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Prime minister designate Justin Trudeau waves to supporters as he arrives at a rally in Ottawa, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT (Adrian Wyld/AP)
Prime minister designate Justin Trudeau waves to supporters as he arrives at a rally in Ottawa, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT (Adrian Wyld/AP)

Globe editorial

What problem is electoral reform trying to fix? Add to ...

Last fall, the Liberals ran on a platform that, among 150-or-so promises, included a pledge to ditch the electoral system in place since Confederation, “ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” That may be a very good idea. It may be a very bad idea. But beyond a marketing plan of branding itself as the party of capital-C Change, the Trudeau government has never explained why an electoral reform crusade is its idea.

What problem is electoral reform supposed to fix?

In the aftermath of the election, Abacus Data and the left-leaning Broadbent Institute conducted a nation-wide poll on Canadians’ attitudes toward electoral reform. The results are surprising. For example, most Canadians said they wanted either no change to the electoral system, or only minor changes. And on this issue, Liberal and Conservative voters were in perfect alignment: Two-thirds of each called for minor or no electoral changes. Only one-third of Conservatives and Liberals wanted big changes or for things to be “changed completely” – which is what the Liberals ran on.

And when asked to name the defining elements of a good electoral system, the most cited virtues were an easy to understand ballot, the creation of strong and stable governments, and the ability to directly elect MPs representing their community. First-past-the-post has its faults, but these are arguably its chief virtues.

That may explain why, when asked which of four electoral systems they favoured, the most popular choice was first-past-the-post. Canadians will back reforming the system if necessary, but they are not necessarily going to back just any big electoral reform – not without a good reason, and a lot of persuading.

The Liberals promised to bring in electoral reform legislation within 18 months, but they also promised to seriously study the issue through a “national engagement process,” and to act accordingly. If they want to do something good for the country, while avoiding shooting themselves in the political foot, they should keep the following in mind:

1. What problem is electoral reform supposed to fix? The Liberal platform assumes that first-past-the-post is bad. How? Why?

First-past-the-post has its drawbacks. In the last election, for example, a number of MPs were elected with as little as 30 per cent of the popular vote, thanks to vote-splitting across multiple parties. In Atlantic Canada, the Liberals won 100 per cent of the seats with around 60 per cent of the vote, and captured a majority government with only minority voter support. First-past-the-post concentrates power, makes majority governments more likely, runs elections on a riding-by-riding basis, and encourages voters for third parties to vote strategically. Some see these as virtues, others as defects. Both are right.

Proportional representation would address this. Under PR, the last election would have resulted in a minority government, because the Liberals only got 39.5 per cent of the vote. In its purest form, PR makes minority governments likely or even inevitable; Israel uses PR and has never had a majority government. Under PR, fringe parties sometimes end up wielding disproportionate power, because larger parties must bring fringe MPs on board in order to form a government. Voters may not have to vote strategically under PR – but to govern and pass legislation, the politicians they elect will. One way or the other, somebody has to compromise. That’s democratic politics, even under PR.

Another option, transferable or ranked ballots, would similarly allow more people to feel their vote wasn’t “wasted.” But under a ranked ballot system, the Liberals would have won even more seats. Proportional representation is seen as fairer to supporters of smaller parties, but it tends toward permanent minority government. Ranked balloting, in contrast, tends toward increasing the size of majorities and upping the seat haul of the party most voters pick as their second choice, which is often the middle-of-the-road party (hello, Liberals).

But back to the question: What disease is electoral reform supposed to cure? Before making its case for radical electoral surgery, the government has to tell the patient what illness it believes she has.

2. Modest reforms are needed: It’s possible to do electoral reform without ditching first-past-the-post. For example, Elections Canada could be given the budget to double or triple the number of polling places, making voting quicker and easier. The length of elections can be extended – 2015’s extra-long campaign was good for democracy. There should be more advance poll days, and even an entire week of voting instead of one official election day. Is electoral reform about raising voter turnout? These steps will do that.

If the goal of electoral reform is to more accurately represent the democratic wishes of Canadians, then the House of Commons should be moved closer to true representation-by-population, by giving more seats to populous, underrepresented Ontario, B.C. and Alberta. The Conservatives took big strides in this direction, but the job is unfinished. And if one person, one vote is the ideal, then urban voters deserve to gain still more seats at the expense of rural ridings.

These modest, incremental reforms would improve the electoral system without fundamentally changing it.

3. Let the people decide: In referendums in B.C., PEI and Ontario, voters rejected ditching first-past-the-post. Canada is not in a situation where the status quo is not an option. The status quo, all things considered, is a pretty good option. Keeping the status quo while making incremental improvements is a better option. Would a sweeping reform, including ditching first-past-the-post, be even better still? Depending on what the government proposes, maybe.

But so far, all the government has promised is a leap into the unknown, details of our destination to come some time just before lift-off. Canadians deserve the final word on that.

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