The Proportional Representation weenies get their shot.

Last month I participated in the Province of British Columbia’s online survey about changing the voting system. The results will be considered in the design of an upcoming referendum to swap out our musty old wig-wearing Westminster-style system for a shiny, enlightened, progressive…er, I mean proportional alternative.

I bailed on the survey after a couple questions when I remembered that I don’t give a crap what voting system we use. An op-ed in the Vancouver Sun illustrates why I can’t take the issue seriously. It’s by three well-meaning nerds from an organization called Make Every Vote Count:

It’s time to fix BC’s broken democracy

The day after an election, a majority – usually six out of 10 voters – effectively find themselves with a government in Victoria they didn’t choose.

The result? The majority must live with what the minority has chosen. Not terribly representative or democratic.

I should explain why this is an issue at all. In last year’s election, the governing BC Liberals – a right-leaning alliance of inoffensive pro-business types, with a few carefully screened social conservatives riding quietly at the back of the bus – won more seats, and a fraction more of the popular vote, than the New Democratic Party.

bc election results 2017

2017 BC election results.

However, the NDP claimed power by negotiating an arrangement with the third-place Greens, who promised to prop them up subject to certain conditions…including this referendum on bringing in a proportional representation system.

The Greens believe, probably correctly, that PR would be to their advantage in future elections: if last year’s popular vote, for example, had been translated into seat count on a purely proportional basis, the Greens would have elected 14 or 15 members, rather than the 3 they eked out under our first-past-the-post system.

How should us non-Greens feel about it? Would PR benefit the left side of the political spectrum exclusively, or would it lead to a complete upheaval of our current party system? Would it increase voter enthusiasm, solving the problem – if it is a problem – of “voter apathy” that the editorialists claim is on the rise?

I’m one of those apathetic voters whose enthusiasm for democracy will supposedly be rekindled by PR. I’ve been living in BC for five and a half years, the whole time under a government in Victoria I didn’t choose: I skipped the 2013 election and spoiled my ballot in 2017.

Perhaps I would have cast a vote for some hypothetical third or fourth or fifth party representing my idiosyncratic views, which under a PR system might have elected one or two members to gripe from the backbenches.

I might be slightly happier under this scenario. But my slightly greater happiness would be offset by the irritation of the many British Columbians wondering, “Who let those goddamned cranks into the legislature?”

***

Looking back at previous provincial elections, it appears that under a PR system the perennially second-place NDP, providing they were able to count on Green support, would have had a lock on government for the last decade. (Though this is accepting the implausible scenario where party alignments and voter preferences remained static under a changed voting system.) Which is why it’s lefties and progressives currently pushing PR, while the Liberals vow to fight it.

But back in the 1990s, before the rise of the Green Party, it was the right side of the political spectrum that was fragmented, allowing the NDP to rule with popular vote totals around 40%.

I suspect that even now there are at least as many social conservative voters in BC as there are Greens, but it has been the Liberals’ luck (perhaps augmented with a little backroom skulduggery) that a viable right-wing alternative hasn’t emerged since the collapse of BC Reform in the early 2000s.

Paradoxically, lefty media bias might be one of the factors helping the right-wing coalition hang together. The more talented conservative politicians, knowing that their Twitter and Facebook feeds will be mercilessly examined for any hint of sympathy with taboo ideas – Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, whatever-the-next-thing-is-phobia – opt to keep their heads down and settle for second-class status in a winning centre-right coalition, rather than try to launch a true right-wing alternative.

When Canada’s unimpeachably progressive prime minister Justin Trudeau retreated from his election promise to bring in PR at the federal level, this was precisely the rationalization he offered: that a new voting system might enable far-right ruffians to sneak past the gatekeepers and into parliament.

You can laugh at the hypocrisy of Trudeau’s discovery that the system was working at the exact moment the system elevated him to power. But there’s something to his analysis. Under first-past-the-post, coalition-building takes place before the election, as the mainstream parties jostle for position on the ideological spectrum; enabling the parties to act as a cartel, filtering out viewpoints that are popular with the electorate, but unpopular with our ruling class.

