We Have a Fundamental Problem

While people throughout the world take to the streets to protest in the name of democracy,  we who assume we live in a democracy fail to define it, to improve it, or even, I am sad to say, to fundamentally question it.  As long as others elsewhere have it worse, we can rest on our laurels and assume our system, while always giving us something to complain about, is still the least bad of all the systems – a sort of cynical inversion of Leibniz’s ‘best of all possible worlds.’

And yet 43.25% of all Manitobans eligible to vote in the last election did not even bother, perhaps a small few due to ideological anarchistic or libertarian reasons.  The rest are just plain quitting, and this should be an alarm to all democracy-loving citizens, including politicians and elected officials – of all parties and independents alike.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that those in control of the levers of power would prefer we not  question the way our democracy functions, and would rather play the cynical game of our electoral process, called First Past the Post (FPP).  Has anyone heard of any high-level NDP minister mentioning anything about electoral reform since 1999?  No, they’d rather run campaigns of fear and style themselves as the progressives in Manitoba, despite part of their record over the last 12 years indicating otherwise (see 6 key issues).  And hey, with the media and the system already having determined that there are two major parties who could form government, it’s easy to hold yourself up as the progressive option if you’re in the NDP, compared with the PCs and the Filmon days.  But is this progress?




“If you don’t like what you see, why don’t you fight it?
If you know there’s something wrong why don’t you right it?”

How it “Works”

You see, with 57 electoral divisions in Manitoba, each party and some independents vie to gain seats in the Manitoban legislature.  The Member of the Legislative Asssembly (MLA) is determined by the candidate with the largest number of votes in an electoral division.  Seems fair, right?  You are in first place in numbers of votes so you win, correct?  Well, let’s think about it and break down the numbers a bit.  If there were two candidates running, the person with the greater number of votes would – excepting a large number of rejected ballots – have a majority of the votes.  Based on this majority, the person could have a more reasonable claim, albeit still debatable, to the entire seat.  However, FPP while functional for only 2 parties, exists in a province and country where multiple parties run: around 5 major parties nationally and 4 provincially, along with a host of other smaller parties.    So you gain control of the entire seat sometimes with less than 50% support, often less than 30% support if you include the non-voters.  Controlling the whole turf by holding the biggest block is not the logic of a democratic society; it is the logic of a gang!

If people were to vote for what ideas they really favoured – the candidate or the party with the platform closest to their held views – they would vote FOR something positive, FOR a progressive person, party or idea.  However, so often Manitoba politics, like those in the U.S., degenerate into something more like a heavyweight boxing match between the two main parties.  Witness all the attack ads in the current election.  I would argue that in a different electoral system the dial would be toned way down on these ads; parties could run on their platform or their record in government and let the votes fall where they may.   However, I would venture to say that many people vote against  a party in a FPP system.  I already have read debates on Facebook where people say things to the effect of “I am voting NDP because I don’t want the Conservatives to get in” or “I don’t care much for McFadyen but I am tired of an NDP government, so I’ll vote PC.”  The attack ads say the same thing:  democracy as we define it within the rules of FPP  is not about vision, but fear; not about cooperation but animosity; not about progressive ideas but about holding a steady middle.  

Many have held their noses and voted.   Many more seem to be tired of this tack and have stopped voting altogether.  People talk about imposing fines for those not showing up at the polls to vote, as is tried in Australia, but I’d venture to say that people would further resent the political system if this was tried, and it would not produce a more progressive style or substance of politics, but simply would allow those in power to think they have a more legitimate mandate due to higher turnouts.

Let’s Start to Solve This Problem

There are multiple ways to address the electoral system, but they all require caring about the 43% of our fellow citizens as having equal importance to those 57% who still mark an “X” every four years on a ballot.  I mean the 57% could be lauded for getting up and getting out to vote, but it is still, after all, only a 5 second process of marking an X on a piece of paper every 4 years.  Not exactly participatory democracy, one of the 6 principles of the Global Greens.   There is much more we can do to encourage citizen participation, which I discuss on my page “The Role of an MLA.”

