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What the US Can Learn From Canada’s Experiment With Electoral Reform

Canadian democracy could become more representative thanks to efforts to transform how members of Parliament are elected.

McGill University students take part in a "vote mob" in Montreal, Quebec, April 14, 2011. (Photo: Adam Scotti / Flickr)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected, in part, on a promise to change how the next government gets elected.

Although Canada’s electoral reform is very much a work in progress, activists and politicians alike are working to eliminate a majority-rule system in favor of a different, still-to-be-determined, but hopefully more representational form of voting.

“We want proportional representation,” said Kelly Carmichael, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, in an interview with Truthout, referring to one type of alternate voting system being considered.

“We never want to be stuck in a situation again where one person can take over the governance of our country,” she added, referring to Stephen Harper, Trudeau’s predecessor.

Although the US and Canada use very different systems, we can learn a great deal from this historic moment, particularly at a time when US voter turnout is plummeting and dissatisfaction with the available choices on the ballot is on the rise.

A Crash Course in Canadian Democracy

Canada’s Parliament still reflects the country’s origins as a Dominion of the UK. Although the queen technically rules over Canada, she’s delegated her powers to the Canadian governor general, a largely symbolic role appointed on the recommendation of the elected prime minister.

Canada has a bicameral Parliament, but the Canadian Senate is also mostly symbolic. Senators are appointed by the governor general and review the actions of the House, occasionally vetoing a bill or sending it back to the House for review.

There’s been talk of reforming or abolishing the Canadian Senate (even as, in the US, some elements within the GOP support ending popular election of senators and allowing state legislatures to appoint them). But in Canada, the House of Commons holds most of the power and is the focus of current electoral reform efforts.

The House’s members of Parliament (MPs) vote on laws and, although they can influence the direction of bills through debate, in general most vote along party lines to a far greater extent than their US equivalents. Members of Parliament support government transparency by participating in committees that review federal spending and activities, and guide party policy in caucuses.

Every four years (usually), Canadians select a member of Parliament to represent their “riding,” or local, electoral district. Voters select from candidates representing one of several registered parties, with the winner determined by a simple majority-rule, or “first-past-the-post” system.

“You have a voter voting on a bunch of candidates, but only one winner,” said Carmichael.

The party that wins the most ridings forms the government, which means that the party’s leader becomes prime minister. The prime minister then appoints important cabinet positions and guides key debates in Parliament.

If one party holds a majority, or at least 170 out of the 338 seats in the House of Commons, they have virtually limitless power to pass legislation and set government policy, regardless of popular opinion.

In another parallel with the US, gerrymandering (redistricting ridings in order to help one party at the expense of others) helped usher in a succession of conservative governments that put Harper in power from 2006 until 2015. Voters are often forced to vote “strategically” — for the lesser of all evils — rather than in their own best interests. Because of Canada’s multiparty system, it’s commonplace for prime ministers to come to power despite their party receiving less than 50 percent of the popular vote.

Such was the case with Stephen Harper. In 2008, the Conservative Party re-elected Harper after receiving about 36 percent of the popular vote, but lacked a majority in Parliament. After Parliament dissolved early after a vote of no confidence in 2011, Harper returned to power in the subsequent election with a majority government.

The conservative Parliament and the Harper government intensified austerity measures and made major concessions to the oil industry. Arms exports increased by 89 percent, with Canada becoming the second largest arms exporter to the Middle East.

“It became so perverse that Stephen Harper ruled autocratically over his own party, where he was the man in charge of Canada,” recalled Carmichael. “His goal was to remake Canada … and he worked in tandem with multinationals and corporations.”

The Harper government was so destructive to the Canadian way of life that a strong movement rose up to oppose it, advocating for the replacement of the Conservative Party with a government that would reform how Canadians choose their representatives.

“We Will Make Every Vote Count”

Carmichael became executive director at Fair Vote Canada to help organize its campaign for electoral reform in the 2015 election. The organization combined outreach via traditional and social media and helped create Every Vote Counts, a diverse coalition, from labor organizers to environmental and immigration activists.

Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party took power with a majority government, taking 184 seats, a huge increase from the 36 seats the party held under the previous government. The Conservative Party lost 60 seats, dropping to second place with 99 seats in the House of Commons, with the remaining seats shared among the New Democratic Party, or NDP (44 seats), Bloc Québécois (four seats) and the Green Party (one seat).

For Carmichael, the influence of Every Vote Counts’ campaign on the election was clear from the start: “Justin Trudeau launched his electoral campaign with our tagline which says ‘We will make every vote count.'”

The electoral reform committee formed by the Trudeau government met for the first time on June 21, with meetings expected to continue throughout the summer. While the Liberal Party initially planned to hold a majority of the committee’s 12 seats, under pressure from other parties, it reduced its presence to just five seats, with three seats going to the Conservative Party, two seats to the NDP, and one each to Bloc Québécois and the Greens.

For Carmichael, the change to the committee’s makeup is a sign that Trudeau’s government is more responsive to the public and other parties’ leadership than the Harper administration. “We’re pushing really hard and feel they are much more open to listening to citizens and embrace the spirit of democracy.”