Under PR, the ruffians needn’t win over a plurality of voters anywhere, only enough here and there to scrape past whatever arbitrary popular-vote threshold – usually 5 or 10% – the gatekeepers have imposed. Once the ruffians tumble through the door, ululating and firing their pistols in the air, there’s a risk ordinary people will start paying attention to them, and then – why, anything might happen.

Consider the UK where, despite about half the electorate wanting out of the EU, the suits in the mainstream parties successfully banished the issue to the fringes for a generation. When a single-issue anti-EU party emerged – UKIP – it wasn’t in Westminster but in the proportionally-allocated European Parliament that it managed to gain a toehold…whereupon the embargo began to fall apart.

***

No matter what voting system is used, a ballot is a blunt instrument for registering your democratic choice. It doesn’t indicate your level of enthusiasm – a grudging preference for candidate A and a rabid hatred for candidate B result in the exact same mark on the ballot.

The do-gooders seem to imagine some ideal system where no-one ever casts a negative vote:

[M]any feel pressured to vote for the lesser of two evils. They feel compelled to vote “strategically”.

Instead of voting for someone they believe in, they vote for a different candidate to prevent the election of yet another. Not coincidentally, a growing number feel cynical about politics.

Apparently a proportional system will somehow obviate the need for strategic voting. But no matter what process is used, the endgame is the same: to enact the policies you support, while blocking the policies you oppose. All PR does is expand the gameboard. Instead of strategizing at the level of a single electoral district, you have to strategize at the provincewide or nationwide level.

This may actually make voting less satisfying, as it’s hard to predict what the parties will do when it comes time to dole out roles in a coalition government. How many Germans are likely to be thrilled by the result of their most recent election, run under a version of PR, which saw Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats returning to power yet again with the support of her supposed opponents, the Social Democrats?

This mashup of the two biggest parties, centre-right and centre-left, happens so often in Germany it has a clunky abbreviation, GroKo. For fans of mushy centrism and technocratic tinkering, a GroKo probably sounds peachy. But suppose you’re a left-leaning German whose main issue is a burning detestation of Angela Merkel. Do you vote for the Social Democrats whose policies you generally support, in the hope that this time around they’ll spurn the chancellor’s power-sharing blandishments? Or do you take a flier on the populist Left Party, who are a bit nutty for your tastes, but whom you can rely on to give Mutti Merkel the finger?

Sounds like a job for strategy.

***

What will happen if the do-gooders get their way, and bring some form of PR to British Columbia?

I’d expect the current Liberal Party to fracture into its constituent ideological parts. A renewed BC Conservative Party might yield 10-15% of the vote, while freeing the remaining Liberals to run on a more explicitly centrist platform, stealing some votes from the NDP, who will meanwhile be losing votes on their left to the energized Greens.

I could imagine the NDP fracturing as well, with the meat-and-potatoes labour types and the nose-ring contingent going their separate ways. And who knows what other blocs might be able to grab enough votes to sneak into the legislature. Maybe the Libertarians could burrow out a little nook in the centre of the political spectrum. Maybe Trump-style conservative populism will overleap the ramparts of yuppie disdain and become an electoral force in Canada.

We might easily wind up with a GroKo-style alliance of moderate New Democrats and moderate Liberals, opportunistically cobbled together to freeze out populist insurgents. I’m not so sure the authors of this op-ed – two of whom (going by their Twitter feeds) are the kind of lefties that dismiss Trudeau as a wishy-washy sellout – will be thrilled with that result.

At least under PR the makeup of the coalitions would be overt, rather than disguised, as it is now, under vague party labels.

Would this really do anything to win over cynics like me? It’s hard to say. Would I rather vote for a big mainstream party, representing an ungainly hodgepodge of interest groups, that has a real shot at winning, but once in power will pay little attention to my concerns? Or for a niche party that might elect one or two members who’ll faithfully but impotently articulate my viewpoint from a remote corner of the legislature?

I’m pretty sure I’ll find something to moan about, no matter what. But that’s what a cynic would say.

M.

Speaking of idealistic electoral reform schemes, I am striving to become the internet’s number one resource on Nevil Shute’s multiple voting system. Elsewhere on this blog I have declared that there is no God-given system under which elections would be perfectly fair and expressed mild support for sovereigntist movements like Brexit.

 

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