Why are Canadian politicians obsessed with changing the voting system?

Canada’s politicians seem determined to give their country more democracy — whether the people want it or not.

Getting rid of so-called first-past-the-post-style (FPTP) elections, in which parliamentarians are elected based on whoever gets the most votes, even if that’s not an absolute majority, has been one of the great failed crusades of modern Canadian politics. Since 2005, there have been at least four province-level referendums on adopting a European-style “proportional representation” electoral system, as well as numerous recommendations from advisory councils and a definitive campaign promise from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Yet despite it all, no change has occurred — the referendums were voted down, the committees ignored, Trudeau’s promise brazenly broken. Every proposal to reform Canadian elections has spawned anxiety and division, which ultimately proved intimidating enough to derail the political pursuit of the goal. In the aftermath, many advocates have drawn the ironic conclusion that the process of reforming Canada’s democracy has itself been too democratic.

The government of British Columbia, which is now making its third attempt to impose electoral reform, is convinced it has finally cracked the code. The New Democratic Party administration of Premier John Horgan has devised a mail-in referendum it clearly believes will pass easily through some combination of low voter turnout (currently estimated at 6.5 percent with two weeks to go) and a clever ballot that will likely contrive a mandate for any alternative to FPTP.

Horgan’s success would doubtlessly inspire copycat efforts in other parts of the country, while frustration at his failure may finally normalize the electoral reform “nuclear option” — unilaterally changing the system through simple statute, as Quebec is said to be considering.

The grasping nature of this scramble to reform Canada’s electoral system by hook or crook suggests that there’s more to this particular goal than merely making elections more “representative” for their own sake. Instead, it seems one of the great crimes of the FPTP system is that it enables a process for awarding power that Canada’s political class would prefer not to use.

Electoral systems cannot be judged in isolation. They exist to produce politicians tasked with running a specific sort of government. In Canada’s case, that’s a deeply executive-centric system that journalist Jeffrey Simpson once famously dubbed a “friendly dictatorship.” Canada’s constitutional documents at both the federal and provincial level grant enormous unilateral authority to the premiership. This includes the power to appoint judges, prosecutors, heads and boards of government agencies, as well as whatever regulatory powers the legislature has granted to “the Crown” over the decades.

In Canada’s present parliamentary regime, a plurality-based electoral system encourages the existence of large parties capable of winning a majority of legislative seats, whose boss then becomes premier. Because the goal is winning a majority of seats, the overall popular vote does not matter, but a clean line of correlation exists between the legislator one elects in a local riding and the party boss who winds up leading the government. Canada’s legislatures may function as little more than glamorized electoral colleges, as Stephen Harper once observed, but given the constitutional power imbalance between the legislative and executive branches, it is perfectly rational for a voter to cast her vote more on the basis of who it will help make prime minister than who her comparatively powerless member of parliament will be.

No matter what electoral system is introduced, this reality will not go away, a fact that undermines the stock promise of the electoral reformer to end the era where “40 percent of the vote means 100 percent of the power,” as Horgan recently quipped.

Proportional-voting systems tend to produce a preponderance of parties, because they reward seats on the basis of a party’s share of the popular vote — even a very small share — not merely its ability to win victories in geographic districts. In Europe, where such systems are common, their premiers are accordingly the heads of parties with quite small bases of support. Angela Merkel’s party, for instance, only received 26.8 percent of the vote in last year’s German election.

To this fact, the proportional-vote advocate replies that such tallies are unfair unless we add in the vote totals for all other parties that make up a premier’s multipartisan coalition as well. In Germany’s case, this would mean concluding that the 20.5 percent of Germans who voted for Merkel’s Social Democratic opponents — who campaigned aggressively against her leadership — were actually casting a ballot for Merkel too, because the Social Democrats ultimately agreed to form a post-election coalition with her.

There is a logic to this, but it is not cleanly democratic in the sense of providing direct voter control over the executive. Nothing in life is without trade-offs, and the one proportional voting demands through its enablement of multiparty coalition governments is a legislature that more accurately reflects the subtle nuances of the popular vote in exchange for greater deference to the bosses of political parties to decide among themselves who runs the executive branch.

If we were simply interested in bringing greater democratic legitimacy to Canadian governance, then countless other reforms could be made, including American-style runoff elections, more policy referendums and constitutional amendments imposing greater legislative checks on the premier. But the current obsession with reform only reveals something about who has the most to gain from it.

J.J. McCullough, a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver

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