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Survey on electoral reform asks misleading questions

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The Liberal government, trying to recover from Minister Maryam Monsef's astonishingly bumbled performance in the House of Commons last week, has decided to seek a little consultation camouflage, using an online survey that has already been roundly mocked for its heavy-handed tendentiousness.

I don't approve of online surveys. Self-selected sampling is extremely suspect. The results may say little or nothing about a population wider than the sample itself, and hence lack sufficient meaning from which to draw conclusions.

That was a significant problem with the Household Survey that replaced the long-form census under the previous government. Voluntary participation leads to self-selection bias, and over- and under-reporting biases in a complex population. the Liberal survey, just to make things even worse, can apparently be submitted as often as one wishes, increasing the possibility of freeping.

But then there are the survey questions themselves. Some Conservatives managed to sink this to the level of parody. But in some ways, the Liberal survey is scarcely better.

Let's note the positive aspect first. The Liberal approach is to begin with a probe of voter values and electoral preferences, rather than offer a selection of off-the-shelf systems from which people are expected to choose. In theory, this is the right way to go. Any change in our electoral system should ideally be a made-in-Canada one, reflecting the process and outcomes preferred by a majority of the electorate. You don't start with a system: you end with one.

The Citizens' Assemblies in British Columbia (2004) and Ontario (2006) were examples of doing things right. Ordinary citizens were chosen to decide upon a preferred electoral system that reflected the values of their fellow-citizens. The assemblies heard from many of them, in public meetings and through written submissions. There was also a considerable amount of expert background provided to the assemblies on various existing systems. The former settled upon the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, the latter, on a form of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). What is important to note is that these were conclusions, not opening positions.

The recommendations were subject to a popular vote in the two provinces. In B.C., all ridings but two reported majorities in favour of a change to STV. The over-all vote for change was 57.7 per cent. Not enough: the government of the day had already legislated a 60 per cent minimum. In Ontario, the MMP proposal lost by a margin of nearly two to one. A flawed model and general lack of information were both blamed.

Surveying values and preferences, then, should form the basis of any proposal for changing the electoral system. But how well does this new survey perform its alleged task?

As it turns out, not very well; in fact in some cases, ludicrously badly -- which led to some hilarious parodies at a Twitter hashtag, #RejectedERQs. The survey as a whole is heavily tendentious. The "propositions" with which respondents are invited to agree or disagree are too often loaded to the breaking-point:

  • There should be parties in Parliament that represent the views of all Canadians, even if some are radical or extreme.

The snarl-words "radical" and "extreme" were inserted to influence the responses. They are highly subjective terms that some would even apply to the current parties.

  • Voters should be able to express multiple preferences on the ballot, even if this means that it takes longer to count the ballots and announce the election result.

How much longer? Why appeal to people's general impatience? And note that "multiple preferences" could mean either STV (where those multiple preferences translate into MPs) or Alternative Vote (AV), aka "instant run-off," which wastes up to half the votes cast and would likely translate into Liberal majorities until the end of time. (Both NDP and Conservative voters would likely vote Liberal as a second choice.) Opposition to multiple preferences could mean either support for MMP or for the current first-past-the-post system. Answers, then, could reflect powerfully opposing points of view aggregated together. Of what functional use is such a result?

  • It is better for several parties to have to govern together than for one party to make all the decisions in government, even if it takes longer for government to get things done.

Again, this is an appeal to impatience. There is no guarantee that coalitions would take longer to get government business done. After all, the current Liberal and Conservative parties are, in essence, big-tent coalitions. The other thing to consider is compromise: if the House of Commons is reflective of the electorate, then compromise between points of view is a necessary part of the democratic process.

And the survey often forces respondents to choose between two false options. For example:

  • Ballots should be as simple as possible so that everybody understands how to vote OR ballots should allow everybody to express their preferences in detail?

How are these two alternatives opposed? Is an STV or an MMP ballot all that complex? Are Canadians too stupid to figure out how to use them? The underlying assumptions here need to be seriously challenged.

  • Which would you prefer? Having many small parties in Parliament representing many different views OR having a few big parties that try to appeal to a broad range of people?

The purr-phrase "try to appeal" will skew the responses. And the underlying assumptions here are highly questionable, for a number of reasons. Would anything but a pure proportional representation system -- which no one is proposing -- produce a plethora of small parties, given electoral thresholds and Canadian political behaviour? Germany and New Zealand have each had MMP for some time: the Bundestag, like Canada, presently has five parties represented; the NZ parliament, seven.

This sondage of elector values is also fundamentally incomplete. Do voters simply not care whether their votes are given equal weight or are simply wasted, or whether the make-up of the House of Commons reflects the electorate’s differing preferences? Should a minority effectively be able to rule the rest of the country unopposed for four years, with "false majority" governments? No questions appear that deal with these matters.

Those questions, however, would not have been based upon hypotheticals. Since World War I there have been seventeen majority governments, only three of which have had actual majority support from the voters. In last year's election, more than 50 per cent of all votes were for losing candidates, and hence wasted -- that's over nine million voters!

But instead of even whispering the concept of proportional representation in the survey, we are asked substantially less important questions, about voting machines and mandatory voting (again with scare-caveats), and even quizzed on where MPs should spend their time -- the latter being something that no electoral system would address.

I cannot see a clear bias towards AV in this survey, as some have alleged, but I do see an obvious bias away from any form of proportional representation -- which was favoured by 90 per cent of those testifying and making written submissions to ERRE. While the survey does go a little deeper than most, asking for respondents' priorities in an electoral system, for example, its drafting is chock-full of rookie mistakes (if mistakes they were) that would appall undergraduate students taking a methods course.

The results will be obviously and significantly skewed, by omission and commission, against proportional representation -- the popular favourite. The latter, by the way, is a principle -- a value, if you like -- not a voting system: this cannot be stressed enough. So why would a survey allegedly intended to elicit the values Canadians would prefer in an electoral system, according to its defenders like Philippe Lagassé, so deliberately steer respondents away from this one?

The conclusion is clear: the purpose of this survey is cynically self-serving and political. Justin Trudeau won a majority with 39 per cent of the vote, after all. As dub poet Lillian Allen says, "No one in power ain't giving up nothing."

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Image: CBC

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