultimate winner if no one option is the first choice of more than 50% of voters.  I have not been able to find another example of a referendum on electoral reform being held this way ever before.  But that is not the only way in which it will be historic.

The plebiscite (remember, it’s non-binding) will predominantly be held over the Internet over 10 days from October 29 to November 7, 2016.  Voters will also be able to vote in-person on November 4 and 5.  Also, 16-year-olds will also be able to vote using the argument that they will be 18 by the next general election.  Two of the five options have never been used before.  They were selected for inclusion by a parliamentary committee of elected MLAs.

Electors can vote online using a PIN that they will receive in the mail.  The online voting aspect will be conducted by a company called Simply Voting, based in Montreal, which has fewer than 10 employees.

Online voting presents a number of issues, many of which I have discussed in another post.  For one, there are no paper ballots to recount so the electoral commission must accept the results as reported by this private company at face value.  This is an issue as, even if the underlying code is audited for bugs, and even if the right version of the code is actually loaded for the execution of the election, no system is 100% secure from external hackers.  Worse still, it may not be possible to know if the system was hacked or not.  Yahoo recently found out that its systems had been compromised two years earlier (and they have more than 10 employees).

Ballot secrecy is compromised in two ways.  Firstly, the private company must know how a person votes as they must be prevented from voting both online and in-person.  Secondly, as online voting can take place in the home, it is highly likely for one enthusiastic family member to insist on viewing another casting their vote.  This is technically illegal with a maximum penalty of $2000 and two years in prison… but… is a wife or a sixteen-year-old really going to report their father to the authorities?  Or vice-versa?

Hacking or DDoS-ing the system is subject to the same penalty… if you get caught… and if you live in a jurisdiction with a reciprocity arrangement with the provincial government of PEI.  Hopefully, it will be enough to deter the CIA, Vladimir Putin, Anonymous, and computer science students the world over.  Although, if they were smart, they would leave this one alone in the hopes that its success may result in online voting in federal general elections, which would be a much more valuable target.

One last aspect of the plebiscite is that no campaigners are required to register with the Electoral Commission (or report their campaign spending).  Elections PEI has been tasked with the public education campaign.  They have created a series of videos and hired staff to tour the province to answer voters’ questions.  I consider this to be a flaw.  Firstly, as Elections PEI must remain non-partisan, they are hindered from fully expressing the drawbacks and advantages of the five different options.  To my knowledge, no debate will take place where these will be discussed.  It also technically allows unlimited spending by any interested party, with no oversight.  The NDP and Green Party have a lot riding on the outcome and have publicly endorsed two of the five options to be ranked as first and second.  Any individual, corporation, or union is allowed to spend as much as they would like on ads, staff, and phonebanking.

My preference would have been for the options to be proposed by campaign teams who gain ballot access through a signature drive.  That way, they would have public proponents who can debate freely, develop their own campaign materials, mobilize volunteers to convince potential voters, organize get-out-the-vote efforts, scrutineer the count (I would not provide an online option), and report their total expenditures and donations within a set maximum.

Nevertheless, and no matter what the outcome, history will be made in PEI over the next couple weeks.  Check out

Assessment of the Town Halls

The 2015 Liberal election platform promised that Canada would no longer use the First Past the Post (also known as Single Member Plurality) system for future elections. It was a position supported by the NDP and Green parties although exactly what would replace the current system was never specified.

Before that alternative is proposed Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef announced that a consultation process would be undertaken to gauge the public’s input. The three main pillars of that consultation process include:

  • Town Halls to be held by MPs with their constituents. MPs are asked to submit a report on the feedback received at these meetings.
  • A social media campaign, particularly using Twitter.
  • Speakers and written submissions to the 12-member Parliamentary Special Committee on Electoral Reform.

After attending three town halls in the Greater Toronto Area, I want to share my feedback on that process.

1. Not all MPs are holding town halls

I recently moved from one riding to another. Neither my current nor my former riding is holding a town hall. I’m not sure if they are planning on submitting a report at all. At one of the three that I did attend, the MP asked attendees to raise their hands if they were from outside the riding boundaries (about half of us). One person yelled that those outside the riding should not get a chance to speak. It made me uncomfortable although I did line up and was the last attendee to speak.

