How would proportional representation have worked in this years’ Alberta provincial election?
I’m not talking about classic “list-PR” with candidates appointed by central parties. I’m talking about the model designed by the Law Commission of Canada, where every Member of Parliament represents actual voters and real communities. The majority of MPs will be elected by local ridings as we do today. The others are elected as regional MPs, topping-up the numbers of MPs from your region so the total is proportional to the votes for each party. You can cast a personal vote for a candidate within the regional list. The region is small enough that the regional MPs are accountable.
Polls show more than 70% of Canadians support proportional representation for Canadian elections. The Alberta NDP included proportional representation in its policy. Liberal Leader David Swann has said he sees proportional representation as the key to overcoming the perceived political apathy among Albertans, and this year he signed Fair Vote Canada’s Declaration of VotersRights. So this is no longer an academic discussion. This is a practical discussion: if Alberta had PR, how would it have worked?
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 Alberta voters would vote exactly as they did in 2015.
In 2012 in Alberta, people perceived you could vote for Redford to stop Wildrose, or waste your vote. In Alberta this year, the NDP vote, compared with 2012, went up 476,387. Turnout was up 196,535 this year. The total PC and Wildrose vote went down 236,581. The Liberal vote went down 65,455. Likely about 41% of Rachel Notley's victory came from the higher turnout.
Trying to guess how the public would likely have voted if this election had been carried out under PR is very difficult. However, in order to see an example of how PR would have worked, let’s take a likely example.
Turnout this year was only 53.7%, still pitiful. More voters will vote if they have more choices. Elections in PR countries often see turnouts like 78% or more. Let’s assume a modest 6.4% turnout increase to 60.1%.
Look at the polls
The Liberals and Alberta Party were doing a lot better in the polls until they got squeezed.
April 23 was the televised leader’s debate. Before that, the NDP had been at 30% in public opinion polls, while the Liberals had around 12% support and the Alberta Party around 5%. But before Prentice tabled his “election budget” that doomed him March 26, his PCs were at 44% while the NDP and Liberals were both around 18%. After the debate, Wildrose dropped from around 31% to around 26%, while support for Prentice dropped from 27% to about 23%.
During the final two weeks, as voters absorbed that the race was between Prentice and Notley, Liberal support dropped to only 4% on election day, the Alberta Party dropped to 2%, and Wildrose dropped to 24%. PC support rebounded to 28% in the final days with Prentice’s “stop the NDP” campaign.
Since there was no Liberal in 31 of the 87 ridings, that helped depress their election-day vote. The Alberta Party was worse, running in only 35 of the 87. The Green Party of Alberta ran in only 24 ridings. With PR, all three parties would have been on the ballot everywhere, and no voters would have been voting “against” someone.
I’m going to show a simulation proportional in five regions: Edmonton, Calgary, Central Alberta, Northern Alberta, and South Alberta. These regions provide good geographic representation, and accountable regional MPs.
Projected Result with higher turnout
If the turnout was 60.1%, this lets the Liberals stay at close to 12%, the Alberta Party at over 4%, and the Greens at over 1%, while the PCs get under 25%, similar to Wildrose. This higher turnout would cut the NDP percent down to 36%.
A PR system might have had a 4% legal threshold. However, to include the Greens in my example, let’s assume the only threshold is that imposed by the size of the five regions, like the Scottish model. Projected result: NDP voters would have elected 32 MLAs, PCs 21, Wildrose 20, Liberals 10, Alberta Party 3, Green Party 1.
Coalition governments are normal
Some pundits, who know better, try to confuse coalition governments with mergers. Post-war Germany has had coalition governments after every election but one. Of the 31 countries with parliamentary government in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), 81% are governed by coalitions.
Alberta would benefit from a stable coalition government representing a true majority of voters. An NDP-Liberal-Alberta Party coalition would have 45 seats (adding the Green makes 46), more than the alternative PC/Wildrose coalition with 41.
You have two votes, with the Mixed Member system
With the Mixed Proportional system, you have two votes. With one, you help elect a local MLA as we do today. The majority of MLAs would still be local MLAs.
With the other vote, you can vote for the party you want to see in government, and for your favourite of your party’s regional candidates. So you help elect a few regional MLAs, topping-up the local results to make them match the vote shares. Every vote counts: it’s proportional. You can vote for the regional candidate you prefer: it’s personal. There are no closed lists. Voters elect all the MLAs.
Fair Vote Canada says “A democratic voting system must encourage citizens to exercise positive choice by voting for the candidate or party they prefer.”
For local MLA, you can vote for the candidate you like best without hurting your party, since the party make-up of parliament is set by the party votes. In New Zealand, 32% of voters split their votes that way.
Local MLAs become more independent
This system makes it easier for local MLAs 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 MLAs bring with them into the Legislature, thus strengthening their independence.
Every voter in the region would be served by competing MLAs. You could choose to go to your local MLA for service or representation, or you could go to one of your regional MLAs from a “top-up region” based in your area, likely including someone you helped elect.
What would regional MLAs do?
