Thursday, March 15, 2012

How to get to the fair voting system: consultation

(Updated August 26, 2014)

Thomas Mulcair, like all NDP leadership candidates, said he will move forward with party policy: “New Democrats believe in:
a. Reforming Canada’s electoral system through mixed member proportional representation
b. Ensuring electoral reform is based on a transparent process with wide citizen involvement.”


The NDP motion in the House of Commons on March 3, 2011, proposed a Special Committee engage with Canadians, and make recommendations, on how best to achieve a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the votes of Canadians by combining direct election by electoral district and proportional representation, and report its recommendations in no more than one year.

That's called a Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP), or in French, le mode de scrutin mixte compensatoire (mixed compensatory voting system). The basic idea of MMP is simple and practical: We still elect local MPs. Voters unrepresented by the local results top them up by electing regional MPs. The total MPs match the vote share.

All MPs, both local and regional, will be accountable. Instead of having only a local MP -- whom you quite likely didn’t vote for -- you can also go to one of your diverse regional MPs, all of whom had to face the voters. An exciting prospect: voters have new power to elect who they like. Cooperation will have a higher value than vitriolic rhetoric. Governments will have to listen to MPs, and MPs will have to really listen to the people. MPs can begin to act as the public servants they are. All party caucuses will be more diverse. No party rolls the dice and wins an artificial majority. Every vote counts equally, whether it's Saskatchewan NDP voters, most Quebec Conservative voters, or Alberta Liberal voters, all of whom were robbed of their voice in 2011.

Design options

How will this Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system work? What design options will the public be consulted on?

There are lots of working models, such as Germany, Scotland, New Zealand, and different variations in different German provinces. They have already been reviewed in detail by the Law Commission of Canada, after holding 15 public consultations across Canada. The Commission’s goal was to balance the benefits of introducing some element of proportionality into the existing system with the capacity to maintain accountable government, most notably as a direct link between elected politicians and their constituents.

But that was in 2004. Designing today’s model needs new consultations.

The model designed by the Ontario Citizens Assembly in 2007 was, in hindsight, not the best with its province-wide closed lists. As the Jenkins Commission in the UK said, “additional members locally anchored are, we believe, more easily assimilable into the British political culture and indeed the Parliamentary system than would be a flock of unattached birds clouding the sky and wheeling under central party directions.”

Six important decisions must be made, with consultation, about how to combine direct election by electoral district with proportional representation.

1. Will voters elect the regional “top-up” MPs by a closed list model, open list, flexible list, or no-list? Most MMP models use closed list. The German province of Bavaria uses open list; the regional candidate with the most votes gets any regional seat needed to top-up the local results to make every vote count equally. The German province of Baden-Wurttemberg uses no lists; the regional “top-up” MPs elected by voters for an under-represented party are the local candidates of that party who came closest to winning local seats (see note below). The Jenkins Commission in the UK proposed adapting Sweden’s list model, which lets voters vote either for the regional list or for one candidate on it (“flexible list”). Canada’s Law Commission also recommended flexible list. Quebec’s Director-General of Elections also discussed MMP design in Dec. 2007 after a one-year study, and said “The aim of the flexible list system is to achieve a balance between voter choice, which is usually associated with open lists, and better representation of women and minorities, usually attributed to closed lists.”

2. Will the total number of MPs change? Some residents of remote regions like Northern Ontario would prefer to keep all their present electoral districts and add new regional MPs. Some urban residents would prefer to keep the House of Commons at its present size (338 MPs in the 2015 election). The Law Commission recommended no change in the number of MPs except three more from the Territories.

3. What is the ratio of local MPs to regional top-up MPs? Germany generally uses 50/50. Scotland has 57% local MPs. New Zealand has 58% local MPs. Wales has 67% local MPs, the highest ratio found anywhere. Higher ratios risk not having enough regional MPs to compensate perfectly for disproportional local results. The Law Commission recommended almost 2/3 local MPs, perhaps 62%. With smaller "top-up" regions, the regional MPs feel more accountable, and the ratio of local MPs could be lower. If we keep 338 MPs, that might be from 209 to 202 local MPs, and 122 to 129 regional MPs. Often, three existing ridings would become two larger ridings, or five would become three, but the number from the region would not change.

4. How large are the regions? Scotland’s have 16 MPs, Wales has 12. The Jenkins Commission in the UK recommended medium-small regions of only 8 MPs. A small-region model for Quebec (three or five MNAs per region) was rejected in 2006 after its Citizens’ Committee reported the effective threshold “could be between 13 and 17%. Given that one of the objectives of reform is to ensure effective representation of the electorate in terms of equality of votes, this threshold is far from being acceptable.” For Canada’s four smallest provinces, the “region” is likely the whole province. If we use the Law Commission’s 64% local MPs, we would see nine local MPs in Saskatchewan and five provincial MPs; Manitoba would be the same. In larger provinces, regions with an average range of 14 MPs (9 local, 5 regional) would reflect experience in Scotland and Wales. In BC we might have four regions: two in the Lower Mainland (each 8 local MPs, 5 regional), the Interior (6 local, 3 regional), and Vancouver Island (4 local, 3 regional). In Alberta we might also have three regions: Calgary (6 local MPs, 4 regional), Edmonton (7 local, 4 regional), and the rest of Alberta (8 local, 5 regional). In Ontario we might see nine regions: Central Toronto-Scarborough (8 local MPs, 5 regional), Northern Toronto--Etobicoke (7 local, 5 regional), Peel-Halton (9 local, 7 regional), York-Durham (9 local, 6 regional), Hamilton-Niagara-Waterloo (11 local, 7 regional), London-Windsor-Bruce (9 local, 5 regional), Barrie-Peterborough-Kingston (8 local, 5 regional), Eastern Ontario (7 local, 4 regional), and Northern Ontario (6 local, 3 regional). In Quebec we might see five regions with a total of 47 local MPs, 31 regional. But advocates of "moderate proportionality" would suggest regions of only six or eight MPs, such as regions averaging eight MPs.