2. The Town Halls had minimal advertising

I found out about the town halls from the Democratic Institutions Canada website. In one instance, upon arriving at the location posted on the website, I was informed that the particular town hall taking place that day would be on carbon pricing and national defense.  Electoral reform would not be discussed at all. @CdnDemocracy apologized to me for the mistake over Twitter.

I understand that MPs did also notify their email lists about the event, an approach bound to skew the attendance in favour of their supporters.

I did not encounter any advertisements in community newspapers, at community centres, distributed to schools, or delivered to households.

3. Attendees were not from marginalized groups

Minister Monsef suggested during Question Period that the town halls would allow the government to hear from groups that do not typically vote. The GTA is a very diverse community. Two of the three town halls I attended had roughly 100 attendees and were dominated by retirees or working professionals of English descent, who certainly had insightful comments.

The third town hall I attended, with roughly thirty attendees, was much more diverse in the cultural background of the attendees. They seemed to be on a first name basis with the MP, however, and did not give the impression that they were shy about voting. That one even had one high school student attend and speak.

If Minister Monsef’s intention was to tap in to the thoughts of disengaged voters, it seemed the town halls accomplished the opposite. Only the most highly engaged community members spared two hours of their time to attend these events.

4. Time constraints limited discussion

All three town halls were scheduled to be two hours in length. It simply wasn’t enough time to adequately explain what the major alternatives to First Past the Post were, contemplate their implications, and share our thoughts. One town hall did not even attempt to explain the alternatives, assuming that those in attendance already knew about them (which may have been mostly accurate). Only one of the three showed videos that explained the systems. All three eventually asked attendees to submit their comments in writing due to a lack of time to hear from everyone. Even if they were scheduled for a full eight hours, there would probably still be more to be said.

5. Lack of consensus on specifics

In addition to the proposed voting systems, attendees were asked about their opinions on mandatory voting, online voting, and lowering the voting age. In all cases, there were attendees on either side of these issues.  There was, however, a consensus among attendees that the current First Past the Post system could be improved.

6. Likely little impact on the final decision

I did enjoy attending the town halls. They were a wonderful reason to bring together communities and discuss a topic of utmost importance to our democracy. They were a valuable exercise in raising awareness that the topic is being discussed in Parliament and inviting citizens to explore their feelings on it. In terms of actually affecting the final decision, however, it did not seem like the town halls would have much of an effect. Ultimately, 12 members of the Special Committee will be able to propose and vote on a final proposal. They are hearing from experts testifying in person in Ottawa and consulting with their party leaders on how any changes would affect their own party. They may or may not read 338 MP reports, which may or may not accurately reflect the statements of the attendees.

If you actually want to make sure your voice is heard, contact the Committee members directly before October 7. Click here for more details.

Cookie Cutting and The Basis of Legitimacy

There is one cookie on the table.  Two siblings, hungry for chocolate chips, are eyeing it, wondering how they will split the treat.  There are many approaches they can take.  The stronger sibling can physically hold the other back while he eats it all himself.  The richer sibling can pay off the other so he can eat it all himself.  The older sibling can claim he has a right to the cookie and eat it all himself.

It’s not a perfect analogy but if the cookie represents political authority, the situations above correspond to a military dictatorship, socialism/plutocracy, and monarchy, respectively.

Eventually, however, the disadvantaged sibling may collect enough strength and confidence to demand that it be shared more “fairly”.  He can appeal to a parent to settle the dispute, who will probably take the cookie away, arguing that it will spoil their dinner.  He can start a physical fight, which will probably leave them both bruised and crying (leaving the parent to come in and take the cookie away anyway).  Or they can agree between themselves that the cookie should be split into two pieces.

Progress!  But the problem is not solved yet.  Cookies are not easy to break into two perfectly equal halves.  There is bound to be a larger piece and a smaller piece.  In this scenario, the best strategic approach is to have one sibling cut the cookie, while the other gets to choose which piece they will take.  The one doing the cutting has an incentive to try to make the two pieces as equal as possible.

So why am I talking about cookies on a blog about electoral reform?  Today’s topic is on the basis of legitimacy.  All governments claim to be legitimate but they can do so on very different bases.  A common approach has been for a small group, a leader and his warriors, to assert their physical dominance over the rest of the population.  But that basis is weak in that their legitimacy is lost as soon as another leader is able to subvert them.  For that reason, it is common to transition coercive dominance into hereditary legitimacy under the principle of the divine right of kings.  The population may choose to accept this insofar as it avoids civil war and bloodshed (which it sometimes doesn’t).  However, one can argue that the basis of legitimacy even for a hereditary monarch remains the fact that one of his ancestors asserted physical dominance over the population at some point in the past.  Logically, it is not inconceivable, therefore, for his kingdom to be conquered and an equally-(il)legitmate hereditary line be set up.

