The next federal election is tentatively scheduled for October next year, but it seems like everyone is already in campaign mode – indeed, it seems like they’ve been in campaign mode since 2011 (one wonders if Trudeau was born in campaign mode). Ontarians are going to the polls in a few weeks, while Quebeckers just finished booting the PQ out, and New Brunswick is next up in September (tentatively). Fair voting is hot in the news now thanks to Poilievre’s sarcastically-titled Fair Elections Act. Our current government is one that has had every single electoral victory they have enjoyed since 2006 become the subject of an official investigation by Elections Canada for various types of fraud (robocalls, in & out, etc.). Seems like a good time to talk about electoral reform!
Atheism in and of itself is theoretically politically neutral, though there are some political positions that just seem to naturally follow from it, like secularism. There are atheists all across the political spectrum. (Humanism is much less apolitical, of course.) Finding an issue that all atheists can agree on seems nigh impossible.
Well in Canada, there may be such an issue in electoral reform.
First, some background.
In Canada, all levels of government in all provinces, municipalities, and federally use the ancient electoral system we inherited from our (former?) British overlords. The systems is known by many names – simple plurality, winner-takes-all – but the most widely used name is “first-past-the-post” (or FPTP).
FPTP is simple: given a set of candidates, each voters picks one of the candidates, and the winning candidate is the one chosen by most voters. In our federal and provincial elections, this process is done in dozens or hundreds of ridings, and then the collected winners get together and form a government. The premier or prime minister is chosen by the collected winners – obviously, each chooses the leader of their own party (independents can pick anyone, but their vote has never made a difference). Simple. Even a child can understand.
Unfortunately, it turns out that this system – while simple – is terrible. It fails just about every single criterion for a fair and democratic voting system that applies to it. The only exceptions are those criteria that are mutually exclusive (for example, the Condorcet criterion and the participation criterion), and the majority criterion… and the majority criterion is only half-satisfied (if the majority wants X to win, they will, but if the majority does not want X to win, they still might), and even then only for individual ridings but not for the government as a whole. Literally the only electoral systems that score worse are the random winner systems which are used hypothetically when studying voting systems.
In fact, as it turns out, our electoral system is one of the worst in the world when it comes to metrics of representativeness. The chart below shows the Gallagher index for Canada’s last few federal elections, and the world average. The Gallagher index is a measure of the disproportionality of elections – the higher the number, the less representative the elected government is of the people’s wishes. Zero – meaning no deviation from what the people want – is the ideal.
As you can see, Canada is fairly consistently higher than the global average, but bear in mind that the global average is not good – it includes those countries that are extremely undemocratic (Monaco, for example, is always up in the thirties), and very small (for mathematically obvious reasons, it is a lot harder to have a perfectly representative government when your government is tiny). Most representative governments have values that are less than about three; you can see Canada never comes anywhere close.
Let’s talk real numbers. Using only elections since 1990, Denmark scores 1.93, Finland: 3.27, Norway: 3.19, and Sweden: 1.80. Germany scores 4.00, but most of that is due to the 2013 election, which had their highest disproportionality ever for some reason, at 7.83 – without that election Germany scores 3.36. New Zealand scores 6.44, but they overhauled their electoral system in 1996 – if you only count the elections after the reform, their score is 2.69. Canada’s score for that period? A whopping 12.20. That is almost five times the average of those other countries (only considering New Zealand after its reform, of course).
Go ahead and try to make excuses for this horrible lack of democratic balance. None will fly. For example, do you want to try and argue that this problem is due to Canada’s size? Nice try. But the five biggest countries in the world are Russia, Canada, China, the US, and Brazil. Scratch China because it isn’t even remotely democratic (you can’t have a meaningful election disproportionality index without meaningful elections). As mentioned above, Canada’s representative disproportionality since 1990 is 12.20 – would you like to wager a guess which of the other three are higher or lower? This may shock you, but Russia scores 7.55 (and, really, it’s not exactly a paragon of democracy), and Brazil scores 3.47. Ouch. Okay, what about the US? We can at least beat those guys, right? Guess again. If you just look at their presidential elections – which are notoriously disproportionate (remember Bush winning in 2000 despite losing the popular vote?) – their average since 1990 is 11.64… which is bad, but still better than Canada. But a more fair comparison would be to their House of Representative elections – it’s a better analogue to our own Lower House – and for those elections, the US scores… 3.65. See what I mean? Canada’s representative disproportionality is not just bad… it’s embarrassingly bad.
