No easy solution to electoral reform

Changing Canada’s electoral system will mean making compromises, a point that University of Lethbridge political science professor, Dr. Harold Jansen, stressed during his appearance before a recent meeting of the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform.

Federal elections in Canada use the first past the post (FPTP) system where the candidate with the most votes in a riding becomes its Member of Parliament. As a result, many candidates win their seats with less than 50 per cent of votes. About a year ago when he was Liberal leader, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would, if elected, create a committee to look at alternatives to the FPTP system. Alternatives include proportional representation, ranked ballots, mandatory voting and online voting. Jansen was one of several experts to testify before the special committee.

“I would support moving to a proportional system but there are absolutely some costs to that and some uncertainty about what that might mean. We don’t know entirely what that effect would have. You can’t anticipate all the outcomes,” he says.

In his role as a political scientist, Jansen fully grasps the complexity of political systems and he knows easy answers and simple solutions aren’t part of the picture.

 “With electoral systems, there are all these competing things we’re trying to achieve at the same time and they don’t go nicely together,” says Jansen. “Canadians tell us they want a system that’s fair, where if you get 20 per cent of the vote you should get 20 per cent of the seats. At the same time, they want majority governments. We can’t have both those things so we have to make tradeoffs.”

Proportional representation (PR) is one of the alternatives to the FPTP system.  In PR, the percentage of votes a party gets is the percentage of seats they get in the House of Commons. In the alternative vote (AV) system, the voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. A candidate who gains more than half the votes as the first preference among voters would be elected. If no candidate attains a majority of votes, the candidate who received the fewest first preferences would be eliminated and their votes moved to their second preferences. The process continues until one candidate has half the votes. Much like the AV system, the single transferable vote has voters rank candidates but more than one candidate can be elected.

“With the single transferable vote, you tend to get pretty good correspondence between the percentage of the vote and the percentage of the seats in that district,” he says.

Jansen did his doctoral dissertation on the use of the single transferable vote and the alternative vote in Alberta and Manitoba between 1920 and 1955. He currently researches online citizenship or how people engage in politics through the Internet. Surveys show about 38 per cent of Canadians are concerned about the safety of online voting. Even though they think it’s risky, Jansen found many are enthusiastic about online voting. People with high incomes are more likely to vote online, as are those who feel comfortable online and have good technical skills. Older people who didn’t grow up with online technology are the least likely to want to vote online.

“When it comes to paper voting, the older you are the more likely you are to vote. So the message that I wanted to get to the committee was that, if you do decide to make online voting an option, it should be something supplemental. We shouldn’t have fewer polling stations or cut back on the traditional kinds of things that we do. We don’t want to disenfranchise people,” says Jansen.

After his initial presentation, many MPs had questions about how to get citizens to buy into a new electoral system, whether a referendum should be held and the effects of various kinds of systems.

“I told them I didn’t think the alternative vote was a very good option because I don’t think it fixes the fundamental problem that we don’t get a House of Commons that looks like how people voted,” he says.

Overall, Jansen says he found the experience a positive one. MPs on the committee were curious, respectful and willing to grapple with a difficult task on a short timeline. The committee will likely have to report this fall because Elections Canada needs about two years to implement any kind of change.

“I was excited to get the invitation and honoured to have been asked,” says Jansen. “Some of the other people they had testifying are giants in the discipline. How on earth did they ask me? I am still a little baffled by that.”