The Canadian election and what we can learn from it

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

Last night, the Canadians held their national parliamentary elections. In a surprise, the Conservatives won an outright majority - as the New Democratic Party placed second for the first time, the Liberals plunged to a first-ever third-place finish, and the Greens won their first parliamentary seat. How bad was it for Liberals - long the establishment left party? Their candidate for prime minister, Michael Ignatieff, lost the race for his own seat.

For months, the ruling Conservatives had led in polls, but late polls showed a sudden surge for the NDP - big enough that the AP's election day story was headlined "Polls Say Canada's Voters Could Take Sharp Left Turn". And while the NDP surged, it wasn't enough - as they split the left-leaning vote with the Liberals.

So, why am I bringing this up on BlueOregon? After all, we barely cover Washington here - nevermind Canada.

Over the years, we've had a lot of conversations here about electoral reform. We've talked about fusion voting, proportional representation, open primaries, top-two primaries, instant-runoff voting, ranked-choice voting, and more.

Canada's election results yesterday are an object lesson in what can go wrong in a winner-take-all system (known there as "first past the post") that includes more than two major parties.

Here's how the national vote broke down:

39.6% Conservatives
30.6% New Democrats
18.9% Liberals
6.1% Bloc Quebecois
3.9% Green
0.4% Independents
0.5% Other

You'll note that the NDP and Libs add up to 49.5% of the vote. Add in the Greens and it's 53.4%. But here's how the seats broke down - with 155 of 308 seats required for a majority:

167 Conservative
102 New Democrats
34 Liberals
4 Bloc Quebecois
1 Green

Now, I'm obviously a committed and loyal Democrat. It is the Democratic Party that best represents my values. But I'm also a big fan of electoral reforms that open up the process to minor parties - and makes it possible for voters to provide greater input to our democratic system. The singular binary choice of D vs. R just doesn't reflect the richness of opinion in our democracy.

We often think of this as the "spoiler" problem, but as the Canadians teach us, sometimes the third party can overtake one of the traditional parties - putting the traditional party in the role of "spoiler". But it's not about stopping the "spoiling" of elections -- rather this outcome demonstrates why it's key that we support electoral reforms that help voters communicate their will - fusion voting, instant runoffs, ranked-choice voting, proportional representation and the like - rather than simply opening up access to minor parties.

Here's my question: If you could redesign Oregon's electoral system - for the Legislature or the statewide offices - what would you do? How would you change things?

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    Here's what we learn--political scientists (Ignatieff) make lousy prime ministerial candidates!

    On a more serious note, what I'd propose, Kari, is less radical that your notion. I'd retain the geographic basis of American representation but create multi-member districts and allow citizens to cluster their votes.

    Thus, we've have three districts, for instance, with four seats per district. A citizen can cast four votes. He or she can cast four votes for a single candidate, or 2 and 2, or etc.

    This allows small groups to choose a candidate of choice, whether this be based on race, ethnicity, partisanship, etc. but also retains majority power.

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      Sure, that's a good improvement. Unlike PR, that would also mean that voters would be voting for the person, not the party. If there were 1 of the 12 on the Democrats' slate that I didn't like, I could replace 'em with another candidate of my choice (or double my points on my fave.)

      This would also have the benefit of being easy to explain, and wouldn't require any more math than simple addition.

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        Argh. Somehow I deleted my earlier comment (to which Paul was responding) in which I was arguing for proportional representation - in groups of 12 Oregon House seats, contained within each of the five congressional districts.

        (That's what I get for trying to delete a duplicate comment - my own - from my phone while sitting on the tarmac.)

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        Paul's suggestion is often called "cumulative voting" -- used in a number of US local elections and, from 1870 to 1980, for Illinois state house of reps in three-seat districts. Even that modest opening in winner-take-all resulted in "shared representation" among the major parties in nearly every district.

        We like Irish-style "choice voting" ( a means to accommodate more candidacies, but cumulative voting is a step in the right direction.

        We've been showing how such simple plans work at FairVote -- see links to severalplans from yesterday's "Democracy minute": here:

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    But the most crying need for electoral reform in Oregon is districting Portland's city council, as the recent series in the Oregonian on gentrification once again illustrates.