In modern times, after much blood has been spilled over centuries of revolutions and civil wars, it is an accepted principle that a government should have the consent of those it rules.  Monarchies, where they have retained their position, have curbed their powers with constitutions.  Even dictators need to pretend the people want them.  In 1995, Iraqis took part in a “presidential election” where they got to answer yes or no to the question “Do you approve of President Saddam Hussein being the President of the Republic?”  Of the 8.4 million ballots, 99.96% answered yes.  In Syria, when President Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar was not crowned as a hereditary monarch.  Instead, he won a presidential election with 99.7% of the vote.  Spoiled ballots came in second, followed by “Against”.

For the system of splitting the (political authority) cookie to be considered fair, both siblings need to get a piece.  For the stronger sibling to break off a crumb and hand it over saying “Look, you get to take part in elections.” doesn’t cut it, though.  All elections are not created equal.

In Canada, we run much more legitimate elections thanks to the secret ballot, an independent electoral commission, and a free press.  But we still get results where someone with less than 40% support gets 100% of the decision-making power (false majorities).  The cookie can be cut more fairly than it currently is.

Direct democracy, where every citizen votes on every law, would take up too much of people’s time.  For that reason, we delegate this duty to representatives.  When it comes to the rules about the representatives themselves, however, in order to have a strong basis in legitimacy, founded on consent by the people instead of a conflict of interest, the optimal approach is to allow the people themselves to decide how those representatives will be chosen, through a referendum.  If you leave it up to the representatives to set those rules, they will hand themselves the larger piece of the cookie because they can.

Those that say “Referendums are a pretty good way of not getting any electoral reform.” are the ones who are not willing to offer up enough concessions on their own power to make the proposal worth your while.  The truth is, not having referendums are a pretty good way of concentrating more power in the hands of those who currently hold it.  Without referendums, you can forget about term limits, elected senators, MPs that challenge party policies they disagree with, and voter recall.

The Lower Canada and Upper Canada rebellions in 1837 brought a fairer system of government to our land, shattering the grip of the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique with the concept of “responsible (read: elected) government”.  Today, you just need to email and phone your MP (it will take more than once) and demand that you get a vote on the new system they will use to justify their legitimacy.  Just by asking for a referendum, you will get a better outcome and your progeny will thank you.

Empowering the Local Representative

Checks and balances are important in any political system that wants to maintain freedom for its citizens.  They are the reason we separate the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

In Canada, however, what checks and balances are in place to stop a Prime Minister who leads a majority in the House of Commons?  Currently, very few.  In our current political landscape, the Senate is appointed and therefore de facto impotent.  The Governor General is appointed and can be replaced at the whim of the Prime Minister.  The PM appoints Cabinet without a confirmation process and can quarterback the passage of virtually any law without having to face the electorate for four years.

There is, however, one check on a majority government Prime Minister’s power that can be strengthened.  The PM has to keep the loyalty of his caucus.  The MPs of his party make up the majority in the House of Commons that is required to pass laws and, ultimately, stay in power.  Theoretically, if enough of them “rebelled”, the Prime Minister’s agenda can reach a standstill.

Being a Member of Parliament isn’t what it used to be.  In the age of cell phone cameras and social media, every second of your life, every error in judgment, every poorly-composed statement is fair game for national headlines and abuse by online trolls.  This scenario suits party leaders just fine.  A party’s apparatus does its own digging and demands that prospective candidates confess their darkest secrets as part of the vetting process of a nomination race.  Be sure that these vulnerabilities remain ready to be used against an MP that refuses to go with the flow.  It is telling that the caucus member tasked with quelling internal dissent is literally called the “Whip”.

Obedient backbenchers who are willing to set aside their moral convictions and promote the government’s agenda to their constituents (instead of bringing their constituents’ demands to the government) are a dream come true for a Prime Minister who would like to govern unfettered.  The carrot they can offer is central resources during election time so they can keep their comfortable position and $170,000 salary.  The ultimate stick that can be used against an MP is expelling them from the party, leaving them to run as an independent in the next election or alienate their base by joining a rival party.  Few MPs faced with this punishment get re-elected.

