Posts Tagged 'proportional representation'

Proportional Representation and the hard work of coalition-building.

bc pro rep referendum ballot

My ballot has arrived for the mail-in referendum to change British Columbia’s voting system. I have no plans to return it.

Most of what follows I wrote months ago. I hesitated to publish it, on the grounds that if I didn’t care about the outcome, why jump into the debate?

On the other hand, since I’m pretty sure adding one more bag of hot air won’t tip the scales – why not?

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As a grumbler who disdains BC’s three main poltical parties about equally, the tactical consequences of switching to Proportional Representation don’t matter much to me. As I argued before, any partisan advantage would be short-lived anyway. Over the course of a few elections, ideological alignments would shift in hard-to-foresee ways as parties adjusted to the new landscape. By the time things settled down, the debate would be about switching to whatever the next sexy new model of democracy might be: some kind of instant Twitter polling, maybe.

In his column a while back, the Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Todd (whom I respect a lot) interviewed UBC poltical scientist Max Cameron, who denigrated governments elected with sub-50% popular-vote totals – which would be nearly every government in Canadian history – as “false majorities”.

Cameron argued that Pro Rep, by forcing politicians to build coalitions across party lines, would reduce “hyper-competitiveness” and lead to a more consensual style of government.

I haven’t read Cameron’s new book and have no plans to, as it sounds super boring. That said, I’m not sure his premises are true: that current levels of competitiveness are unusually “hyper”, or that competitiveness is detectably less in jurisdictions with Pro Rep.

If competitiveness has increased of late, the increase must be unrelated to the voting system, which in Canada and the USA hasn’t changed; so it’s not clear why changing it would reverse the trend.

My main objection to his argument is that it confuses process – working across party lines – with outcome – reflecting majority opinion.

Suppose Party A and Party B, each supported by 40% of voters, form a coalition, the resulting government being half-A, half-B. Pro Reppers would argue that this government represents 80% of the voters. But couldn’t you equally argue that the A-B hybrid, never having been on the ballot, represents no-one?

To do the math another way: it’s not obvious that an outcome where 80% of the voters get 50% of what they want is fairer than one where 40% of the voters get 100% of what they want.

But in fact no voter ever gets 100% of what he wants because parties are already coalitions.

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In BC it’s the 10-20% of Green supporters who are the noisiest fans of Pro Rep. They feel hard done by because their votes, being thinly distributed across a large number of districts, often fail to elect a single member.

I can relate to their sense of alienation: I feel, as they do, that my point of view is unrepresented in the legislature. In fact I’m even more alienated than Green supporters: I don’t even have a no-hope third party to voice my obsessions.

Therefore I find myself wondering of Greens: if they care so much about winning, why not just throw in with the NDP? To an outside observer, their platforms seem mostly identical anyway.

“To you those minor policy differences might seem irrelevant,” you retort. “But they mean a lot to Green voters.”

Well, sure. I get it. Given the choice of a party that more reliably presses their buttons, Green voters rally to that party. Fair enough.

But in a representative democracy, it’s rare for your opinions to line up perfectly with the party or candidate you support. Most voters have to balance their own policy priorities against the need to win over other voters whose priorities will differ.

Do Green voters imagine that right-wingers are gung-ho for every clause of the BC Liberal Party platform? No: as former Liberal premier Christy Clark put it in a recent interview, the provincial party is “a marriage of convenience between federal Conservatives and federal Liberals” – though that understates the divisions among free market fundamentalists, rural fogeys, and suburban working stiffs, unified by nothing except a dislike for high taxes.

Yet when election time rolls around, they all swallow their reservations and line up behind the local BC Liberal candidate.

The Liberals have done the hard work of putting together a coalition that is broadly attractive to a large number of voters all over the province. Their opponents have failed to put together such a coalition.

If left-leaning voters could get behind a single candidate in each district, which in our voting system is the way you actually win, they would have a lock on power forever.

Why don’t the NDP simply retool their platform to address the concerns of Green supporters?

Because they know that by coming out explicitly against the exploitation of the province’s natural resources, they would lose a significant number of blue collar voters to the Liberals.

Why, then, don’t the Greens retool their platform to attempt to steal votes from the NDP?

Well, that’s what they’ve been doing; and it’s been working, albeit gradually. The Greens are up to three MLAs now, and hold the balance of power in the legislature. With careful organizing and a few lucky breaks, in a couple election cycles they could supplant the NDP as the left-wing alternative in BC, just as the Liberals supplanted Social Credit a generation ago.

