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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Reducing the Democratic Deficit and Increasing Participation

The following is an article from The Montreal Gazette about proportional representation, which I believe would go a long way toward improving politics and citizen participation in Canada. Although not perfect, it takes account of every vote with none being wasted and every collective viewpoint getting its share of representation. No need for strategic voting. You can actually vote your conscience and have it mean something. It's far more democratic, resulting in a government that better reflects the populace. When done right.

Proportional representation revisited

 
MONTREAL — It was nearly a century ago that Montrealers voted in a referendum to create the city executive committee and set up the system of electing a mayor citywide and dozens of councillors by district that exists to this day.

The losing option on the May 1921 referendum ballot was having a smaller council elected by proportional representation, with the mayor chosen by councillors.

It was the last time Montrealers were given a say on the kind of system that should be used to elect representatives to city hall.

Now, with the Charbonneau Commission and the province’s anti-corruption squad revealing graft and other corruption on a scale not seen in city politics since scandals a century ago led to a provincial trusteeship and in turn to the 1921 referendum, it’s appropriate to re-examine the fateful plebiscite and consider holding another, activist and author Paul Cliche says.

Maybe this time Montrealers would get it right, he adds.

“You can’t take the electoral system and say it will fix everything,” said Cliche, a long-standing advocate for proportional representation, or PR, for the provincial and municipal levels. The Québec solidaire activist and onetime Montreal city councillor wrote a book on PR.

“But it can help. It would improve on the democratic deficit and the public would be better represented.”
Local proponents of PR — which exists in some form in most countries except Canada — have long argued that it’s a more equitable system to translate voter intention into distribution of seats than the traditional first-past-the-post system that Canada borrowed from Britain.

But these days, PR’s defenders can tout its other argued advantages — increased public interest and higher voter turnout, a proliferation of smaller parties and increased chances for coalition governments — as arguments in favour of electoral reform, as a string of elected officials and civil servants in several Quebec municipalities face corruption charges.

Under the first-past-the-post voting system, one representative is elected by district or constituency and need only get more votes than her or his rivals to win that seat. So a candidate can win a seat with only 20 or 30 per cent voter support in the district, and all ballots cast in favour of second- and third-place finishers are essentially wasted.

The result is a distortion of voter intention because the system tends to award disproportionately more seats to the first-place finisher than its share of the popular vote, and disproportionately fewer seats to the second-place finisher.

For example, 40.2 per cent of all votes cast in the 1998 Montreal municipal election were for incumbent mayor Pierre Bourque’s Vision Montreal party while 26.4 per cent were for Jacques Duchesneau’s New Montreal, which finished second. But Vision Montreal nabbed 76.5 per cent of the council seats — 39 out of 51 — and New Montreal got just 3.9 per cent, or two seats. New Montreal scored second-place finishes in 34 of the districts.

Montreal’s elections office hasn’t made public the total number of votes tallied for each party in the 2001, 2005 and 2009 municipal votes, making it difficult to calculate the distortion.
Under full or partial PR, the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate or roughly proportionate to the number of votes received. There is no single-member district. Instead, PR can take the form of lists of multiple representatives elected in a large district.

PR tends to encourage higher voter turnout because every vote counts in determining who wins a seat and minority parties suddenly have a shot at winning seats, veteran Montreal municipal activist Andrea Levy said.
“One of the greatest advantages of PR is to increase interest and participation because it opens up the possibilities for smaller parties and minorities,” she said.

“So from the vantage point of diversity, from the vantage point of democracy, from the vantage point of participation, proportional representation is one of the fundamental reforms.”

The possibility of electing smaller parties and independent candidates would mean more watchdogs on council, she noted.

Turnout in Montreal elections has varied between 30 and 50 per cent over the last 20 years. Public apathy allows corruption to flourish, Levy added.

In the 1990s, while member of a small reform party called Ecology Montreal, Levy co-wrote a proposal to introduce PR into Montreal’s electoral system.

The proposal seemed to die with the party, until Projet Montréal adopted it in its inaugural program in 2005. However, the party dropped PR from the program before the 2009 municipal election, leaving Cliche, Levy and other reformers frustrated.

Similarly, the now-defunct Montreal Citizens’ Movement dropped PR from its program when it was elected to city hall in 1986.

There are different forms of PR, and the easiest one to introduce in Montreal without an overhaul of the system would be mixed-member proportional, which exists in local elections in London, England, Levy said.
Under that system, Levy proposes 40 city councillors would be elected by district under the traditional first-past-the-post system. Meanwhile, another 20 would be elected citywide using PR.

“That’s a fairly simple system and easy enough to explain,” Levy said. The advantage is the 20 PR seats would compensate for the distortions of the first-past-the-post system, she said.

A more complicated system, but one that Cliche and Levy said they favour, is the single-transferable vote system. The system is less common, used in Ireland and Scotland, and for city and school board elections in Cambridge, Mass.

Under that system, each voter elects multiple candidates and ranks their order of preference on the ballot, placing a “1” by their first choice, “2” by their second choice and so on.

A winning threshold — the minimum number of votes needed to win a seat — is calculated based on the number of valid ballots cast and the number of seats to be filled. Any candidate on the list who exceeds the minimum gets elected. If a candidate gets more votes than the minimum, the surplus votes are transferred to voters’ next preference. If no candidate gets the minimum number of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the list and their votes are transferred to the next preference of the electors who voted for the eliminated candidate.
No ballots are wasted because votes cast for a losing candidate as well as excess votes for a winning candidate are transferred to electors’ next-choice candidates.

Electoral reform is also a theme in Toronto, where city council made a groundbreaking decision in June to adopt a ranked ballot system that would see voters rank candidates in order of preference rather than marking off their top choice on the ballot.

But while the Toronto proposal, which has yet to be accepted by the Ontario legislature, may sound like the single-transferable vote, it’s still a winner-take-all system electing a single member per district.
Under Toronto’s proposal, which is also known as instant run-off, a candidate would have to garner a majority of votes and not just more votes than the second-place finisher to win a seat. If no candidate earns more than 50 per cent of the vote when all the first-place finishes are counted, the last-place candidate would be eliminated and the second choices of the voters who cast ballots in favour of that candidate would be allocated to the remaining candidates. The process of eliminating last-place finishers would continue until a candidate surpasses 50 per cent of the vote.

lgyulai@montrealgazette.com