RYU: the electoral reform issue is not going away, but here is how it could be solved

Attempts at electoral reform in Canada have failed for a number of reasons, and not simply because Canadians are unwilling to consider any change.

Mika Ryu Montreal, QC
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The issue of electoral reform will never go away because of the undeniable and solvable problems caused by our current elections. The First Past the Post, or Winner Takes All system has the benefits of being the status quo, preserving local representation, and (historically) its ability to accommodate multi-member districts.

Yes. We used to have ridings where everyone would get six votes, and the top six candidates would be elected.

Its opponents are correct to point out that the system leads to vote splitting and false majorities. It creates perverse incentives because the better a third party does, the more it hurts its own voters by disadvantaging its closest party. Its tendency towards a two-party system creates institutional rigidity that can accumulate fuel for a populist uprising, and it makes sure they vote against what they hate more than they vote for what they like.

While it has been a relatively small problem in Canada, the current system also does pose the risk of gerrymandering, especially in rural low-population areas who can see their electoral districts fluctuate wildly each time the lines are redrawn. Current electoral districts also widely vary in terms of their constituent populations.

Attempts at electoral reform in Canada have failed for a number of reasons, and not simply because Canadians are unwilling to consider any change. Each time that electoral reform has been pitched to the public, the proposed solution created at least as many problems as it promised to solve. At that point, the change is probably not worth the risk of adverse outcomes.

Ranked Ballots, or Instant Runoff, seem to have been the Liberal Party's preferred system, which reduces the effect of vote splitting, but can create even worse false majorities overall. That means that a party could win a majority with an even smaller proportion of the vote than in the current system.

The preferred system of third parties are Proportional Representation, or Mixed-Member Proportional, which seeks to match the proportion of seats to the proportion of votes. It almost eliminates the effect of vote splitting, but gives political parties a lot more power over their candidates. It also erodes local representation, usually by adding "overhang" seats filled from party lists.

One less considered option is the Single Transferable Vote, or the Droop Quota ranked ballot system, allows for multi-member districts with no wasted votes. It allows for local representation, but would get confusing in cities that would have perhaps dozens of MPs. It also requires districting rural communities together, maintaining the possibility of gerrymandering, each single member district suffering from all the disadvantages of Ranked Ballots.

Potential solution

We Canadians deserve better than the uncreative and problematic solutions than those that have previously been offered. You simply cannot perform surgery with a butcher knife, and the proposed alternative voting systems in this country of the last two decades have attempted to do just that.

The closest attempt at honest electoral reform has probably been BC's proposed STV system. However, it creates the problems of creating a long and complicated ballot for urban voters, and districts with one or few MPs will face all the disadvantages of having Ranked Ballots.

Here is a proposal that attempts to carefully combine aspects of different systems to minimize the negative aspects of each.

Let's call it the Community Districting System. Here is how the system would be set up. First, decide on a number of seats that parliament should have. This number should be seen as a permanent one. Since the Constitution requires each province to have at least 4 seats, having a 400 seat parliament might make sense, since it allows for any single province's share of seats to fall to 1% although never lower. For perspective, PEI had around 0.412% of the country's total population, so they would still have a lower population per MP than the rest of Canada.

Then, districts would be drawn across municipal boundaries, and a droop quota would be calculated based on the population. For example, for 400 seats, the calculation would be ([total population]/401) rounded up to the nearest integer. Based on the 2016 Census, that number would be 87,661. That means that for every additional 87,661 residents in a municipality, it will have one additional MP, i.e., every 87,661 people get an MP.

The following three examples would illustrate how this would play out.

Example One: London

My home city of London in 2016 had a population of 383,825. That would have given allowed it to elect 4 MPs under this proposed system. To get to that number, just take the population, divide the population by 87,661, and round down to the nearest integer.

London is currently districted into three full ridings and part of a fourth riding. In the part of Elgin-Middlesex-London that is in London, the vote totals in the 2015 election were as follows: CPC 3110, LPC 2358, NDP 794, Greens 154, Christian Heritage 36, and Rhino 19. Adding that to the vote totals by party for the three London ridings, here were the total London vote counts by party in 2015:
Liberals with 83,166 (43.0%)
Conservatives with 62,027 (32.1%)
NDP with 40,988 (21.2%)

All other parties (and independents) received less than 5% of the London vote, which is a common threshold when trying to disqualify very minor parties.

Then, another droop quota is calculated based on the population of the municipality, by dividing the total number of votes (excluding those cast for parties receiving under 5%) by one more than the number of MPs, then rounding up to the nearest integer. For London, it would be 186,181 (total votes cast for top three parties) divided by 5, which rounded up to the nearest integer would be 37,237.

This means that in the London example, a party elects an MP for every 37,237 votes that they received. The Liberals would take two seats and the other two parties would take one each.

The parties would still have electoral district associations to nominate candidates, but each district association would nominate up to the number of seats available in the municipality.

While parties would each come up with their own system, I think that the best system (the argument for which will have to come in a future article) to nominate candidates would be the STV system, which would allow parties to nominate candidates in a democratically determined order of preference.