However, if democracy is about empowering the people, and MPs are the direct representatives of the people, wouldn’t a bottom-up decision-making approach end up treating citizens better?  I think it is useful to dilute the power of the party leader in favour of local MPs, which can be done with two changes to our current system.

The first is the adoption of an optional preferential (aka ranked) ballot, which ensures that the winner in a riding is the person that the majority feels the most comfortable with.  (Actually, it does not guarantee a Condorcet winner but does a reasonably good job of it.)  Such a setup allows multiple candidates from the same party to run in the same riding without sabotaging the outcome.  It broadens the filter of a nomination race to the entire electorate instead of only party members.  Although the ranked ballot has been criticized by the Conservatives and NDP as being Justin Trudeau’s preference, the fact that both those parties use it to choose their own party leader is a good indication that they agree it is more fair than First Past the Post.

The second change is to remove the party affiliation of a candidate from the ballot paper.  The voter should bear some responsibility for learning about the candidates, including their party affiliation, on their own.  After all, nothing prevents the winner from changing parties the day after the election.  This is the way ballots appeared in Canada prior to 1970.

These two changes result in an empowered local representative who is more than just a proxy for a party leader but is elected, to a greater degree than is currently the case, on his or her own merits.

Together with a proportionally elected Senate to balance false majorities, these changes can ensure that even Prime Ministers with a majority government will be more accountable and issue better laws for our country.

A few updates

The Liberals have given up their majority on the committee that will issue recommendations for electoral reform.  For some strange reason, the Conservatives seem to be mad about this.  It is certainly a welcome step although I believe a referendum is still required.  The Conservatives need to stop defending First Past the Post, participate in this new committee, and contribute to improving the status quo.  Let’s remember that the current system technically allows the Liberals to change the rules on their own, if they wanted to, after receiving only 40% of the total vote.  The Conservatives can’t claim it is the apex of electoral systems.  Full story at

Also, I have added four new points to the Manougian Model for Electoral Reform.  Upcoming posts will expand on them:

  1. Remove the party affiliation of candidates from the ballot paper.
  2. Use Robson Rotation to alternate the printed order of the candidates on the ballot paper.
  3. Remove the senatorial floor rule and the one riding per territory convention when assigning the number of ridings per province/territory. (Constitutional amendments required).
  4. Allow voter recall of an MP.
    • Upon submission of a petition of electors of a riding, collected within 90 days, numbering greater than the (first-choice) votes received by a sitting Member of Parliament in their most recent election, a by-election should be called where the incumbent may attempt re-election.

Internet Voting: The Democratic Apocalypse

The single biggest threat to western, democratic society is the concept of voting in elections over the internet.  No voting system is perfect, there will always be vulnerabilities, but no other system can fail as catastrophically or is as likely to do so as internet voting.

Here’s a Ted Talk about why it’s such a terrible idea:

I hope you do watch it.  It is a good summary of a course offered at the University of Michigan by Professor J. Alex Halderman called Securing Digital Democracy.  The course is available online through Coursera at  (It was the first Coursera course I ever took and I highly recommend it.)

The main issue with internet voting is the loss of verifiability.  How do you know who won an election?  You probably find out by reading the results in the newspaper or watching the results on television.  But how do they find out?  The official results come from the electoral commission (federally, this is Elections Canada).  They can post unofficial and official results for journalists and the public.  But how do you know that Elections Canada is telling the truth?

Well, in the Republic of Azerbaijan, where President Ilham Aliyev took over from his father in 2003 and a two-term limit was removed in 2009, the electoral commission was embarrassed in 2013 when their mobile app published the election results… the day before the election, claiming that the incumbent President Aliyev had won with 72% of the vote.  The electoral commission apologized for the misunderstanding and published fresh results the next day, where he was given 84.5% of the vote.

So, in Canada, why do we trust the results published by Elections Canada?  Is it impossible for an elections agent who does not agree with the results to report different numbers?  The answer is that, currently, it is practically impossible.  Every election, scrutineers representing the different candidates are allowed to monitor the election from start to finish.  They arrive in the morning to inspect that the ballot box starts out empty and can sit there all day, counting off how many people arrive to vote (and that they only arrive to vote once) and that no one literally begins to “stuff the ballot box”.  They make sure intimidating men are not accompanying voters behind the privacy screen as the ballots are marked.  When the polls close, without ever touching a ballot, they can look over the poll clerks’ shoulders as the paper ballots are counted.  They make sure the ballots are counted correctly, that the total number of votes corresponds to the number of ballots cast and the number of voters who came in.  They get to sign the official tally of the results for their poll to ensure it isn’t exchanged for another one.  They also report their poll results to their campaign headquarters, where they are later compared against the official poll results as reported by the electoral commission.  If there is a discrepancy, lawyers get involved.

