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Electoral reform: the devil is in the details

Justin Trudeau vows to replace Canada's first-past-the-post voting system provided that system produces a Liberal government in October. That excites the Liberal brain trust of earnest young academics and policy wonks who think our democracy is broken. But as attempts at electoral reform in a few provinces have now shown, voters don't generally trust a bunch of elites to fix it.

Besides, it will take much more than electoral reform or changes in parliamentary procedure to reverse a widening generational chasm in political engagement. It's never been easier to tune out of politics and most young Canadians are voting with their mouse.

It's hard to criticize the package of democratic-reform proposals Mr. Trudeau unveiled on Tuesday. The promises are too vague or Pollyannaish to generate much reaction. The Liberals are hardly the first party to promise more open and transparent government while in opposition.

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Mr. Trudeau's vow that the 2015 election would be the last conducted under first-past-the-post (FPTP) merits examination, however, in that the Liberals would leave it to Parliament alone to overhaul the electoral system rather than submitting those changes to voters in a referendum.

The Liberal approach is perhaps understandable given the failure of referendums on electoral reform in British Columbia and Ontario. The decision of voters in those provinces to stick with the devil they knew may have been in part due to the complexity of the alternatives being proposed. But political scientists Laura Stephenson and Brian Tanguay concluded in an autopsy of the 2007 Ontario referendum that "electoral reform was largely elite-driven and without general public support."

The main swipe against our current electoral system is that it produces large distortions by allowing parties to form majority governments with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote, and occasionally with fewer votes than a rival party. As turnout declines, the distortions seem to be getting even bigger. Last year, Ontario's Liberals won a majority with the support of only 20 per cent of eligible voters; the federal Tories won a majority with 24-per-cent support in 2011.

But can anyone but a pure partisan argue that the "wrong" party formed the government in Ontario or Ottawa? That our main opposition parties are under-represented in the Ontario legislature or House of Commons? That our democracy would be better served by unstable coalitions and more fringe parties in Parliament? There are no doubt improvements to be made, but our FPTP system does a better job reflecting the "wisdom of the electorate" than we often appreciate.

Mr. Trudeau is on the record as favouring a preferential ballot under which voters in each riding would rank candidates. Voters whose first-choice candidate finished last would see their votes attributed to their second choice, with that process repeating itself until one candidate wins at least 50 per cent of the vote. The assumption is so-called ranked ballots would reduce polarization and force candidates and their parties to court a majority of the electorate rather than mobilizing only a narrow base of voters. That sounds like a good idea until you consider the flip side of the equation – homogenization of the political choices on offer, leading voters to complain "they're all the same."

Ontario plans to give municipalities the option of using preferential, or ranked, ballots in the next civic vote in 2018. That seems like a good place to start.

Let's not pretend, however, that our electoral system is the main cause of declining turnout. In a paper presented this month at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa, Henry Milner and Eric Guntermann of the University of Montreal reveal the increasing "political knowledge gap" between young adults and their older peers in almost every Western democracy, regardless of the electoral system.

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Mr. Milner and Mr. Guntermann suggest that most of the generation that grew up with the Internet uses the endless choices it offers to avoid politics altogether. "The result is that a new and deeper digital divide has emerged. No longer primarily one of access to digital communications, it is rather a gap between those for whom it provides a bridge to being informed about politics, and those for whom it is a moat."

It's unlikely a different voting system can fix that. Done precipitously, it could even make it worse.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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