Rate my politicians
Could the way we rate our profs or the products we buy online help us choose our politicians?
This article is part of a series of stories connected to Canada’s 150th anniversary. Watch for pieces tied to the theme “the Canada you didn’t know” throughout the rest of 2017.
If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was a university prof, his Rate My Professor numbers may have suffered when Canadians who were counting on a change to the way we vote heard that his government was abandoning electoral reform. (The impact the news would have had on his chili pepper rating is unclear.)
“During the last federal election, Justin Trudeau made a commitment to reform Canada’s electoral system away from the first-past-the-post system,” says Dr. Chaldeans Mensah, associate professor of political science. “Unfortunately, I think he decided against doing so because he believed it would create more polarization and a sense of discord in Canada.”
Electoral reform has been a difficult subject for Canadian governments for a long time, says Chaldeans. Even so, there are benefits to the system the country inherited from the United Kingdom more than 150 years ago.
“The simplicity of our first-past-the-post system is very attractive, and it has served its purpose, creating very stable governments over the years,” says Chaldeans.
But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. First-past-the-post has several issues, explains Chaldeans, including vote splitting (when a less popular candidate or party wins a seat because two other similar candidates divide the votes of potential supporters between them) and wasted votes (voting for a candidate with no chance of winning).
Those things, among others, can make voters feel like their legislature or parliament doesn’t reflect what the population really wants, and that casting their ballots is meaningless.
“Math—particularly Arrow’s impossibility theorem—tells us why we observe frustrating election outcomes in systems that rank candidates,” says Dr. Karen Buro, associate professor of mathematics and statistics.
“ Math—particularly Arrow’s impossibility theorem—tells us why we observe frustrating election outcomes in systems that rank candidates.” Karen Buro
Ranked voting electoral systems—like first-past-the-post or the instant-runoff voting system—simply can’t satisfy all the criteria for fairness, according to the theorem published in 1951 by Kenneth Arrow.
“At its core, Arrow’s theorem is saying that we need to rethink electoral systems that rank candidates, and look for alternatives—systems that score candidates instead, for example,” she says.
While Karen concedes that scoring systems are more complex than the first-past-the-post simplicity of marking a single “X” on a ballot, it’s something we all know how to do.
First past the post — A winner-takes-all system where the candidate with the highest number of votes wins the seat in their riding. This system doesn’t require an absolute majority (more than 50 per cent of the votes cast).
Instant-runoff voting — Voters rank all candidates in order of preference and ballots are counted for each elector’s top choice. If a candidate gets an absolute majority (more than half of the votes cast), they win the seat. If not, the candidate in last place is removed from consideration and the top remaining choices are counted again. The process repeats until a winner is declared.
Mixed-member proportional representation — Voters cast two votes on a single ballot: one for a local candidate and one for a particular political party. Local candidates are elected using the first-past-the-post system, and make up part of the seats in the legislature or parliament. The remaining seats are filled using the party votes so that the overall makeup of the legislature or parliament matches the overall percentage of votes cast for each party.
“We are used to rating everything from our professors and our performance in classes, to products we’ve purchased and our shopping experiences,” says Karen. “From a mathematician’s perspective, doing the same and using a rating system on our ballots would give us a better measure of the will of the population.”
But convincing people to change—and that one system is a better choice than the others—is easier said than done.
“There’s no perfect electoral system,” says Chaldeans. “Each system requires a balance of different principles—creating stability, recognizing a diversity of viewpoints, offering proportionality of seats or providing regional representation.”
So what’s a country to do?
Both Karen and Chaldeans agree that the mixed-member proportional representation system is, by far, their personal favourite when it comes to replacing the current electoral system.
“I think Canadians generally feel that our current system has merit, but doesn’t do a good job in terms of making sure every vote counts,” says Chaldeans. “If you want reform, I think you have to include a bit of the existing system and a bit of the system that you want.”
The mixed-member proportional representation system used in Germany and New Zealand does just that, combining the first-past-the-post system with proportional representation.
It’s also the system that voters in Prince Edward Island will be deciding whether to implement in a binding referendum that will be held in conjunction with its provincial election in 2019. And they aren’t alone in their bid for provincial electoral reform—since 2000, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec have also considered moving away from the first-past-the-post system currently used in all provinces. Although each has been unsuccessful to date, Chaldeans says if things change in P.E.I., it could open the floodgates.
“My sense is that the reform impetus for federal change may actually come from below,” says Chaldeans. “If we see a couple of provinces work with systems that are very good at balancing diversity of representation with stable, effective governments, then we may get another big push at the federal level.”
Even though federal election reform didn't happen this time, Chaldeans says it’s a 150-year-old conversation that is far from over.
“ ...Countries are trying to design systems that balance representation of many perspectives. To do that, there needs to be meaningfulness in the act of casting a ballot, and each vote must count.” Chaldeans Mensah
“Electoral reform is a good way of renewing the political system. If you look at it globally, politics are becoming more diverse—people have differing concerns, such as environmentalism, gender and social movements—and countries are trying to design systems that balance representation of many perspectives. To do that, there needs to be meaningfulness in the act of casting a ballot, and each vote must count.”
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More Canada 150 stories:
- Music festivals strike an ecological chord: Prof looks beyond the music at festivals across Western Canada
- Questioning multiculturalism: Sociology students dig into the roots of race and ethnic relations
- A foreign concept: Canada may be celebrating 150 years as a country, but its foreign policy is much younger