This is not just a hypothetical problem. The lack of representativeness caused by our system means that our government will not actually represent the will of the people. And, naturally, political parties have evolved to exploit the weaknesses of the system. Take a look at the chart below. The dotted line is the ideal – when a party has earned precisely the right number of seats for the popular support it has. When a party scores above that line, it has undeserved seats – when a party scores below, it has been cheated out of seats.
Notice that in every single election, the party with the greatest disproportionality advantage was the winner (not counting the Bloc Québécois in 2006, because it only runs in Québec – the Conservatives won a minority government that election). Winning by disproportionality means the winning party can often end up with a very brittle lead, that can be broken quite easily. Because of that, Canada has had the most unstable government in the first world, with elections being called every couple of years until one party establishes a majority that they can use to squelch the power of all other parties – cooperation and partnership is not a winning strategy in this electoral system.
Because of the nature of the FPTP system, parties with very localized support have an enormous advantage – look at the chart above to see the Bloc Québécois’ performance. Playing provinces off against each other has become a staple of Canadian federal politics, but the same kind of thing happens at other levels of government, too – such as playing urban areas off against rural areas.
All of this should make any Canadian be in favour of electoral reform, but for atheists, freethinkers, and humanists in particular, the current system is particularly unfavourable.
There are several reasons for this:
- The current system favours regional parties – parties whose support is very localized.
Unfortunately, none of atheism, freethought, humanism, or secularism are geographically-localized ideologies – quite the opposite, in fact. The fact that we’re spread out across the country means that even though we may have many more supporters than other, geographically-concentrated voting blocs, we can’t have the same level of political power.
Consider the Bloc Québécois. The only reason the Bloc Québécois had any real power in federal politics – even becoming the official opposition in 1993 (despite being 4th place in the popular vote!) – is because all of their support is tightly concentrated. In the last election they “lost” badly, winning only 4 seats with less than 900,000 votes. But… wait a second… in the previous election the Green Party got almost 950,000 votes, and they got zero seats. (And if you go back to previous elections, you see similar bullshit – in 2004, for example, they got 54 seats on 1.7 million votes, while the NDP got 19 on 2.1 million.) Nonbelievers as a voting block are much like Green Party supporters – not in the ideological sense, but in the demographic sense: we are fairly well spread across the country (and strongest in BC, natch). For the same reasons that the Greens can’t get any real power, we won’t be able to either.
We make up ~25% of the country – our population is comparable to Québec – but because we are dispersed more or less uniformly across the country, we mean nothing to the balance of political power. Meanwhile, Québec alone can turn the entire government. Can you imagine if we had had an “atheist party” with as much influence as the Bloc Québécois has had over the years (or far more, actually, because the BQ doesn’t come close to representing all of Québec)?
- The current system favours non-compromising, ideologically hardline parties.
Duverger’s law states that countries that use an electoral system like Canada’s will, in time, become two-party states. The US is the prime example of this. In our system, tiny swings in public support can cause enormous swings in political power. The Conservatives, the NDP and the Liberals were all ~10% apart in the last election, but they got 166, 103, and 34 seats respectively. With so much on the line with just a few percentage points, parties have to fight tooth-and-nail for every little bit of public support, all the time – that’s why our politicians seem to be in perpetual campaign mode. You can’t cooperate with the party you’re trying to demonize to keep their support down and yours up.
But atheism, freethought, and humanism are not left or right positions (well, humanism leans strongly left); they are positions which can be either on the left or right of the political spectrum, depending on which is more reasonable for a given situation. Reasonable compromise is really our thing, but our current political system makes reasonable discussion and compromise a losing strategy.