But let’s look at electoral reform specifically here.  There have been referendums in several provinces across Canada in recent years, along with one in Great Britain as a result of a Conservative minority government.  In each of the Canadian referendums, each of which rejected a very specific electoral system they were being offered as an alternative to FPP, a citizen’s committee was first struck representing a broad geographic diversity, and that committee studied several electoral systems and later brought an option for the citizens to vote on.

Now in general, throughout what we think of, perhaps chauvanistically and falsely as ‘the democratic world,’ the majority of voting systems in place involve some measure of proportional representation.  What does this mean?  It means, that unlike in Manitoba, YOU COUNT when you vote – every vote counts towards seats, more or less.   In countries with strict proportional representation – like Italy and Israel – you get a very fractured vote and parties have to do an awful lot of negotiating to form the government, as seldom if not never does one party achieve a parliamentary majority.  In Israel, this system has led to unstable coalitions and often the inclusion of rather radical nationalistic or religious parties in the coalition, to the detriment of the peace process.  This kind of proportional representation (PR) is generally NOT what Greens or democrats are talking about when they favour PR.

A more popular proposal is a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system.  In this kind of election, held in Germany and elsewhere, 2/3 of the seats still are tied to geographic areas and voted on directly by citizens, while the last third come from party lists, proportioned according to how many people voted for that party by %.  Thus, on one’s ballot, one choose their representative AND one votes also for their favourite party.   The two need not match.  One could choose a popular local but not that person’s party.  This system has proven in Germany to produce stable coalition governments, as for two terms recently the Greens (die Grunen) and the Social Democrats formed a stable coalition.

One knock on PR is that people vote only for the general party and the party lists are determined by the parties members.  If a party receives 10% of the vote in a parliament with 308 seats, it will be given 31 seats, and the first 31 names on the party’s lists become the MPs.  The complaint against PR in Ontario  – though it did not vote on this straight-up PR system but a mixed-member proportional (MMP) – is that people who were not directly approved by the voters could serve in the Ontarian parliament, and thus accountability could decline.  A proportional system of this sort would require more people to join political parties to have more direct impact.  With the current democratic inertia in our society, I think we could not expect a large number of people to suddenly join parties, even though more creative and issue-oriented parties would organically emerge.  Hence I think we might want to consider a transitional first step just to make our current system actually democratic, and to embody the possibility for people that we can change our own systems as we evolve our democracy into a mature one.  The suggested correction is called a “ranked” or “numbered” or 1-2-3 ballot.

Vote 1-2-3

I must credit independent candidate in Kildonan-St.Paul federally, Eduard Hiebert, for turning me on to the 1-2-3 ballot as a positive step towards reclaiming grassroots and foremost local democracy.  This concept should make so much obvious common sense to everyone that I have a hard time imagining a strong argument against it, except by those in or near power who want to maintain a two-party domination, like in the U.S.of A, and gain total control of government, without having to compromise except perhaps around the elite round table of cabinet or occasionally the general party caucus.  Once you consider the 1-2-3 system, you may start to wonder how the wool has been pulled over our eyes for so long, and, if you vote proudly, how you’ve been able to hold your head up at simply marking an X on your ballot while tolerating multi-party electoral races.

A ranked ballot allows you to show you have thought about the candidates more than just in a binary yes-no fashion.  It allows you to express the nuance of your first choice, your second choice, etc – as many candidates as there are, that many you can vote for.  Life is not black and white but many shades in between, so why shouldn’t our electoral choices be the same.  Someone can win a seat under FPP with 38% for example, but how do we know that the 62% of the voters don’t actually despise this person, but split their votes between 2 or 3 other candidates?  Perhaps one had been a popular local business owner from a rather unpopular party, another an unknown person in a more popular party, and a fourth maybe a well-liked celebrity with little political background?  you can see how and why the votes would split up and elect the despised person that at least has the biggest single block of supporters.  You can see how the logic of the gang is at play.  The only way to defeat this despised person would be to “gang up” or pool together the other 62% and only have one other candidate against him or her.  But then we’re back to US-style politics and who says the other three actually have the same vision for the society?  Vision has almost no place in a FPP society, and anyone watching this Manitoban election so far can see this.

