First thing first in voting reform

Québec 2007 - Résultats et conséquences

The familiar post-election chorus is heard once again: We must change our electoral system, because the one we've used for so long is profoundly unfair.
The lament is somewhat muted this time because last month's Quebec election actually came quite close to rewarding parties fairly - that is, making sure National Assembly seat allocation closely matches the parties' shares of the total popular vote.
As the table below demonstrates, this is not always true. The familiar system can truly be unfair. Three times, in fact, the party that got the most votes in a Quebec election did not form the government. This happened in 1944, in 1966, and to Jean Charest in 1998.
It's no coincidence that many democracies around the world now use some sort of proportional representation, or a transferable ballot, or a second round of voting. B.C. considered such a reform in 2005. Ontario is studying the idea now. But if the National Assembly - or the Parliament of Canada - were to be elected in some different way, which method would work best? And what would the consequences be?
A sort of citizens' coalition has sprung up since election day to demand "immediate" changes to Quebec's voting system. That's exactly the wrong approach. These are not questions with simple answers, and though a lot of work has already been done on these questions in this province, more will be needed before the public is ready to accept changes. In the meantime, however, there is simply no excuse for further delay on a more basic and essential reform: to redraw riding boundaries more fairly. The law allows each riding to have 25 per cent more or less than the average number of voters; but about a dozen ridings have more or fewer voters than that limit. Thus, Chambly has 54,497 eligible voters, while Matane has 27,781. This is democracy? This problem should be tackled right now, while proportional representation is sent back to the drawing board.
The last Liberal government worked out a plausible proportional representation plan. It provided for MNAs to be elected in two ways: Some on a geographical basis as at present, the others on the basis of total popular vote within a given region. This "mixed" system partially dispelled one main objection to proportional representation: that it takes power away from electors and gives it to the parties, which choose their own "elected" members.
Benoit Pelletier, the minister in charge of democratic reform in the last Liberal government, had intended to push the proposal into law, to take effect in the second election after passage. But in public hearings, everyone who spoke up, it seemed, had his or her own notion of how to tinker with, or rewrite, the proposal. In the absence of anything like consensus, the scheme was dropped and the director-general of elections was asked to offer advice, which he will do soon.
However the process unfolds, it will have to be watched closely. The existing political parties are manifestly in conflict of interest over this whole subject: the urge to seek partisan advantage in rewriting the rules of the electoral game is overpowering. Quebec has had two major political parties come into existence in the last four decades, but both the Parti Quebecois and the Action democratique are exceptions, not the rule: It's very hard, too hard, to start a new political party in Canada. In many ways, from "third-party" advertising laws to public financing to participation in leaders' debates, existing parties do all they can to pull up the ladder after them.
That's not to say that a plethora of parties is necessarily a good thing. Supporters of the Green Party and Quebec solidaire argue each should have five MNAs, since each won about 3.6 per cent of the vote last month. It might, in fact, be interesting to see both those parties in the Assembly, but we note some proportional representation systems require a five-per-cent threshold - fall short of five per cent of the popular vote and you get nobody elected.
The idea is to avoid having 25 parties, eternally unstable coalition governments, and paralyzed decision-making. But is five per cent a fair threshold? In Ontario, a government-appointed "citizens' commission" on election reform favours a three-per-cent threshold. In Quebec, that limit would have given QS and the Greens each respectable five-member delegations. The minimum threshold question is just one of many issues that need full consideration and public debate before Quebec goes ahead with such changes.
Then there's the question of complexity. After much study, British Columbia came up with a recondite and ponderous "single transferable vote" system. This was subjected to a referendum in 2005, with a super-majority required for passage. In all, 57 per cent of those who cast ballots approved the new system, but that was too few to trigger automatic approval and adoption. The main objection seems to have been the complexity of the proposal.
Should Quebec, too, require that any scheme proposed have to pass the test of a referendum? With a super-majority? That's a touchy question here.
Overall, there are good arguments for and against proportional representation, and more work must be done to make sure the voting public understands all the implications.
In the meantime, riding boundaries are supposed to be redrawn before the next election, and this is the low-hanging fruit of electoral fairness. Allowing 25-per-cent variation is itself abusive, and ignoring even greater variations is unacceptable.
Let's redraw our riding boundaries to a 10-per-cent maximum variation right now. Elections Canada managed to do that for federal districts. Is Quebec less capable of fairness? Let's correct the worst flaw in our system first.
Do We Get the National Assembly We Vote For?
Percentage Percentage Number of Number of
Election Party of votes of seats seats won seats "earned"*
2007 Liberals 33.1% 38.4% 48 41
PQ 28.8% 28.8% 36 36
ADQ 30.8% 32.8% 41 38
Green 3.9% 0% 0 5
QS 3.7% 0% 0 5
2003 Liberals 46% 60.1% 76 58
PQ 33.2% 36% 45 42
ADQ 18.2% 3.2% 4 23
Green 0.4% 0% 0 0
UFP 1.1% 0% 0 1
1998 Liberals 43.6% 38.4% 48 55
PQ 42.9% 60.8% 76 54
ADQ 11.8% 0.8% 1 15
PDS 0.6% 0% 0 1
Equality 0.3% 0% 0 0
1994 Liberals 44.4% 37.6% 47 56
PQ 44.8% 61.6% 77 56
ADQ 6.5% 0.8% 1 8
NDP 0.9% 0% 0 1
Natural Law 0.9% 0% 0 1
QS: Quebec Solidaire; UFP: Union des Forces Progressistes; PDS: Parti des la democratie socialiste.
Numbers may not add perfectly due to rounding.
* The number of seats that would have been allotted by proportional representation.
Source: Director-General of Elections

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