Imagine this hypothetical scenario: There is a population of 1,000,000, with 100 ridings up for grabs, and the demographics of each riding is exactly the same – of the 10,000 voters, 3,334 of them want the theocratic party A while 3,333 of them want left-wing secular party B and 3,333 of them want right-wing secular party C. In other words, across this country, 333,400 want a theocracy while 666,600 don’t… but half of those want a left-wing government while the other half want a right-wing government, even though they would accept a government of the other political leaning so long as it kept the government secular. Guess what happens under our current electoral system. You got it – the theocrats, despite only having a third of the country’s support (and two-thirds’ utter contempt) – win all 100 seats. The more you split the vote of reasonable people – which is not hard to do, because there are many ways you can reasonably lean politically – the easier it is for the kooks to muster and take absolute (or at least extremely disproportionate) power. What would happen under a proportionate system? Exactly what you’d expect – the theocrats would win 34 seats, while the other two parties got 33 each. And at that point, both party B and C would realize that cooperating is their best strategy, because if they don’t, that means the theocrats are in power by default… which their supporters definitely do not want (remember, each party’s supporters’ second choice was the other secular party). If one party refuses to cooperate, their supporters will punish them in the next election (if both refuse to cooperate, well, then it’s a lost cause of course, but there is strong motivation to do so). The need for cooperation and coalition means more reasonable voices prevail, as opposed to the current system where the only way to make a government work is with an absolute majority so you can just ignore the other 60% or 70% of Canada – that’s fertile soil for stubborn hardline partisan tactics.
- The current system favours political conservatism (small ‘c’ – meaning not making any meaningful changes; no relation to the Conservative Party).
It’s a fact of politics that doing nothing is usually safer than taking action, unless and until you are absolutely forced to. Studies have shown that countries with systems like ours are less likely to enact policies in line with popular will, and less likely to take any action that might have any negative political consequences.
Want an example? Okay: abolishing the public Catholic school system in Ontario. Not going to happen. Why not? Because even though the majority of Ontarians – hell, the majority of Catholics – support abolition, the party that does so will almost certainly see a ~10% hit in their popularity from the hardliners. A 10% change in support shouldn’t mean much – it’s 11 seats in Ontario, which doesn’t change the balance of power at all – but because of disproportionality effects, a 10% shift can mean 50 seats (as it did in the 2007 election). No party can take that risk. So even though the majority of Ontarians want the public Catholic system abolished, our electoral system will prevent it from happening, at least in the near future.
- The current system silences minority voices.
All plurality and majoritarian systems have this in common: the winners are the ones the majority wants. That sounds good on the surface, but the corollary is that the all of the minority voices are absolutely and completely silenced in government. (“Minority” is a shifting standard, too, under our current system. 49% is a “minority”, so you can end up with situations where half the population does not get a voice in government. Even worse is when there are more than two candidates: just under (100 − (100 ÷ N))% of the population will get no representation – when N is 4 (as it is for most Canadian elections), that’s just under 75% of the population unrepresented.)
We nonbelievers make up ~25% of the population. You would expect that mean we should have ~25% of the power in government – which is not an unreasonable expectation; we’re not asking for a majority. But we don’t have that, and we can’t, under the current system: we get 0%. If we want political power in this country, we can either choose to wait for the day when we finally make up over 50% (in which case, we would go from the voiceless minority to the oppressing majority – which I’m not really comfortable with), or we can demand reform in our electoral system.
Canada needs electoral reform badly. All Canadians will benefit from it (except those who don’t actually want to live in a democratic country, I suppose). But atheists, freethinkers, and humanists need it exceptionally badly. We cannot have a voice in our government under the current system – it’s a mathematical impossibility until we become a majority of the Canadian population (unless we all move to Québec, of course).
Despite the importance of the issue, very few political parties – across the spectrum of government – have taken a firm position, and fewer still have proposed a meaningful plan for making it happen. Several times a party that has been dealt an embarrassing defeat because of disproportionality effects has taken up the cause, only to drop it when they win not long after… because of disproportionality effects. The half-assed referendums that have been done in Ontario, PEI, and BC just aren’t going to cut it (obviously) – rather than holding a referendum on the current system versus some specific alternate, what we need is a two-stage process: first a referendum on the current system period, then a referendum between alternatives (that was essentially what was done in New Zealand in 1992 and 1993, where, by the way, neither of the two major parties at the time actually supported reform).
This should be our number one priority in the immediate term – all atheist, freethinker, and humanist associations should refuse to support any political party that does not promise reform to a proportional electoral system (which is the Conservatives at most levels of government, and the federal Liberals), or who fail to deliver on that promise once elected (the Liberals at most levels of government, and the NDP). We can’t get a voice in our government otherwise. Once we have a voice, then we can start pressuring them to take action on other important issues, like the Ontario public school system for example.
Obviously I’ve just barely touched on this enormous and important topic. For more information, including much more detail about the problems, and the outlines of some possible alternatives, check out Fair Vote Canada.