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.