Scrutineers safeguard our elections.  But with internet voting, where votes are cast in people’s homes, how do you verify how many people have voted?  How do you verify that they were not coerced or bribed into voting a certain way as another person watched them throughout the process (or just took their PIN number to do it themself).  Without paper ballots to recount, how do you verify the results if there is a challenge?  How do you stop hackers (including state-sponsored cyberterrorists) from gaining access to the server and changing the results or the software?

Whether an election is in-person or online, it is illegal to tamper with the results.  The extent of damage that can be caused in the two scenarios, however, is very different.  Polling stations are not invincible.  You can throw a lit match into a ballot box and wreak havoc for that single poll.  To do so, however, you need to be physically present, which means
1) you can be apprehended relatively easily.
2) one person can get to 1 (maybe 2?) of the over 100 polls in a single riding (out of 338 ridings country-wide) before they are stopped.
3) what you did is very clear to everyone and a revote can be held.

Compare that to a cyberterrorist from North Korea compromising the main server that stores which names every Canadian clicked on from home:
1) he doesn’t even need to be in the country, a safe distance from Canadian law enforcement.
2) one person can potentially impact the total result tally in every riding in the country.
3) it’s possible that no one would ever even know it happened.  You have no paper ballots to verify the results.

Hacking an election server is not impossible.  It actually happened in 2012, in Washington, DC, of all places:

Hear directly from Professor Halderman here:

It is because of these issues that, in 2014, Diane Benson, spokeswoman for Elections Canada, was quoted in the National Post as saying “Security is part of the reason we are not moving forward and not presenting a pilot to parliament.  The concern, as always, is to have a voting system that has secrecy of vote and is verifiable and has integrity and at this point we are not prepared.”  (

So why would anyone consider allowing internet voting?  Its proponents say that it will increase voter turnout.  Unfortunately, those claims do not pan out in practice.  In the municipalities of Markham and Peterborough, in Ontario, where internet voting is used, it has become increasingly popular with voters.  That is, more voters tend to vote in the advanced poll in order to take advantage of the convenience of voting from home.  However, overall turnout for their elections has remained relatively stagnant.  In Halifax, where internet voting was introduced in 2008, voter turnout dropped to 38% from 48% in 2004.  Their electoral commission was “sufficiently pleased with the trials that they plan to eliminate a substantial number of polling stations in the 2012 municipal election.”  I hope I’m not the only person to be disgusted by that.

Internet voting introduces an unnecessary catastrophic risk to our elections with no tangible benefit.  In 2013, at a fundraiser billed as “Get to know the real Justin Trudeau”, when asked which country he most admired, he answered “There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China.  Because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say we need to go greenest fastest, we need to start, y’know, investing in solar.  There is a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about of having a dictatorship that he can do everything he wanted, that I find quite interesting.”

He later corrected the record stating that our freedoms would never be worth trading for that flexibility.  If our current Prime Minister truly wants to protect our freedoms, he should bury plans for internet voting and avert the Democratic Apocalypse.

The Town Halls Are Coming

This month, the federal Liberal government announced the process they intend to use to arrive at new rules for how we run elections in Canada. It was a rocky start.

An Electoral Reform Committee will be established with 10 voting members: 6 Liberal, 3 Conservative, and 1 NDP. The Bloc Quebecois and Green Parties, who do have elected MPs sitting in Parliament will get one non-voting member each and will be able to participate in the discussion but have no say in approving the final recommendations, which are due in six months. The 18 other parties registered with Elections Canada are excluded completely.

All the opposition parties say that the setup is unfair.  The Conservatives are demanding a referendum while the NDP and Green parties want the Liberals to give up their majority on the committee.

