Saturday, February 06, 2016

On double majorities

Nathan Cullen's proposal for party representation on the Parliamentary committee reviewing electoral reform has received plenty of attention. But it might actually go much further than advertised to validate the results of the committee's work and legitimize a more fair electoral system.

One can view Cullen's proposal as reflecting a proportional system for allocating committee seats. But it doesn't mean for a second that any change to Canada's electoral system would come about only based on that structure.

Whatever the committee comes up with will still have to be dealt with through legislation in a Parliament in which the Libs have a majority. And that means what Cullen has suggested would in fact serve to confirm the legitimacy of any new system under all plausible interpretations of the results generated by the current one.

By way of explanation, it's fairly clear that the range of options under serious consideration includes three primary types of electoral system. Two of them - first-past-the-post (to the extent it's seen as an option in light of the Libs' promise to scrap it) and ranked ballot - would both have resulted in Lib majorities based on 2015 voting patterns. (Of course, we don't have direct information about what voters' alternative preferences would have been in 2015. But if one ignores the simulated results prepared based on alternative data, that's not a problem capable of being remedied without conducting an election under a different system.)

That leaves the proportional representation option, where the first-choice preferences of Canadian voters would indeed result in exactly the representation proposed by Cullen. [Correction: double-checking the math, a pure proportional allocation of the seats would result in the Cons having one additional seat and the Greens not receiving one - which certainly looks to be a justifiable change to Cullen's proposal.]

And there could be a substantive complaint about legitimacy if what can be fairly criticized as a false majority under one system is used as the sole basis either for preserving that system, or for imposing another one.

Cullen's suggestion then responds to that concern. But I'll argue that it also implicitly answers the question of what more than a bare Parliamentary majority should be required to make electoral reform legitimate beyond reasonable complaint.

As I've noted before, it would be utter folly to demand unanimous support among all parties or MPs before any change could be implemented. But in assessing our electoral options, there's no reason to question the validity of a system which would be able to earn majority support in Parliament regardless of the structure in place at the time the election process is amended. (And similarly, there's no plausible basis to insist on retaining a system which can be replaced based on that multiple-majority support, no matter how much one party shrieks about wanting to preserve its advantages.)

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Libs will follow through on Cullen's proposal. But if they do, it should ensure both a more inclusive discussion of Canada's electoral system, and a more legitimate result.

[Edit: Fixed wording, and see correction above.]


  1. Anonymous4:23 PM

    Mixed member proportional representation is dead, dead, dead. Idealists envision a beautiful slate of serious candidates nominated by each party. What about the damage that can be inflicted on democracy by people who do not have to face an electorate directly? Get real. The system can be gamed.

    Here's why I voted no to a similar proposal in the Ontario referendum.

    Two words: Ezra Levant
    Another couple of words: Overton Window
    Plus two: No way


    1. I'd argue MMP does far better at giving people choices within a party. Instead of being stuck with Ezra if he's your local candidate for a party (and does anybody doubt he'd win in at least some seats under the Cons' banner?), a voter also gets to choose between the party's candidates.

      But then, that's not the only more proportional system available either. And I'm looking forward to seeing what options get put forward.

    2. Anonymous6:11 PM

      I always enjoy your blog Greg. Thanks for keeping the comment section open.

      Ezra wouldn't be elected to anything anywhere. He knows it or he would have tried by now. He'd be on the list of party candidates. Those candidates don't have any "housekeeping" duties regarding a riding. That leaves him and the other party candidates available full time for... whatever the hell they wanted to do.

      If you look back over the course of the long election you may see some of my comments here regarding elections in southern Ontario, including Maryam Monsef.

      I have confidence that the committee will come up with a good proposal.