5. Should a party have to reach a threshold, such as 5% of the vote in that province, to qualify for regional top-up MPs in that province? Or 4%? Both are common thresholds in Europe. A threshold of 3% is unusual, and when the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly proposed 3% it was an unpopular feature. New Zealand’s Royal Commission recommended 4%, their government changed that to 5% when the system was designed, but the latest review of their model again recommends 4%. But with regions of only 14 or eight MPs, a threshold might look unnecessary. Still, suppose 11% of the voters in Northern Ontario voted for a Northern Ontario Party, enough to elect one MP, but that would be less than 1% of the total Ontario vote. Should it have to meet a 4% threshold? Next, should a party be exempt from the vote threshold if it wins one or two local seats in a province? Germany exempts a party that wins three local seats nationally. New Zealand has a local-seat threshold of one seat, but this made some small parties captive to a larger ally who let them win a local seat, so its latest review recommends abolishing that.

6. Should voters elect local MPs as we do today, by First-Past-The-Post, or should they use a preferential ballot? No working MMP model does this. However, some supporters of proportional representation for Canada admire the Jenkins Report in the UK, which did propose this option, so it should be considered.

Other issues are pretty easy:

1. Should voters have two votes, one for local MP, one regional vote for a regional list or a regional candidate? All normal MMP models give voters two votes, making the local MP more accountable. As many as 35% of voters in New Zealand feel free to vote for a local candidate of a different party than they want in government, since only their second vote determines the party make-up of the House.

2. Can a party nominate a candidate to run for a local seat and also run regionally? If the candidate wins a local seat, their name drops from the regional list. “Dual candidacy” is permitted in almost every MMP model, and with any flexible list or open list model it gives voters more choice. (However, with closed lists a dual candidate can look immune to voter rejection.)

3. If a regional seat becomes vacant, should it be filled by the party's regional candidate who stood next at the last election? Or should there be a regional by-election which would be rather costly? No working MMP model does this. Besides, as the Jenkins Commission stated, if a region-wide contest were to take place "it would almost by definition result in the victory of the predominant party in the area, thus negating the essential purpose of the Top-up seats."

Then there are some technical issues.

1. Within larger provinces, should seats be calculated by the regional count alone, or should the province-wide count set the number of top-up MPs, which are then allocated to each region in some way? Germany does this, but does not guarantee each region will have a fixed number of seats. Sweden and Norway set aside seats (11% in Sweden, 5% in Norway) to allocate to parties who were short-changed by the regional calculations, but again some regions would get extra seats. Using the regional count has the virtues of simplicity and transparency, but with only 38% top-up MPs they might not compensate perfectly for a regional sweep.

2. With “flexible list” a regional candidate will move up the regional list if he or she gets enough personal votes, and win election ahead of another candidate whom the party’s regional nomination process had ranked higher. How many is enough? Sweden and Belgium use different calculation techniques which need study.

3. What rounding formula should be used to round fractions up and down in the proportional calculation? “Highest remainder” helps small parties, “highest average” helps large parties, and the “Ste.-Lague” calculation now used in Germany is more neutral but harder to explain. With smaller regions such as eight MPs, "highest remainder" might be essential to offset the small regions.

One way to reach these decisions is to have a discussion draft. The Law Commission recommended: “The federal government should prepare draft legislation on a mixed member proportional electoral system as proposed in this Report. After drafting the legislation, a Parliamentary committee should initiate a public consultation process on the proposed new electoral system.” Quebec prepared a draft bill in this way in 2005, but it took a long time to get through their government caucus, and it produced a poor model. Another way is to have a new expert Commission hold the consultations, perhaps jointly with a Parliamentary Committtee and a Citizens’ Committee. These details are not easy to debate in a referendum; about 70% of Canadians support proportional representation, but in the Ontario referendum the image of unrepresentative party hacks from Toronto getting in through the back door was fatal.

Note: for problems with the "no-list" method used in Baden-Wurttemberg, see Chapters 9 and 14 of Massicotte's Report. In regions that tend to give the same party massive support, that party may have no losing candidates! Since 1956, such an outcome has occurred five times, always in the region of Tübingen, which very strongly backs the CDU. So any "top-up" seats go to substitute candidates nominated before the election at the same time as the primary candidate, in the event of such an outcome.