Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Jenkins Commission’s proportional representation model

(Note: this post was rewritten April 9, 2015)

Canada could add an element of proportionality to our voting system from the UK’s 1998 Jenkins recommendations.

I’m not talking about classic “list-PR” with candidates appointed by central parties. Under this model, every Member of Parliament represents actual voters and real communities.  

Along with the model recommended by the Law Commission of Canada, these are examples of how proportional representation could work for Canada’s House of Commons. Both are similar in principle to the systems currently used in Scotland and Wales.

Every vote counts

Fair Vote Canada says  Never should citizens be denied representation simply because their preferred candidate cannot win a single-member riding.” Once every vote counts, voters will be free to vote for their real first choice, and more voters will find it worthwhile to vote. Turnout is 5 to 6 points higher in countries where the electoral system is proportional.

Mixed Member System

The Law Commission recommended a mixed member system. We still elect local MPs. Voters unrepresented by the local results elect regional MPs. This tops up the local results so the total MPs match the vote share. Fair Vote Canada says “The supporters of all candidates and political parties must be fairly represented in our legislatures in proportion to votes cast.”

You have two votes

The Jenkins Commission called for a moderate mixed member system. You have two votes. With one, you help elect a local MP as we do today. With the other, you also help elect a few regional MPs to top-up the local results so that every vote counts: it’s proportional. You can vote for the regional candidate you prefer: it’s personal. The local MP is elected by a preferential ballot. So it’s proportional, personal and preferential, just as Stéphane Dion wants. Call it P3-MMP.  It still provides accountability, stability and territoriality.

Competing MPs

Fair Vote Canada says We must give rural and urban voters in every province, territory and regional community effective votes and fair representation in both government and opposition.” The Jenkins-inspired model would give citizens of regions across Canada competing MPs: a local MP, and a few regional MPs from a “top-up region” based in their area. A typical region would have eight MPs: five local, three regional “top-up.” Generally, five of today’s ridings become three larger local ridings. Each province still has the same number of MPs it has today. No constitutional amendment is needed.

Moderately proportional

Moderate? With top-up regions averaging eight MPs, on the votes cast in 2011 Green Party voters would likely have elected six MPs. That’s better than the one they actually elected, but fewer than the full 11 they deserved. But once every vote counts, discouraged Green voters will turn out. (See Technical Notes below for how many the Greens could have won.)

And then again, if there was a legal threshold of 5% in each province, under any proportional system the 2011 Green voters would have elected no MPs from Ontario and Nova Scotia, so the Green Party would have no more than five MPs.  

Personal MMP

Polls show at least 70 per cent of Canadians support proportional representation. Back in 2007, Ontario voters did not support a proposal for the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system modelled on the one used in Germany and New Zealand. But this recommendation is for a Personal MMP model.

The Jenkins Commission recommended that your second vote should let you choose either a party or one of the regional candidates nominated by parties. “They should therefore be what are commonly called open rather than closed lists.” The result is that all MPs have faced the voters, and no one is guaranteed a seat.

Will proportional representation swamp the rural voice?

Here’s the answer.

Local MPs become more independent

With two votes, you can vote for the party you want in government. And you can also vote for the local candidate you like best regardless of party, without hurting your party, since it's the second (regional) ballot that determines the party make-up of the legislature. About 32% of voters split their ballots this way in New Zealand with a similar system.

This makes it easier for local MPs to get the support of people of all political stripes. They can earn support for their constituency-representation credentials, not just for their party. This boosts the kind of support MPs bring with them into the House of Commons, thus strengthening their independence.

Fair Vote Canada says “A democratic voting system must encourage citizens to exercise positive choice by voting for the candidate or party they prefer.”

How would regional MPs serve residents?

See how it works in Scotland.

Who would those regional MPs be? First, each party would hold regional nomination meetings and/or vote online to nominate their regional candidates. These would often be the same people nominated locally, plus a few additional regional candidates.  The meeting would decide what rank order each would have on the regional ballot. But then voters in the region would have the final choice.


The Jenkins Commission said the preferential ballot for local MPs “would enable voters to express their second and sometimes third or fourth preferences, and thus free them from” strategic voting, and “lead to more consensual and less confrontational politics.” However, “on its own the preferential ballot would be unacceptable because of the danger that it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality.” Indeed, in the 2011 election in Quebec, where the majority of both federalists and Bloc voters told pollsters the NDP was their second choice, it would have increased the NDP sweep of Quebec. A simulation of the 2011 election shows five more Quebec NDP MPs (three gains from the Bloc, one each from the Liberals and Conservatives). That’s using a poll by EKOS just before the election.

However, the “top-up” regions will correct most of this. As compared with perfect Quebec-wide proportionality, the simulation’s final result is an NDP bonus of two and a Conservative bonus of one, two gains from the Bloc, and one from the Liberals.