Maryam Monsef, Minister of Democratic Institutions, has repeatedly dismissed the idea of holding a referendum. Her answer to a question in Parliament as to why that is the case was “Allow me to take this opportunity to remind all members of the House that the final decision on what reforms we bring forward will be the decision of all 338 members of the House, and to believe otherwise is undemocratic.” There’s a slight problem with that. The Liberal party holds a majority in the House and a majority on the Committee. They established that majority with less than 40% of the total vote in October 2015, in a First Past the Post system that they have admitted is unfair. It is indefensible to suggest that they have a legitimate mandate to unilaterally change the way elections are conducted, which the rules that they have set up provide them. It was not very long ago that they railed against the Conservative Party for tightening ID requirements at the election poll without consulting Canadians (that Conservative majority had a slightly higher percentage of the popular vote).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggests that they will consult Canadians. My personal feeling, however, is that their recommendations have already been determined. They will bring in a ranked ballot with mandatory voting and the option for online voting. They will pretend to listen to the 30 (too optimistic?) nerds like me in each riding who bother to show up in the middle of the summer to a Town Hall. They say they will monitor social media to gauge the public reaction. The very structure of this consultation is flawed, however. Not all Canadians use social media. Not all Canadians feel comfortable posting their political opinions publicly on social media. And not all Canadians want their positions on this issue to be known to their MP. Never mind the fact that if you are in a riding not represented by a Liberal MP, under the rules they set up, your representative has no real sway on the recommendations anyway.

The only fair way to bring in a change this big is through a national referendum where multiple options for reform (including the status quo) are presented and can be voted on by a ranked ballot. It should not be held at the same time as a general election and it should have a minimum of six months of lead time to allow the population to properly debate the options.  See Lessons from Past Referendums.

I, myself, am in favour of a ranked ballot to elect the House of Commons (in the context of a proportional Senate, see the Manougian Model) but I don’t believe I have the right to call the shots without the people’s consent. Neither should the 39% majority Liberal government.

In the meantime, I have requested a meeting with Minister Monsef. I’m sure her staff will read this post to find out who I am. What I’m not sure about is whether they will think I’m important enough to have an hour of the Minister’s time. After all, they are willing to dismiss the opinions of millions of other Canadians without hesitation.

Here’s some coverage from CBC’s The National:

One person, one vote and the Electoral College

Andrew Coyne wrote a great column on electoral reform this week, which appeared in the National Post and several other PostMedia papers.  You can read it here.  One of the points he brings up is that a foundation of democracy is the principle of “one person, one vote”.  It would feel very undemocratic if we started to choose segments of the population and assigned them additional votes.  Imagine if millionnaires were entitled to three votes or green-eyed people got twenty votes.  What if votes for a certain party counted for double that of another?  If you think it sounds ridiculous, you should read Coyne’s article to the end.  Here’s the link again.

While it’s true that not every vote matters as much as another in Canada, we can take some solace in comparing ourselves to our neighbours to the South, who really should get rid of their electoral college system… because it’s 2016.

On those rare occasions when I’m discussing presidential vs. parliamentary democracy with my American friends and family, one might say “At least in America, the people get to vote directly for the president.”  If that statement were true, there is a whole other discussion that can take place.  Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Although many Americans think they get to vote directly for the presidential candidates, they actually still vote for Electors, whose trip to Washington, DC (to actually elect the President as part of a College) no longer takes several days as it may have when the Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.  The system skews votes in a variety of ways.  It gives smaller states more say than they otherwise would have.  However, it also assigns all the electors from a given state to the candidate who wins a majority in that state (except in Maine and Nebraska).  In fact, there is no law preventing these Electors from voting for a presidential candidate other than the one they pledged for (and were chosen to support) and it has happened more than once.

The end result is that very few individuals’ votes for President actually matter.  Candidates end up spending the majority of their time and effort in just a few swing states.  But it can get weirder.  The following video explains how someone can become President of the United States with only 22% of the total votes.

Surely, there were reasons this method was adopted over 200 years ago.  The most shameful of them is that it enabled the Three-Fifths Compromise.  Slaves couldn’t vote in federal elections until 1865 (when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery).  Until then, however, slaves were still counted in the censuses that determined how much representation each state would get… at 60% of a free person… and that representation was given to the non-slave voters in those states… who used it in Washington to speak in favour of slavery.

It would not be possible to usurp voting power that belonged to slaves without the electoral college.  Fortunately, there is no longer a need for it.

Canada is not the only country that could use some electoral reform.