How would regional MLAs operate? The regional MLAs would cover several ridings each. Just the way it’s done in Scotland. They could have several offices, just as the MLA for Drumheller-Stettler has offices in Stettler, Hanna and Drumheller.
Who would the regional MLAs be?
Who would those regional MLAs 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.
This open list method was recommended both by our Law Commission and by the Jenkins Commission in the UK. Jenkins’ colourful explanation accurately predicted why closed lists would be rejected in Canada: additional members locally anchored 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.” Our own Law Commission said “allowing voters to choose a candidate from the list provides voters with the ability to select a specific individual and hold them accountable for their actions should they be elected."
Every vote counts. 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.”
Edmonton region NDP voters would have elected all 13 of its Local MLAs. But rather than all 23 MLAs being NDP, PC voters would have elected four of the 10 Regional MLAs, Liberals three, Wildrose two, and Alberta Party one.
The Regional MLAs for each party would be the party’s regional candidates who ended up with the most support across the region. Liberal voters might have elected incumbent MLA Laurie Blakeman, nursing educator Donna Wilson (Past-President of the University of Alberta Association of Academic Staff), and editor at Asian Vision Harpreet Singh Gill, or construction company co-owner Dan Bildhauer. Alberta Party voters might have elected Women’s Studies faculty lecturer Cristina Stasia, or Arts Council Chair and ACTRA board member John Hudson, or Gary Hanna, president of the Parkland Teachers’ Local. PC voters might have elected incumbent MLAs Stephen Mandel (former mayor), Cathy Olesen, Dave Quest, and Heather Klimchuk (Minister of Human Services), or Stephen Khan or Janice Sarich or David Xiao or Gene Zwozdesky (Legislature Speaker) or Thomas Lukaszuk (former deputy premier). Wildrose voters might have elected former Strathcona County mayor Linda Osinchuk who had run against Brian Jean for leader, and two-time candidate Jackie Lovely, caucus staffer and President of the Summerside Community League; or financial planner Jaye Walter.
This year Calgary voters elected 15 NDP MLAs, eight PCs, one Liberal, and one Alberta Party. Instead, my projection shows Calgary NDP voters electing seven of the new 15 local MLAs, PC voters electing six local MLAs, Liberal voters electing one Local MLA (David Swann) and four Regional (city-wide) MLAs, Wildrose voters electing five Regional MLAs, Alberta Party voters electing one Local MLA (Greg Clark), and Green Party voters electing one regional MLA.
Liberal voters might have elected young lawyer David Khan, Shelley Wark-Martyn (former Ontario cabinet minister under Bob Rae), Realtor Avinash Khangura, paramedic and PR advocate Pete Helfrich, or proud PR advocate Naser Al-Kukhun. Wildrose voters might have elected health policy analyst Linda Carlson, entrepreneur Brad Leishman, former Calgary police officer Kathy Macdonald, petroleum engineer Blaine Maller, and former Wildrose Party President Jeff Callaway. Green Party voters would likely have elected their leader, Janet Keeping.
Central Alberta voters elected six NDP MLAs, six Wildrose MLAs, and one PC. Instead, with eight local MLAs and five Regional MLAs, they would have elected four Wildrose MLAs (likely all local) and four NDP MLAs (maybe three local and one regional), four PCs (maybe one local and three regional), and one Liberal Regional MLA.
Liberal voters would no doubt have elected much-admired Red Deer historian Michael Dawe. PC voters could, in addition to Lloydminster Local MLA Richard Starke, have elected as Regional MLAs Minister of Environment and Water Diana McQueen, Minister of Justice Verlyn Olson, and PC MLA Kerry Towle (a floor-crosser from Wildrose).
Northern Alberta voters elected six NDP MLAs, six Wildrose MLAs, and one PC. Instead, with eight local MLAs and five Regional MLAs, they would have elected four NDP MLAs (likely all local) and four Wildrose MLAs (maybe three local and one regional), four PCs (maybe one local and three regional), and one Alberta Party Regional MLA.
Alberta Party voters could have elected Grande Prairie City Councillor Rory Tarant or Peace River River City Cinema manager Sherry Hilton. PC voters could have elected, in addition to PC MLA Wayne Drysdale, PC Minister of Energy Frank Oberle, Jr., PC Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Pearl Calahasen, and PC Minister of Finance Robin Campbell or PC MLA Maureen Kubinec.
Southern Alberta voters elected nine Wildrose MLAs and four NDP MLAs. Instead, with eight local MLAs and five Regional MLAs, they would have elected five Wildrose MLAs (likely all local), four NDP MLAs (maybe three local and one regional), three PC Regional MLAs, and one Liberal Regional MLA.
Liberal voters could have elected Lethbridge practical nurse and teacher Sheila Pyne or Lethbridge Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Officer Bill West as their Regional MLA. PC voters could have elected as Regional MLAs PC MLAs Bruce McAllister and Ian Donovan, both Wildrose floor-crossers, and Okotoks councillor Carrie Fischer who defeated former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith for the PC nomination, or Newell County Reeve Molly Douglass, or former Minister of Municipal Affairs Greg Weadick.