However, to vie for power the Greens would have to water down their environmentalist bona fides, opening up the danger of a purist party stealing votes on their left, handing victory back to the Liberals.

Since the Greens and NDP have figured out that under the current system there’s no room for two mainstream parties on the left, they’ve concluded that their best bet is to change the system.

Okay. That’s allowed. But forgive me if I’m unmoved by their moral posturing. Democracy is not “broken”. Nobody’s votes are “wasted”. All the parties get to play by the same rules, and some parties persistently lose.

***

Re-reading my earlier post on this topic, I got as far as the paragraph beginning:

Paradoxically, lefty media bias might be one of the factors helping the [BC Liberals’] right-wing coalition hang together.

…And it took me a moment to remember why I’d thrown that “paradoxically” in there. So let me spell it out, because I think it’s a mildly interesting observation.

When I talk about media bias I don’t necessarily mean deliberate coordination. Young journalists, freshly escaped from the progressivist petri dishes of the North American higher education system, might sincerely intend to give conservatives a fair shake; but they unconsciously communicate their disdain and disbelief through their word choices, their headlines, the photos they choose to illustrate their articles, and of course, through which stories they cover, and which they ignore.

In a multi-party system like Canada’s, this bias affects which parties get taken seriously. Populists and social conservatives, in order to avoid the taint of association with icky “far-right” ideas, self-protectively cluster with libertarians and Bay Street types under a single big conservative tent; while politicians from the lefty fringe, emboldened by their friendlier media coverage, feel free to flake off into purist micro-parties which splinter the left-wing vote – helping the unified conservatives take power.

That’s the paradox: that left-leaning media might, in clumsily putting their thumb on the scales, accidentally be tipping elections to the right.

Does the theory apply to the real world?

I mentioned already how, here in British Columbia, vote-splitting between the NDP and Greens helped the centre-right Liberals to stay in power for most of the 21st century. The last attempt at a BC Conservative party, which polled in the double digits for a few weeks back in 2011, was portrayed as a clown car of kooks and crypto-Nazis, and soon collapsed amid infighting by its not-ready-for-primetime leadership.

Contrast with last year’s election, in which the evidence was at hand to paint BC’s Green Party leader as touchy, paranoid, and litigious, but the media settled instead on Andrew Weaver, principled man of science; the left-wing vote was once again split; and the Liberals came within a hair of winning their fifth consecutive term. [1]

I also mentioned the UK where, if UKIP hadn’t been depicted as a gaggle of swivel-eyed loons they might have thwarted the Tories in a few vital seats, allowing Labour to win the very winnable 2015 election; in which case, the Brexit referendum would never have occurred. I don’t know enough about the British political scene to say whether the separatist, social-democratic Scottish National Party – who sealed Labour’s defeat by wiping them out in Scotland – were given an easier ride by the British media than UKIP; I’d wager they were.

It’s just a theory. It’s not really testable; there are too many other factors that decide elections, from scandals to stock market crashes to leaders’ winning smiles, for the effects of media bias to be isolated; and half my readers will argue that the bias I’m describing doesn’t even exist.

They might be right. Media bias is visible only when it’s going against you; when it supports you, it looks like clear-eyed acknowledgement of reality.

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Incidentally, I find it hilarious that when someone frets that Pro Rep might lead to the election of “extremist” parties – by which they usually mean right-wingers – the Pro Reppers reassure us that, don’t worry, there will be a 5% popular vote threshold to prevent those cranks from sneaking into the legislature.

Apparently if the Green Party’s 15% vote share translates into a mere three seats, it’s a crisis of democracy requiring that the voting system be completely overhauled. If the Trump-Brexit-Rob-Ford Party of Canada garners 4.9%, it’s perfectly fair for those dangerous votes to be tossed directly into a dumpster.

I’m not sure what happens if the extremists ever squeak up to 5%. Do we have to change the voting system again?

M.

1. Vaugh Palmer, post-election: “[Andrew] Weaver promised to usher in a new way of doing politics – more dignified, more respectful. Instead, with his recent bad-tempered and overbearing outbursts, he risks becoming the latest example of the bad old way of doing things.”

In 2016 I declined to join the mass freakout over Trump and Brexit. A couple weeks back I wondered why people with strong political opinions are so irritated by undecideds and abstainers. And as always when electoral reform comes up, I have to link to my discussion of Nevil Shute’s wacky multiple voting scheme.

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.

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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.

 


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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