Lessons from Past Referendums

The current discussion on electoral reform in Canada (led by current elected MPs and the media coverage they affect) is on whether a referendum is required if we are to fundamentally change the way we vote.  Last week, I wrote about why it is absolutely required.  This post discusses past referendums and what we can learn from them.

Provincial referenda on electoral reform have taken place in BC (in 2005 and again in 2009), PEI (2005), and Ontario (2007).  Other First Past the Post systems that have held referenda include New Zealand (1992 and 1993) and the United Kingdom (2011).  The referenda themselves had some similarities and differences.

1. Results and Thresholds

In 2005, BC voted 58% in favour of adopting electoral reform.  However, a threshold of 60% of the total vote was required, as well as a simple majority in at least 60% of the ridings in the province (97% of the ridings did achieve this).  Because of this result, they voted again in 2009 with the same thresholds.  This time, 60% rejected the reforms.

In PEI and Ontario, 64% and 63%, respectively, voted against their version of electoral reform in referenda with the same thresholds as BC.

New Zealand did vote to change their system with 85% and 54% majorities in a twin referendum system I’ll explain below.  The election was held on the basis of a simple majority (50% + 1 vote required to win).

The UK voted 68% against their version of reform.  The election was on the basis of a simple majority.  An amendment to require a 40% voter turnout for the vote to be valid was presented in Parliament but was not ultimately required.

2. Voting yes/no on one electoral reform alternative

In all four Canadian provincial referenda as well as the UK, the question posed to voters was to choose between the existing system and one alternative system.  The actual alternative that was presented as an option varied (Single Transferable Vote in BC, Mixed Member Proportional in PEI and Ontario, and Alternative Vote in UK).

Of note, BC and Ontario developed their (different) alternatives through the use of Citizens’ Assemblies (choosing random average citizens similar to jury duty).  PEI came to their alternative through a government-appointed commission.  The UK’s alternative was chosen directly by elected politicians.

New Zealand was the only jurisdiction to use a different approach.  They held one referendum in 1992 where voters answered two separate question.  In the first they voted on whether to retain the First Past the Post system or change the system (without specifying what would replace it).  With their second ballot, they voted on which of four alternatives they would prefer.  Sixty-five percent of voters chose Mixed Member Proportional.

Before changing the system, New Zealand held a second referendum in 1993 asking voters to choose directly between FPTP and MMP.  This vote passed by 54% in favour of reform, a smaller margin than the year before.

3. Concurrence with general election

Among the referenda mentioned above, the 1992 New Zealand referendum and the 2005 PEI referendum were the only ones where electoral reform was the only item to be voted on at the polling station.  BC and Ontario timed their referenda to take place together with provincial elections.  The UK referenda coincided with local (municipal) elections, as well as national elections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  The 1993 New Zealand referendum coincided with their national election.


In a two-option ballot (FPTP or One Specific Other Approach), many voters who do want electoral reform may disagree with the specific alternative being presented to them.  For example, in Ontario, the implementation of Mixed Member Proportional being proposed would have resulted in a 25% increase in the number of MPPs.  Some voters (I personally know several) voted against it based on that one feature alone.  Interpreting the 63% FPTP result as meaning that the majority do not want any change is not accurate.

Secondly, holding the referendum at the same time as a regular election, although much more cost-efficient, may serve to limit discussion and education on the subject at hand.  In Ontario, many voters (I personally know several) did not even know they would be faced with a referendum in 2007.  When they went to vote for their MPP, they were given a second ballot and needed to decide on the spot.  Many chose the status quo because they just hadn’t been told what the alternative was.

This effect of a dominant election overshadowing a less-publicized concurrent one can be seen in Ontario municipal elections, where mayors and councillors are chosen at the same time as school board trustees.  Typically, you would think it is rare for someone to show up at the polling station without having already decided how they will vote.  However, it can be quite common.  As people show up to vote for the mayor, they realize they also need to choose a school board trustee.  They may well choose a name at random, or based on how it sounds.  As a test ask a friend which party they voted for in a past provincial election, who they voted for mayor in the last municipal election, and who they voted for trustee.


A referendum is absolutely required to dramatically change the way we vote and how our representatives get elected.

The referendum itself should be by ranked ballot where voters get to identify their preferences, including the status quo, in order.  (Only one election required, as opposed to New Zealand’s approach.)

Any citizen should be able to propose a system of electoral reform and gain ballot access through petition drives.  For example, 10,000 signatures are required to be included as one of the choices that gets voted on.

