Trump helps make the argument for electoral reform in Canada

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Nathan Cullen speaks to students at McGill University. Flickr/davehuehn

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There is a connection between the election in the U.S. of an arguably extremist candidate and the Canadian push for electoral reform.

Americans choose their president through a weird version of first-past-the-post, in which all states (save two) assign all of their electoral college votes to the winner of the vote in their state, regardless of the margin of victory or percentage of vote gained by each candidate.

That's how we in Canada choose members of parliament. The candidate with the most votes, even if far from a majority, gets 100 per cent of the power. All other votes, for all other candidates, are, in effect, wasted.

In the U.S., on Nov. 8, Hillary Clinton had a lot of wasted votes.

U.S. officials are still counting in a number of states, but we know Clinton won the overall popular vote by well over a million votes, maybe even over two million. Her problem is that her votes were not effectively distributed. Her huge victory margins in states such as New York, Illinois and especially California did her no good; while her strong second place showings in states Democrats usually lose badly, such as Texas and Arizona, were, as well, entirely futile.

Donald Trump’s vote was much more effective.

He won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three states that Democratic candidates had won for decades, by tiny margins, and that made all the difference. Now, Trump gets 100 per cent of the power.

The majority of Americans did not want Trump as their president on election day, and still do not want him. His victory was, in essence, an artifact of the first-past-the-post system.

As John Nichols of The Nation put it: "When the winner of an election does not take office, and when the loser does, we have evidence of a system that is structurally rigged."

Would a new voting system help extremist parties?

Those who oppose electoral reform for Canada point to the fact that proportional voting systems can allow outside-the-mainstream parties to get a seat at the table of power. Well, in the U.S. first-past-the-post just gave a decidedly outside-the-mainstream candidate not just a seat, it gave him control of the whole table.

And it is not as though we have not experienced something similar in Canada.

When Harper's Conservatives won a majority in 2011 they did so not by offering voters a big tent in the centre, but by sharpening differences in a harsh and divisive manner.

Five years ago, the Harperites understood how it was possible to win a majority of seats with less than 40 per cent of the vote. Their strategy was narrowcasting. They mobilized their hard-core minority of the electorate with negative attacks on their opponents and by scapegoating groups such as refugees.

That strategy worked. The result was that for more than four years Canadians had a truculently climate change denying, science suppressing, anti-labour, anti-human rights majority government.

Mind you, Stephen Harper is no Donald Trump.

He was not given to offensive outbursts. He did not, too openly at least, appeal to misogyny and racism. But his government was not a moderate, consensual one. Its majority of seats in the House of Commons did not mean the majority of Canadians supported its policies.

The current government won a very similar majority to Harper’s, but by trying for a more broad-based appeal. At least for now, the Trudeau government’s policies probably do, on the whole, reflect the views of a large plurality, if not majority, of Canadians.

But no government is eternal. All governments wear out their welcome. If history is a guide, Justin Trudeau's Liberals may have already achieved their high water mark in popular support. That was the case for the current Prime Minister's father. Although he remained in power for a long time, none of Pierre Trudeau’s victories equalled, in breadth or magnitude, his first one, in 1968.

These days, the electorate is more restless and volatile than it was four decades ago in Trudeau-père's time.

If Canada does not take the opportunity before it now to reform its voting system, it could face the possibility of another outside-the-mainstream leader and party gaming the system to win an essentially false parliamentary majority three years from now.

All-party committee has heard much support for partly proportional options

The good news is that the special House of Commons committee on electoral reform is on the verge of achieving something approaching all-party consensus. At least, that is how New Democrat committee member Nathan Cullen sees it.

The committee members were unanimously impressed with the fact that most of the witnesses who appeared before them strongly favour some sort of proportional system.

Two variants of proportional voting that are most often mentioned: mixed-member proportional and the single transferable vote.

The first is a hybrid system, which maintains a large coterie of single member constituency members of parliament, but adds in members elected proportionally by party.

The second variant would create large, multi-member constituencies. Voters would vote for more than one candidate, ranking them in order of preference.

The first is the German system, and seems to work for them. Post-war German governments over the past seven decades have tended to operate by a large measure of consensus, and have avoided veering too far one way or the other. German coalitions are stable and have never included extremist parties. Germany knows a thing or two about extremists using the electoral system to gain power.

The second option would make it easier for non-party affiliated candidates to win seats, and, in general, would limit the power of political parties. Voters would indicate a preference for actual candidates, not, in the abstract, for political parties.

Both options would more fully capture the range of political opinion in the country than does the current first-past-the-post system. And both could be designed to mitigate against the possibility of extreme, fringe parties winning even a foothold in the House of Commons.

Most important, both partly proportional systems -- nobody proposes pure proportional of the sort they have in Israel for Canada -- would make essentially false majorities, of the kind we have had for the last two elections, much more difficult.

There would be considerable incentive in a reformed system for political parties to play nice and avoid excessively negative or divisive tactics. Once elected, they would almost certainly have to work with each other.

To get Conservatives onside, Cullen is now ready to consider a referendum

The big hold-up for the House special committee has been the Conservatives' insistence that any reform should be put to a referendum.

To break the logjam, the NDP's Cullen is now ready to consider a referendum, with some caveats.

He thinks it should be based on the recent Prince Edward Island (PEI) referendum, which listed a number of options, including first-past-the-post, and did not establish an unrealistically high level of support for success, as have other provincial referendums on reform.

The PEI approach could result in a run-off vote between the top two options, if no option won at least 50 per cent on the first round.

Cullen knows referendums can be dicey affairs, and would want assurance that the ground was well prepared in advance of an eventual national vote on electoral reform.

He also knows that many advocates of electoral reform will be worried to see the NDP compromising with the Conservatives on this matter. But he is willing to take the risk, if it can gain all-party support for reform.

The British Columbia NDP MP has been candid about how pleased he has been with the constructive approach his Conservative colleagues – especially eastern Ontario MP Scott Reid – have taken to the whole process, and he believes a committee recommendation with all-party support would send a powerful message to Canadians.

Cullen, and others who are ready to accept a referendum, are aware that in 1992 former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Charlottetown Accord had all-party consensus, but the voters shot it down in a national referendum.

There were factors at play then, however, that are absent from the current electoral reform debate.

For one, there were rising political parties in Quebec and the West that had made it their raison d’être to defeat Charlottetown. Today, there is no organized we-love-the-electoral-status-quo movement, and no Lucien Bouchards and Preston Mannings to lead the charge.

The Conservatives have been the most sceptical about reform, but key members of the current Conservative party, including Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, advocated changing the electoral system in the past.

Still, a referendum would be a gamble. Fear and distrust of the unknown – or, almost as bad, apathy and indifference – could trump whatever appetite for change there is in the land.

If it is the only way to get all parties to agree, the gamble might, nonetheless, be worth it.

The advocates of reform now have a new, powerful argument for those who might want to settle for the electoral status quo.

Reformers would only have to remind those who fear change that in the U.S. the electoral status quo delivered a candidate who represents anything but the political status quo. 

Sometimes not making a change is the most risky option of all. 

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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