Preferential balloting in single-member ridings, on its own, does not yield results that accurately reflect voter intentions. This still violates the democratic principle of equal representation for every voter, just like any winner-take-all system. The preferential ballot in single-member ridings has never led to proportional representation anywhere in the world. As Dion saysPreferential voting . . . does nothing to correct the distortion between votes and seats and the under-representation of national parties compared to regional ones. Other changes are needed to find a voting system that best fits the Canadian context.

Ten different Commissions, Assemblies and Reports in the past eleven years in Canada have unanimously recommended proportional representation.

More people would vote, and vote differently

As Prof. Dennis Pilon says: "Now keep in mind that, when you change the voting system, you also change the incentives that affect the kinds of decisions that voters might make. For instance, we know that, when every vote counts, voters won't have to worry about splitting the vote, or casting a strategic vote. Thus, we should expect that support for different parties might change."
And when every vote counts, turnout will be higher -- perhaps 7% higher. So, when voters have more choice, the results will be far more representative of our diverse population and their diverse views. Who can say what would be the result of real democratic elections?

One thing we know for sure: it is extremely unlikely that voters would vote exactly as they did in 2011.
Meanwhile, I’ve done projections on the votes cast in 2011.

Simulation outcome

Of the 338 MPs to be elected in 2015 (using the votes cast in 2011, transposed by Elections Canada to the new boundaries), under our skewed winner-take-all system Conservative voters would elect 188 MPs, NDP voters 109 MPs, Liberals 36 MPs, Bloc four, Greens one.
With this Jenkins-inspired model, the “top-up” regions will correct most of this. In about 41 or 42 regions across Canada, voters would elect about 201 or 203 local MPs, and about 135 or 137 regional MPs.
From a simulation of the MPs to be elected in 2015 (using the votes cast in 2011), the distortions from perfect proportionality are just what we would expect from “moderate proportionality.” Across Canada, Conservative voters would elect 144 MPs (compared to the perfectly proportional result of 140). NDP voters would elect 108 (not 104), Liberal voters the correct 64, Bloc voters 16 (not 19), and Green voters 6 (not 11).
Accountable MPs

Any proportional system will work well for Canada’s three major metropolitan regions based on Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, which will elect of 119 of Canada’s 338 MP in 2015. But this Jenkins-style model would let voters fairly elect the other 219 MPs, in a total of 41 “top-up regions” across Canada.     

Ontario could have 14 regions: one based in Ottawa, one for Hamilton—Niagara, one for Waterloo—Wellington—Brant—Oxford, one for London—Windsor, one for Northern Ontario, one in the Simcoe—Dufferin—Bruce area, and one in the Kingston—Peterborough—Cornwall area. The GTA’s 55 MPs could be in seven regions.

BC could have a region for the Interior and one for Vancouver Island, while the 26 MPs from the Lower Mainland could be from three regions.

Alberta’s 10 MPs from Calgary could be six local, four city-wide “top-up”. Other regions could be nine from Edmonton, eight from South and Central Alberta, and seven from North Alberta.

Winnipeg’s eight MPs could be five local, three city-wide “top-up.” Manitoba’s six other MPs could be four local, two regional “top-up.”

Saskatchewan could have seven MPs from the south half, seven from the north half.

Quebec’s 78 MPs could be from ten regions, such as East and West Montreal, Laval—Montreal-nord, Longueuil—Suroît, Laurentides—Lanaudière, Outaouais—Abitibi—Nord, Montérégie-est—Estrie, Mauricie—Centre-du-Québec, Quebec City—Saguenay—Côte-Nord, and Chaudière-Appalaches—Gaspésie.

In Atlantic Canada, the “top-up region” is the whole province.

With some models, in order to keep local representation, we keep two-thirds of MPs local. But this may not be enough for fully proportional results. However, with smaller regions, we can have 60% local MPs and 40% regional MPs.  The Jenkins Report recommended 8.25 MPs per region. In Canada, my simulation uses regions ranging in size from seven MPs to ten MPs, plus two six-MP regions and two 11-MP regions. I used 41 regions for 335 MPs (plus three single MPs from the Territories). Outside PEI, they average 8.27 MPs each, giving more local accountability: 201 local MPs and 134 regional MPs, 40% regional.

These regions would still be large enough that every major party would be represented in almost every region. In the simulation, we see a handful of exceptions. Due to the Liberal weakness in 2011, Liberal voters elect no MP among the nine from the BC Interior, the seven from Vancouver Island, the seven from North Alberta, the seven from Saskatoon--North Saskatchewan, and the six from Manitoba outside Winnipeg. And NDP voters elect no MP among the four from Prince Edward Island. But overall, Liberal voters would still elect 64 MPs, the same number perfect province-wide proportionality would have given them.