The threshold for adoption should be a simple majority to avoid the controversy of a potential result greater than 50% but below an arbitrary super-majority.  (Why didn’t BC choose 55% or 61%?)

Reform proposals that require constitutional changes (including my proposal for the Senate) should be handled separately, following the established formula.

The referendum should not take place together with a general election.  It should have its own set date with a one year proposal submission period and a six month campaign period.


Or… we could just leave it completely up to politicians elected under the current system, who have majority control of the parliament with only 39% of the vote, who said at campaign that they would change something but still haven’t told us what that change would be.  Which would you prefer?

The Politician’s Self Interest

This week, Ottawa wrapped up 2015 by starting a public debate on one aspect of electoral reform.  The Conservative Party announced that they would use their majority in the Senate to block any electoral reform legislation that does not include a referendum on the issue.  The entire discussion should serve as evidence for how what I’ll call “Big Politics” lobbies for its own interests when it comes to electoral reform.

First, a comment on lobbying: Whenever legislation is proposed, you can expect one part of the public to support it and another to oppose it.  Sometimes, the issue can present a significant economic impact on one subgroup.  You can expect taxi license holders to oppose Uber, Big Tobacco to oppose smoking restrictions, teacher unions to encourage more education spending, factories to solicit subsidization, failed companies to want bailouts, etc.  To the extent that these groups conduct their lobbying by making information available to decision-makers, they play an important role in the democratic process.  As long as they are not resorting to intimidation, extortion, or bribery tactics, they should be allowed to have their voice heard as long as their message is taken in context.

One must understand that electoral reform can have a significant economic impact on politicians who put food on their family’s table by winning elections.  Accepting this fact will help to understand the positions that the different parties have taken on this issue.

Throughout the 1990s, when the federal Liberal Party won landslide majority governments and controlled the Senate, you didn’t hear a word from them about changing how people vote.  It was only after the 2011 election, where they were reduced to 34 (out of 308) seats and third party status, with their future existence in question, that electoral reform appeared on their platform.

The NDP and Green parties, who have never formed a government under the existing rules and who consistently win less seats than their percentage of the popular vote, absolutely want to change the way elections are run.

The Conservative Party campaigned in the most recent election opposing any changes to the current First Past the Post system.  At the time, they were sitting on a majority government earned with only 39.62% of the popular vote (in the 2011 election).  With vivid memories of the Reform/PC days, they understood that vote splitting was now working in their favour and had provided them with several unlikely seats in large urban centres… and wanted to keep it that way.

Now that we understand where the parties were coming from in October, let’s look at their positions since then.  The Liberals, ironically, ended up winning a majority government with… wait for it… 39.47% of the popular vote.  When the Conservatives had achieved the same result in 2011, it was evidence of how the system was broken.  This time, however, the Liberals interpreted this result as a strong mandate from the Canadian people. Almost immediately after the election, there were murmurs from party insiders that maybe they should leave the system alone. Instead of breaking their promise, however, Trudeau has indicated that he personally prefers a ranked ballot (without the accompanying proportional elected Senate in the Manougian model). He hopes to be the second choice for NDP and Green voters, solidifying an advantage over the Conservatives.

The Conservatives, under interim leader Rona Ambrose, have taken a good position for a bad reason.  They argue that any change to the electoral system should be subject to a referendum by the population.  The Liberal response is that no referendum is required because almost 70% of voters chose parties that wanted reform.

I wish I could slap both dominant parties’ wrists.  If Trudeau really thinks that he has no need to consult voters and that his 40% majority grants him the right to alter our democratic system according to his choosing, he is already showing the Liberal arrogance that almost led to his party’s extinction.  Would he feel comfortable giving the Bank of Montreal the final say on Canada’s financial regulations?

And the Conservatives have not yet abandoned their position that no reforms are required to our current First Past the Post system.  They are only demanding a referendum because three similar provincial referendums have failed in the last 10 years.  They are hoping to maintain the status quo where they do get a shot at governing every once in a while.  For their own sake, they better realize that pinning their hopes on splitting the left-wing vote is not a sustainable long-term strategy.

A referendum is absolutely required as validation that the new system serves voters and not the ones who came up with it.  It is more important than ever for you to make your voice heard and hold the politicians accountable.  Next week, I’ll be going into more depth about electoral reform referendums that have taken place in Canada and other English-speaking countries.