The committee will conduct outreach to everyday Canadians and political experts to determine the best system, which would then become law by passing through Parliament.

Currently, the Liberal Party favors some form of the “alternate vote” also known as “instant-runoff voting” or “ranked-choice voting,” where voters rank their preferred candidates rather than selecting just one. It’s a system already used by many governments, including the Australian House of Representatives and many of Australia’s state legislatures.

But Fair Vote Canada and its allies in the Greens and NDP want a form of proportional voting instead. One possible system is “multi-member proportional voting,” in which voters would select both MPs that represent their ridings, as under the current system, and also regional MPs who could help balance out the difference between the popular vote and the actual proportion of parties that compose a Parliament.

Carmichael believes proportional voting would take power out of the hands of the wealthy and multinational corporations and “drive democracy back down to the grassroots where we have more control over the policies that govern us.”

She shared a Fair Vote Canada white paper that shows that proportional democracies, like Germany and New Zealand, fared better under several of the “Measures of Democracy” developed by political scientist Arend Lijphart. Lijphart found that proportional democracies had 7.5 percent higher voter turnout, more satisfied voters and a higher percentage of women elected to government. Proportional democracies also tended to have less corruption and more robust civil liberties.

Regardless of the system selected by the committee, Carmichael said activists still “have a tall mountain to climb” before it becomes a reality. The Conservative Party, which still dominates the Canadian Senate, is threatening to block any bill the committee produces and wants electoral reform to be decided by referendum (a direct popular vote) instead.

However, Carmichael warned that referendums tend to be decided based on who spends the most, all but guaranteeing the people will lose.

“We’re just citizens,” she said. “We have big mouths, but we don’t have lots of money.”

Carmichael added that all too often, referendums simply end up affirming existing policies and practices.

“People need to understand voting systems first before they can make a decision, and they often stick with the status quo when they don’t understand what the options are,” said Carmichael.

By Fair Vote Canada’s calculations, about 63 percent of voters supported electoral reform in the last election, which she sees as a mandate to make changes without a referendum. A poll in June found Canadians were about evenly split on the issue of whether an electoral reform referendum should be held.

Despite these obstacles, Carmichael still thinks electoral reform could be a winning proposition.

“We’re hoping 2015 is the last campaign where we have to vote strategically,” she concluded.

What About the USA?

“[Canada is] a multiparty democracy with a system built for two,” said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit dedicated to US electoral reform (and unrelated to its Canadian counterpart).

However, Richie said, US politics, in addition to its focus on two major parties, is also built around the power of “executive” offices, from the president on down to city mayors.

“Having a fair way to pick that office invites a different conversation,” he said. FairVote is a strong supporter of “alternate voting” or “ranked-choice voting” — the same system that Carmichael opposes — because of the greater options it would offer US voters in selecting these important leaders.

“Through our [political] lens, we can say that’s actually an important reform for us … that’s the best way that we can elect them,” Richie said.

While FairVote seeks electoral reform at every level, alternate voting has already had success in several US cities. A 2013 poll found that, in 10 cities using some form of alternate voting, voters were more satisfied with their elections.

FairVote also argues that alternate voting can make campaigns more civil, reduce the influence of money on politics and save money by eliminating the need for primaries, since voters can choose between multiple candidates on a single election day.

Ranked-choice voting could see its biggest test in the next election in Maine, where voters will choose whether to switch to the system to elect both chambers of Congress, the state legislature and governor. Richie said under the state’s political culture, where multiple, independent candidates are commonplace, voters are uniquely situated to see the benefits of alternate voting.

“They have this long string of elections where people win with less than 50 [percent of the popular vote], so people are ready to have something where you can vote for your favorite without helping to elect your least favorite,” he said.

A March poll found almost 58 percent of voters would support the initiative. “Voters get it, and it has a real chance to win.”

FairVote also supports the National Popular Vote coalition, an effort to eliminate the Electoral College from US presidential elections that’s made real progress toward acceptance in 11 states.

“I think it’s a pretty good bet it’ll be in place for 2020,” Richie said.

Perhaps FairVote’s most ambitious plan is to reform how representatives are elected to Congress using proportional voting, a radical change that could nonetheless happen without a constitutional amendment.

With most congressional elections locked up by incumbents, “even the idea of two-party competition is kind of phony in most of the US,” Richie said.

His plan would reduce strategic voting, and open up more possibilities to independents and even third parties. Most importantly, by electing a less partisan, less divisive House, Richie said proportional voting could help “develop that culture of compromise that our system depends on.”

He said the FairVote organization is building support for the measure in Congress, with the potential for it to be introduced as a bill in the fall.

In both the US and Canada, Richie said, “There’s a barrier to change: competing self-interests” among the wealthy and the electorate. However, he thinks US politics has become so dysfunctional that even the powerful will support change. “We’re failing in government in some ways more than Canada is.”

While Richie’s looking forward to the outcome of Canada’s experiment in electoral reform, he remains pessimistic about the impact it will have here. “On the reform front, we’ll be really excited about what they’re doing, but in the US it is the sad reality that, even if our neighbor to the north made a change, not that many people would actually know about it.”

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