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 www.yourchoicepei.ca.

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.