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      I agree Paul. We should have nine councilors from districts across the city.

      Either that, or your idea: nine, at-large, but elected with cluster voting. (Is that what it's called?)

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        I'd go for at-large with a non-winner-take-all system. You also could use a proportional system in three, three-seat districts on in four at-large seats with five districts as compromises that guarantee more geographic representation but promote more voters choice and fair representation

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    The big lesson for me is that whenever you have multiple parties without a run-off election, governments are elected that do not represent the citizens. The conservatives have control with 40% of the vote and the progressives suck wind with 53%. Either get down to two parties or have run-off's, but don't split the vote.

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    I could try to explain what I love about fusion voting, or I could let the American Prospect do a better job:

    This article shows how the Working Families Party in New York has used fusion for the past 20 years to:

    ...capture voters who might like them but might not want to pull the 'D' lever: independent voters alienated from both parties, liberals disillusioned with the Democrats' centrist drift, or moderate Republicans who may like a candidate on issues but are loathe to vote Democratic.

    In New York, the WFP has been successful again and again in pulling extra votes that Democratic candidates might not have received, helping put them over the top in dozens of political races.

    Indeed, since its birth in 1998, the WFP has overcome much skepticism, steadily growing into a force whose vote pulling has soared, reaching 168,719 for Senator Chuck Schumer's re-election in 2004.

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    An idea that's intriguing to me would be to combine open primaries with instant runoff voting (where voters rank their choices) and then have the top two go to the general election.

    What do folks think of that?

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      If you've already got an instant runoff, why hold another runoff five months later?

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        That's certainly one option. My concern with just having one big, multicandidate election using IRV is that there might be lower turnout and less of a chance to scrutinize the strongest candidates.

        My keeping the primary, it would enable the most engaged voters to winnow the field, then provide a clear choice for the larger general electorate, along with the time to really learn a lot about the top two finishers.

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          As an instant runoff fan (when you can't use proportional voting), I would say Brian's idea is well worth considering even if taking two elections to do what IRV allows you to do with one. Downsides include more demands on campaign spending and likely disparities in voter turnout, but it does allow voters more time to deliberate on issues and identify the best candidate.

          I'd look at this idea first in places that are very likely to keep two rounds of voting, but only advance two in the final round. You could use IRV to narrow the field to three or four, then IRV in the general -- Washington State would benefit a lot from this approach, as it would allow fuller debate in the final election. Here's a link we did to a report on making "top two" better in California that includes this idea, among others:

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      I like your idea, but I wouldn't want to get rid of the bicameral legislature. Too much power in one place. Why not have two houses, one based on geographic districts with non-partisan primaries and a separate but equal house not based on district at all, but state-wide party tallies?

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        That's basically my idea, though I'd make 'em five districts of 12 reps each.

        I do like Nick's MMP idea, though.

        Question for Nick: Are the at-large candidates a different set than the district candidates? Or are can a candidate be on both lists - moving over to the at-large if they lose the district race?

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          I suppose you could do it either way. I hadn't originally considered including candidates for the local districts on the party lists, but it seems like it would be possible. If they won the district, you'd just skip over them and take the person ranked below them on the party list for an at-large seat, and if they lost the district but were ranked highly enough, they could just take an at-large seat. Or alternatively you could not allow candidates for specific districts to also be on party lists. Just depends on how people would want to do it I guess.

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            Nick, with respect to whether the full legislature or only half is proportional, I guess it depends on whether you see the glass as half empty or half full. I agree that having two chambers in the state leg each representing local districts is redundant, that’s why I’d make one chamber fully proportional. I have two issues with the unicameral body: size and clarity.

            In my view bigger chambers are less accountable; the representatives on average are further from power and responsibility. Compare the influence of a typical Portland City Councilor vs. a typical Chicago Alderman, or U.S. Senators vs Representatives.

            The second issue is clarity, I wouldn’t want to mingle at-large representatives appointed by a party with those elected by citizens. A district representative’s first responsibility is to represent their district, and their district holds them accountable for doing so. Representatives appointed by the party would not have the same motivations, they would be held accountable by party leadership and realistically that’s who they’d serve. Separating the two groups into different houses clarifies who they are and why they are there, and affords the opportunity to tailor rules and responsibilities for them. Maybe there are some things party reps shouldn’t have a vote on- confirmation hearings for instance.

