I favour electoral reform. I am a newly-minted Canadian, who deeply hopes my first vote for Parliament will not be conducted under the current, archaic, unfair First-Past-the-Post system. So, when my MP convened a Town Hall meeting on electoral reform, I made a point of attending. Here are some notes on the event. I hope they are helpful documentation for other democratic reform advocates.

What: Electoral Reform Town Hall

Who: Dr Hedy Fry, MP. Dr Max Cameron, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), UBC. About 60 people (a full house), many constituents, some not.

Where: Vancouver Centre riding. Advertised as St. Andrew’s Wesley Church (which is on a corner) and as 1022 Nelson Street (same complex, different building, up the street), Vancouver. It turns out it was actually in a conference room in 1018 Nelson (same complex, another door).

When: Monday, 15. August 2016, 7:00-9:20 p.m.

This town hall meeting was part of the consultations urged by the Government of Canada’s Electoral Reform effort, and by the Parliament’s Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE).

I got notice of this town hall by email from Dr Fry’s office, in response to my having sent an email wanting to be notified of her town hall plans.  This email arrived on the Friday before the Monday event. There was an event listing on her MP website.   She did not place a listing in the ERRE committee’s calendar of electoral reform events — but I did, without asking permission. I didn’t see any media coverage of the event, before or after.

Dr. Fry chaired the meeting. She started off with some framing. She listens at town halls, i.e. don’t expect her to talk a lot, or tell you what she thinks. Her party promised that this would be the last election under the First Past The Post system.  Goals are propotionality, and better reflect Canada’s diversity. She gave a brief history of the ERRE committee. She said the Liberal Party doesn’t have a pre-determined outcome. She said that we can do a made-in-Canada system.

She then turned the floor over to Dr Max Cameron, of the University of BC, to give us an expert overview of the issues of democratic reform. He gave what I would judge a well-informed, fairly neutral introduction. Experts don’t have a consensus on which is the best system, he said. Thus, “This a civic moment” for ordinary citizens to weigh in with our values, what works about voting, and what could be better. Don’t get dug in on systems. Rather, answer questions like, How responsive do we want our electoral system to be? How stable? How inclusive? What kind of representation do we want it to deliver?

The current Single-Member Plurality (aka First Past the Post, or FPTP) system delivers false majority governments. There is a long history of them. Also, he asked what I thought was a great pair of questions: “How many of you voted strategically in the last election?” Many hands went up. “How many of you felt bad about it?” Almost all those hands stayed up. It did a great job of capturing what is unsatisfactory about FPTP.

Cameron talked about majoritarian vs proportional systems. The present First Past the Post system is majoritarian. It affords a direct connection to constituency services. Alternative Voting (AV, or IRV, or Ranked Ballot), is the smallest change from the current system. It still delivers false majorities. Among proportional systems, Single Transferable Vote (STV) adds the element of multiple-member ridings. Fair Vote Canada’s new Rural-Urban Proportional Representation model has multiple member ridings in urban areas, but existing single-member ridings in rural areas. In Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP), voters cast one one vote for their local MP, another vote for the party they support.

No one system is ideal, Cameron concluded. Which is best depends on one’s values. PR will likely lead to fewer majority governments. He touched on the virtue of simplicity. There is a history of frustrated reform in Canada. Any form of voting will be simple. Only counting will be complex.

Cameron also considered and dismissed a referendum as being useful in improving the outcome. I wrote down two pithy quotes. First, “Referenda lead to Brexit”, that is, votes cast for emotional or strategic reasons, which lead to an outcome voters regret. Second (and I paraphrase), “Referenda are not a part of our constitution, and the voting system is not a constitutional issue”. That says to me that demanding a referendum is not a conservative act, but a radical one.

After Cameron finished, Dr Fry moderated a conversation. She asked members of the audience to raise hands to speak. She called in people in the order she wrote them down. Some people gave their names. Some people volunteered that they were from the riding, but there was no filter to enforce this. No-one got to speak more than once. Not everyone who wanted to got a chance to speak; we ran out of time.

Here are some of the noteworthy opinions from the discussion. N.B. I only aimed to capture interesting comments, not to make a transcript or a rigourous census of opinions.

Why is keeping that status quo not a option?, was the first comment. (Dr Fry’s response: if the consultation shows resistance to changing the system, the Prime Minister will have to consider that.)