What you end up with is proportional representation within each district, with the "party list" for the district is decided democratically as part of the nomination process.

For comparison, in the actual election, London elected 2 Liberals, and an NDP. Elgin-Middlesex-London elected a Conservative.

Example Two: Cambridge

Having spent some of my childhood living here, this would be a good example of a potential single-member district. Municipalities with a population between 87,661 and 175,322 would have the option of simply electing its own single MP.

In that case, calculating the droop quota would be a mere technicality, since the election would have the same result as a simple First Past the Post vote. For example, Cambridge (which is already its own riding), voted:
Liberals with 23,024 (43.2%)
Conservatives with 20,613 (38.7%)
NDP with 7,397 (13.87%)

The total number of votes, divided by one more than the number of MPs (two), is 25,517 (by traditional method of calculating a droop quota, you should add 1 to make it 25,518, but there is no practical difference). Since nobody received the required 25,518 votes, the seat goes to the party with the most votes. The same result as what actually happened in 2015.

Local governments would have the freedom to decide to combine with neighbouring municipalities to form a single district. Many municipalities have a population of less than 87,661, so they would have to combine with neighbouring towns. Local governments would also have the freedom to decide which, and how many other communities to collectively elect one or multiple MPs.

Example Three: Toronto

Canada's largest city under this system would form a proportional representation area consisting of 31 seats, almost the exact same percentage of parliament as the city currently has. It has the added bonus of adjusting automatically to changes in population.

The 25 Toronto ridings had the following vote totals in the 2015 election, organized by party:
Liberals with 644,768 (53.9%)
Conservatives with 321,381 (26.9%)
NDP with 230,378 (19.3%)

The droop quota to determine how many votes will elect an additional MP is 37,392, which translates to 17 Liberal MPs, 8 Conservative MPs, and 6 NDP MPs. Compared to the actual 2015 election where the Liberals won all the Toronto seats despite only getting 53.9% of the Toronto vote.

Without a 5% vote threshold, the droop quota would have been slightly higher but the proportion of seats would not have changed, since the Green Party (2-3%) would not have been able to win one of the 31 seats anyway.

Final Comments

The droop quota to determine the number of MPs per district would have to be adjusted slightly to account for population irregularities, like PEI taking up 1% of parliament despite having 0.4% of the population.

Where local governments in rural areas cannot organize themselves into districts each with a population of at least 87,661, a simple operation can be used to create objectively determined boundaries. Start with districts based on municipal boundaries, then take the district with the smallest population and annex it to the adjacent district with the smallest population. Repeat the last step until all districts meet the minimum population requirement.

The Community Districting System also gives local governments the freedom to determine its electoral arrangements, since it is best placed to understand the nature of their constituency and its compatibility with different neighbouring communities. It also incentivizes organization into moderately sized regional governments and disincentivizes massive municipal amalgamations like in Toronto. It better exposes large multi-community cities that do not fairly balance the interests of different communities within them, and encourages to find a more decentralized form of local government.

If it is the case that no group of 31 MPs can represent the City of Toronto on an at-large basis, how can the City itself claim to be able to balance the interests of residents from its many diverse neighbourhoods? If MPs are better elected separately in North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke, perhaps that is a good sign that those neighbourhoods would be better served by their own local councils that are more loosely associated with a Toronto regional municipality, similar in structure to the other four regional municipalities that form the GTA.

Our country has had 7 provincial referenda on electoral reform, and another one scheduled in PEI later this year, which will be that province's third. British Columbia, has also had three failed referenda. Ontario and New Brunswick have had one each. The Ontario election was the clearest example of an urban-rural divide.

The Community Districting System would allow large cities to elect the MPs in a way that is closer to proportional representation, while smaller communities can still elect their own representatives. It allows for dynamic districts that respond automatically to population shifts and gives local communities more self-determination.

Each of the major parties arguably benefits in that they maintain a more stable floor-level of seats (never again would any of the three parties ever not elect their top Toronto candidate). It would also have safeguards against fringe third parties regardless of whether a 5% vote threshold (which would only ever come into play in municipalities with more than 5% of the total population, based on a total seat count of 400) is implemented.

It not only keeps the right to nominate candidates in the hands of local riding associations, which would become municipal associations, but it can directly give party memberships the power to determine who makes it onto a local multi-candidate party list, and in what order they appear.

This was an idea that would probably be better illustrated in another format, but if you have made it to the end of the article, thank you for your interest in this little thought experiment. It is my view that all current and future political parties would benefit from a system that both maintains electoral stability while advancing ideas of electoral fairness, one that allows the Maxime Berniers and the Andrea Horwaths of the world to fight the Andrew Scheers and Kathleen Wynnes on principles, without the perception or risk of spoiled election results.

I do not plan on ever running for public office, but my fellow citizens who do should face a system of incentives and an arena of competition that is less arbitrary, does less to advantage partisan opportunism, and best reflects intuitive community boundaries.

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