            Finally, just to emphasize the difference I’d want district races to be non-partisan. Voters would make two choices, one from a list of candidates for their district without party affiliation and one from a list of parties without any candidates.

            Kari, I’m going from memory but I don’t think that’s what you suggested.

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              I certainly didn't say anything about nonpartisan races. I've come to believe that nonpartisan elections are a disservice to voters. We should be providing voters with MORE information, not less.

              But yeah, I basically said we should have PR in the House, and districted seats in the Senate. (Though I suggested PR in five 12-member districts.)

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                When I think of local nonpartisan races- city council, county, and metro- I don't think any would be better if the general election featured a "D" and an "R". Why should a race for district rep be different?

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        I don't think it'd really be a MMP system in that case - the point of a proportional system is that you want the composure of the entire legislature to match the preferences of the electorate. If it was structured that way then it's not hard to imagine, as in our current system, one party winning a bare majority of geographical districts while losing the overall party vote by a fair margin, but then still controlling half of the legislature.

        Really, I don't think having the sort of electoral system I outlined and a bicameral legislature are necessarily opposed to one another. You could have two different houses with differently sized districts, each being elected by an MMP system. I just personally happen to think that it doesn't make sense to have a bicameral legislature in the way we do now. At the Federal level, the difference between the Senate and the House makes sense, because they represent constituencies that are determined by different things. When state senate districts were determined by county lines, then at least there was a logical difference between the two houses, but now it seems like the legislature is bicameral purely for the sake of being bicameral. I think that a unicameral legislature has some real advantages: it's more responsive and more accountable to voters than two houses. It's more transparent. Legislators can't blame the other house for failure to pass legislation. Similarly, legislators can't vote for legislation they know has no chance of passing the other house. In a Unicameral MMP system, the elimination of the Senate is balanced out by an increased number of Representatives, so an individual legislator's share of power is not greatly increased (and in fact decreases from 1/90 to 1/100 as I outlined above), and at-large Representatives ensure that voters will still have more than one Representative to approach with constituency issues.

        But, as I said above, they are two different issues, and I think it's entirely possible to have one without the other.

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    Personally I like the proportional representation and a parliamentary system with a prime minister chosen by the party than a chief executive.

    I don't see that happening anytime soon in our state or federal system. (I should have been a Canadian or a Brit.) In lieu of that I would like to see strong blocs in policy and ideology that work within a party to attract voters and exert influence over policy

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    Australia and New Zealand have instituted instant-runoff voting, but other than those two all countries in the Commonwealth and all former Brit colonies are mired in the "first-past-the-post" (winner-take-all). And of course the U.K. itself is still that way.

    So, election reform, of course, and the other lesson to be learned (and hoped for) is that pseudo-liberal, wishy-washy establishment politicians may, indeed, lose to true liberals.

    Go NDP!

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    And Burma. Their elections don't count.

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    Glad to see this conversation continuing! A couple of comments.

    First, the reason I suggested cumulative voting (thanks, Rob!) is that it fits closely with the historically geographically based system of representation in the U.S.

    I have to agree with Bill Ryan; a PR based system is going to be a non-starter in the US in my opinion.

    BJ, I'm not sure what you mean by "too much power in one place." Nebraska has functioned with a unicameral legislature just fine, in fact, most legislative systems (outside of the US) are unicameral.

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    So we look at the Conservatives up in Canada that have been smart enough to remain unified and the lesson we learn is to be like the rest of the parties?

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    Some of the ideas remind me of the way the Oregon Legislature used to be apportioned before Baker v. Carr

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    I like the idea of one house that's a district rep and one that represents parties proportionally. The district rep is impotrtant because it gives each voter a direct connection to a specific legislator. They do more than just pass laws. A party-based house would give a voice in the leg to interest groups, including greens, socialists, and maybe the oregon beverage association if they can get enough votes.

    One other change I'd like to see: (relevant because we're really talking about making the leg more representative) reduce the power of individual legislators. My rep should be just as powerful as your rep. I hate that one person - be it Karen Menace or Dave Hunt - can control what gets voted on. (Nothing personal: I love Dave Hunt.)

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