Many people said “No” to putting electoral reform to a referendum, and many such statements got applause. Some people, but fewer, spoke in favour of a referendum. I’d say the group was 70% against, 30% for. The previous 2009 BC referendum on BC-STV was frustrating, said several.

Several referendum supporters indicated they were important for legitimacy. Everyone who talked about legitimacy agreed it was important. Some believed legitimacy could come through other routes, e.g. a multi-party consensus for change. Not all referendum results confer legitimacy: a narrow outcome, or a contested question, or misleading campaign, all undermine the legitimacy of the result. One speaker pointed out that all major parties in the October 2015 election supported electoral reform, except the Conservatives; they got only 32% of the vote, so 67% voted for end to FPTP.

More arguments against a referendum: the electorate is ill-educated to decide such a complex question. Many spoke of being disappointed by other referenda. They were badly worded. Misleading advertising had too much sway. Results were skewed by power and money.A reservation against an electoral reform referendum was that it would be a precedent for separatist referenda.

Several people urged us to be sensitive to engagement of young people. They saw the lack of proportionality as one reason for youth losing interest in the political process. For example, young people move frequently. This gives them less connection to their current riding and MP, which changes what “local representation” means to them. It makes them more likely to vote for the party leader than the local MP candidates. This in turn forces them to vote strategically more often.

There were many comments in support of subsidiary changes that go along with proportional representation. We should be open to larger ridings. Coalitions might be more efficient than false majorities. In contrast to claims that FPTP gives the strongest bond of constituent service, Ireland’s PR system strengthens constituent service.One person, with 25 years working on campaigns, finds there is too much voting “against”, not enough voting “for”. In contrast to concerns that multiple-member rural ridings will be too large, they pointed out one MP represents all of the Yukon, another, all of the North-West Territories.  Those are large ridings!

Look at the broader democratic process, not just the electoral system. A few people commented on wanting to reduce the influence of money in elections. One warned against the oligarchy of multinational corporations.

An opponent of Proportional Representation said it granted too much power to the fringes. Dr Cameron’s comment: fringe parties are not likely to be a problem in Canada, because of the politics overall.

A speaker said PR gave too much power to parties, and wanted the ability to support independents, as a check on parties. Dr Cameron’s response: parties are good, but they can become oligarchies.

There was a comment that PR comes in 57 flavors. Rather than try to select the system outright, have a runoff election to choose between systems. (I think the point was to avoid a choice of the form, status quo vs new system X. Instead, decide first on status quo vs change, then decide on new sytem X vs Y vs Z.)

One speaker identified as an out-of-riding person appreciating the chance to participate; their own MP passed away, so there was no-one to host a town hall in their riding. (This to me is a great argument for many kinds of consultation, including direct contributions to the ERRE Committe, and town halls by others than MPs. It will be unrealistic to expect 100% of ridings to get an MP-led town hall.)
One person showed a German parliamentary election ballot. It was as big as a poster, and looked intimidatingly complex. (It seemed to be listing all candidates from all parties, possibly allowing cumulative voting. It is possible for PR ballots to be simple. Since “PR” is a broad category of systems, it’s important to choose which PR system best fulfills the values we want.)
Democratic reform advocates like Leadnow, Fair Vote Canada, and the Dogwood Initiative got praise from multiple speakers. The name “Leadnow” brought an ovation, in fact.

The electoral reform process must consult with indigenous people. In this area, the ERRE committee’s mandate is not being met. There should be quotas for aboriginal MP’s, in addition to the geography-based MPs.

One speaker pointed us to the 2004 Law Commission study [Law Commission of Canada: Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada, 2004, ISBN J31-61/2004E, Catalogue: 0-662-36426-0] as excellent background reading. (I should add Thirteen Canadian Commissions, Assemblies and Reports that have recommended proportional representation, by Fair Vote Canada, as a further reading list.)

A few speakers supported mandatory voting. I don’t recall anyone speaking against it. However, a speakers was “apalled at the ignorance” of some voters (young voters?).

A speaker pointed us to learn from other nations that changed electoral systems: what motivated them to change?The meeting ran out of the reservation time for the meeting room at 9pm, and Dr Fry called an end to the meeting. Private conversations carried on a bit longer. Dr Fry didn’t give much of a closing statement, except to say about referenda, that she doesn’t think it appropriate to have a vote on human rights.