Conservative voters would have elected two MPs in Montréal-ouest, one in Montreal-est, one in Laval—Montreal-nord, one in Longueuil—Suroît, one in Laurentides—Lanaudière, one in Outaouais—Abitibi—Nord, one in Montérégie-est—Estrie, one in Mauricie—Centre-du-Québec, three (two more than today) in Quebec City—Saguenay—Côte-Nord, and still two in Chaudière-Appalaches—Gaspésie; as well as two in Toronto Centre, and an extra MP in each of Vancouver Island, Northern Ontario, and PEI.

Green Party voters would have elected an MP in Nova Scotia, Simcoe—Dufferin—Bruce, Calgary, Vancouver—Richmond—Delta, the BC Interior, and Vancouver Island.
Power to the voters

An exciting prospect: voters have new power to elect who they like. New voices from new forces in Parliament, more voter choice. No one party rolls the dice and wins an artificial majority. Cooperation will have a higher value than vitriolic rhetoric. One-party dominance by the Prime Minister’s office will, at last, be out of fashion. 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 supposed to be.


Clearly this would allow fair representation of Canada’s political diversity in each region. As Stéphane Dion saysI do not see why we should maintain a voting system that makes our major parties appear less national and our regions more politically opposed than they really are.

In 2011 across Canada it took 35,147 votes to elect a Conservative MP, yet 129,310 Liberal voters in Alberta elected no one. Nor did Metropolitan Montreal’s 222,396 Conservative voters. Nor did 147,214 NDP voters in Saskatchewan.

Would this model also help reflect in Parliament the diversity of society, removing barriers to the nomination and election of candidates from groups now underrepresented including women, cultural minorities and Aboriginals? Polls show that 90% of Canadian voters would like to see more women elected. If they can choose from several of their party's regional candidates, they'll almost certainly elect more women. And as long as a party is nominating at least five regional candidates, you can expect them to nominate a diverse group. With three regional MPs from a region, and five local MPs, a major party would want more than five regional candidates, since any candidates who win local seats are removed from contention for regional seats. 

No central party direction

The models in Ontario and PEI which failed referendums had closed province-wide lists for the additional “top-up” MPPs. This failure was no surprise to the Jenkins Commission. Jenkins said top-up MPs locally anchored to small areas are “more easily assimilable into the political culture and indeed the Parliamentary system than would be a flock of unattached birds clouding the sky and wheeling under central party directions.”

Technical notes

Liberal voters in BC deserved two more MPs than this model gives them. (They get a bonus seat in Quebec, and take Yukon, breaking even nationally.) But those BC Liberal voters left unrepresented by the 2011 votes would have elected an MP with a few more votes: 2,100 more in the BC Interior, and 6,140 more on Vancouver Island.

Other Liberal voters left unrepresented by the 2011 votes would have elected an MP with a few more votes: Just 1,500 more Liberal voters in North Alberta would have taken a seat from the Conservatives. Just 400 more in Manitoba outside Winnipeg would have elected a Liberal MP. So would 4,600 more in Saskatoon—North Saskatchewan.

Green Party voters will elect more MPs when every vote counts, and more discouraged Green voters vote. This moderate model simulation elects only one Green Calgary MP from Alberta, not the two Alberta MPs they deserved in 2011. But, if discouraged Green Party voters had cast just 6,500 more Green votes in Edmonton, they would have elected an MP. That’s only a 1.6% increase in the Green vote.

In Ontario, this simulation elects only one Green MP (maybe Ard Van Leeuwen, Emma Hogbin or Erich Jacoby-Hawkins), giving the Conservatives and NDP two bonus MPs each. But 3,000 more Green voters in Mid-East Ontario (Kingston—Peterborough—Cornwall) would have elected a Green MP such as Mary Slade from Leeds County or Ralph Torrie from Northumberland, taking a seat from the Conservatives. Another 1,600 Green voters in Waterloo—Wellington—Brant—Oxford would have elected an MP there, such as Guelph’s John Lawson or Waterloo’s Cathy MacLellan. Another 6,700 Green votes in Central Toronto would have elected a Green MP such as Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu or Ellen Michelson, taking a seat from the NDP. Another 9,400 in Hamilton—Niagara would have elected a Green MP such as Peter Ormond from Hamilton or Jennifer Mooradian from St. Catharines, taking a seat from the Conservatives. Those four ridings need an increase of only 1.2% in the Green vote.

The rounding method used in the simulation is highest remainder, for the same reason the Ontario Citizens Assembly chose it: it's the simplest. It is essential if voters for smaller parties like the Greens are to elect their fair share of MPs. Germany used to use this too, on the premise that it offset the risk to proportionality of the 5% threshold. Similarly it offsets this model's eight-MP region size.

The Jenkins Commission recommended that the right to nominate candidates for regional top-up seats should be limited to those parties which have candidates standing for election in at least half of the ridings within the top-up region. This prevents a possible distortion of the system by parties pretending to split into twin decoy parties for the regional seats, the trick which Berlusconi invented to sabotage Italy’s voting system.

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