So instead, in a 1-2-3 ranked ballot, one would mark their various choices and not have to worry about the ‘other guy’ getting in.  One could vote FOR whomever one wanted and then make the second choice the Plan B buffer against the unliked character or party.  If nobody achieves 50% of the votes after they are counted, then another round of counting is initiated, but this time the last place person is dropped from the race, and the ballots marking that person 1st are redistributed according to those voters’ second choices.  The new count may produce a winner with 50% of the votes.  Or, it may require dropping the new last place person and again redistributing.the ballots, likely producing someone with 50% of the votes, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choices.  Who was first after one round may not win, as would be the case in the extreme example of a despised person given above.  Or if you recall the Liberal leadership election that Stephane Dion won, all the votes coalesced against Michael Ignatieff, who led after the first round.  But in that case people voted again between rounds, an expensive proposition for general elections, the equivalent of voting 1-2-3 but without the crass horse-trading that goes on at such conventions.

The person being elected through a 1-2-3 system in more than just one round become a micro-coalition – a combination of various voters’ senses of who they want to represent them and what issues are important to them.  As such, the second or third or fourth round MLA suddenly has to pay way more attention to the wishes of local citizens, his/her constituents, and cannot simply obey the party whip all the time.  That strengthens the local at the expense of party solidarity, which returns much of the power into local hands and away from political parties.  It could create new mechanisms on the local level, such as citizens’ committees reporting to their fellow citizens through the MLA’s office and town halls and local forums more often throughout the year.  I talk about this more in my page “the role of an MLA” as a facilitator of bottom up democracy against top-down democracy.  This vision of democracy, I believe, of active citizens holding elected officials to account is more like what the ancient Greeks were talking about, unlike the democracy-blocking first past the post system.  The 1-2-3 ballot, aka the ‘alternative vote’ (AV) system, was rejected by British voters, likely due to a stodgy traditionalism and a lack of popular education on how the system works – after all, Brits has already accepted a three party system by splicing their vote towards a third party, the Liberal Democrats.  The next logical step would have been to adopt an electoral system that makes room for multiple parties.

STV – Single Transferable Vote

The referendums in BC – the first rejected by <1.5% – were on the citizens’ committee-recommended single transferable vote.  STV is a more complex and less directly geographically-representative version of the AV system, as it creates multi-member ridings that are larger than current ones.  Thus, for instance in Manitoba: St Johns, Kildonan, Burrows and Point Douglas could become on multi-member riding, and with a much larger number of candidates on our ballots – including multiples from the same party – we could fill out a ranked ballot with all our choices.   There’s a lot more to keep track of here, as we’d perhaps elect 4 people collectively out of 20 or more.  And Greens would be against other Greens, NDPers against other NDPers, etc.   And the rounds of counting would take a day or so.  But the results could produce a far more interesting dynamic: some people elected based on support from part of the super-riding, others based on a single issue, and others still coming from minority communities.  This sort of election also tends to create a more equitable result for women, who start to resemble their 50+% role in STV parliaments.  This system is one that would require greater explanation, and I encourage keeners to Google it.   It is currently the Manitoba Greens policy to favour an STV system, but I argued at that AGM that we should not favour one system or another but leave it to non-partisan citizens to lead the way to electoral reform, for ultimately this is everyone’s democracy.  I may, however, offer a resolution at our next AGM favouring the AV 1-2-3 system, as it’s an easy and obvious first change to make to our electoral system, and could get citizens engaged again in politics with the realization that only we, the citizens, the people, can change the systems in which we live.

“It’s coming from the feel
that this ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to Canada, eh?”

with apologies to L. Cohen.


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