Friday, June 26, 2015

History of proportional representation: why it always loses UPDATED

Marie Bountrogianni... says reform would stand a better chance of gaining popular approval today. Bountrogianni, now dean of continuing education at Toronto's Ryerson University, says many more Canadians tend to go online for information now, which would make it easier to explain a new way of voting and to build support.... "So I think there would have to be an education process of some sort, and then a vote." (John Geddes, "Fixing the Vote," Maclean's, July 6/13 issue, p.21, not currently online, it seems)
I am regularly struck by how consistently supporters of proportional representation think and talk like this.  PR is not an issue to be debated, it's just something you have to educate the peons about. I don't doubt there are arguments for proportional representation, but its advocates generally lose the debate because they fail to hear or recognize that there are arguments against and issues to consider.

The most salient, I think, is that proportional representation is not proportional for us, it's proportional for the political parties.  Essentially we would give our votes to one or other of the parties, and they would appoint their representatives to the legislatures. In a political culture where the autocratic rule of parties over legislators is already becoming a crisis, the blindness of PR advocates to this issue is going to kill them again, while the Bountrogiannis are setting up their re-education camps ("You disagree with giving even more power to the parties? But let me explain it again, a bit louder.")

Update, June 29:  Writing about PR seems like clickbait: I rarely do, but it always attracts commentators.

The responses are considerably longer than my original post, so I've put them below the jump.

Thomas Bergbusch from Ottawa-Gatineau area wrote:
You err in assuming that proportional representation need necessarily strengthen the authority of political parties.  But it need not be so.
 I have been considering writing about this for some time, because those of my friends who argue against PR consistently raise two objections.  Like you they are wary of the power of political parties.  In addition, many others are not afraid of political parties, at least not at the local level.  Like you they do not want centralized party bureaucracies to choose candidates: instead they insist that every candidate be exposed to the democratic review and choice of local party members/riding associations in each riding.  Both are eminently sensible objections.
 However, I have thought about this, and the solution is plain to see: let me use a mixed-member proportional representation model (MMPR), with single transferable ballots (STB) to explain.
 1) The system would be based around STB (i.e. electors could/would mark their first, second, and third preferences as MP for their riding).  Those elected in this way would represent ridings across the country in the same way as MPs do now.  Depending on the extent of proportionality deemed desirable for political stability, this group of MPs could make up 50 percent of the seats in Parliament (as in Germany) or some higher number, say 60 percent or 66 percent. That is straightfoward, right? Typical MMPR, except the MPs representing actual ridings would be elected based on the results of STB.
 2) The other, say, 50 percent of MPs (the proportional correctives) would be appointed to Parliament based on the proportion of the electorate that supported them in each province.  Proportionality would not be determined by national share of the vote, but rather by the share of the vote in each province.  This is one element which would reinforce the accuracy of provincial and regional represention in Parliament.  Or to turn it around, it would reduce Canada's currently inaccurate and divisive regionalism in party representation.
 3) Most important, parties would not be permitted to set lists of candidates to be appointed to Parliament based on the proportion of the vote.  Such lists are unnecessary.  Instead, MPS for the "proportional corrective" element in Parliament would be chosen NOT from party lists, but rather from among the losing candidates in electoral races in ridings in each province.  Parties would not be allowed to choose the order in which these candidates would be appointed to Parliament.  Instead, they would be appointed to Parliament exclusively based on the percentage of the vote that they received in their riding.  And that percentage would be based on the results of single transferable ballots.  They would be ranked not according to party wishes, but by their local popularity!  This would go a very long way to weakening the power of centralized party bureaucracies.  Of course, candidates could not be forced to take up their seats, but I doubt that would be a regular concern.
 4) "Proportional corrective" MPs could obviously NOT be permitted to have constituency offices.  Only the winner of the STB process in each riding would have that right.  Instead, these appointed MPs would be allowed only to have offices in the Parliamentary precinct.  They would be called upon to represent not constituencies, nor Canada as a whole, but rather their provinces, as they would be appointed based on provincial proportional representation.   In that context, they would be allowed to maintain a residence in their province, and be provided a certain travel budget to aid consultation in their province, but, I reiterate, they would not be allowed to assume any of the functions of constituency MPs.
 5) Party discipline would be reduced but not eliminated in the House of Commons, as MPs would be encouraged and better able to vote their conscience or even cross the floor, because of the limited power of the central party bureaucracies.
 There you have it, the "Bergbusch" or "1-2-3" simple model of electoral reform!  It increases proportionality, reduces the power of party bureaucracies, brings about more accurate regional and provincial representation, and allows for ideological diversity in Parliament.
And I replied:
You are right: proportional representation need not necessarily strengthen centrally-run political parties. In general PR does encourage central control by parties, by way of list-making and such. But undoubtedly there can be political cultures that have PR and also have strong parliaments in which MPs, factions, and caucuses do indeed wield influence.
 It’s just that we don't live in that kind of political culture.  We need parliamentary reform at least as much as we need electoral reform, you might say, and an electoral reform which is likely to reinforce and encourage precisely the tendencies in our political culture that most urgently need revising .. well, it deserves some second thought, at least.
 I don't want to get into the details of your plan [....] I would say that given the kind of parties and party culture we have in Canada, I suspect that the only electoral reform plans the parties are likely to accept are ones that sustain their positions, not ones elaborately designed to undermine them.  So my own inclination is to hope for some parliamentary reform before we start tinkering with the electoral system.  Maybe then your proposal would become more feasible to implement.
Thomas tell me he has posted our exchange and further comments on his Facebook page. Meanwhile, Wilf Day wrote from Port Hope, Ont.:
You say proportional representation means "we would give our votes to one or other of the parties, and they would appoint their representatives to the legislatures?" This may be true in some countries, but no one proposes this for Canada. The Law Commission of Canada spent two years designing a model where all MPs have faced the voters.  The Law Commission said "Based on the feedback received during our consultation process, many Canadian voters would also most likely desire the flexibility of open lists in a mixed member proportional system. In essence, allowing voters to choose a candidate from the list provides voters with the ability to select a specific individual and hold them accountable for their actions should they be elected." Fair Vote Canada says all MPs must face the voters and be accountable to voters. The NDP says "Under the NDP’s preferred system, she" (the voter) "then decides whether to tick the party name alone (and thereby accept the existing order of the names on the list) or tick the name of a person on the list whom she wants to see go to the House of Commons ahead of others on the list. . . .under German, Scottish or New Zealand mixed-member proportional representation, a citizen can vote for a local MP from one party (or for an Independent) with her first vote and choose a different party to support with her second vote. This ability to separate the party from the local riding candidate makes it easier for local MPs to receive the support of people of all political stripes and to be supported for their constituency-representation credentials, versus only for the party they happen to belong to. This increases the nature and degree of support MPs bring with them into the House of Commons, thus strengthening their independence vis-a-vis party positions the MP may strongly oppose."  
You say "In a political culture where the autocratic rule of parties over legislators is already becoming a crisis, the blindness of PR advocates to this issue is going to kill them again." I know no one blind to this issue, except perhaps you: PR advocates figured it out soon after the 2007 referendum, except those who had already figured it out before that.
 And I replied: 
It is encouraging to see advocates trying to come up with variants to address this difficulty. But I thought I was entitled to engage with "classic 'list-PR' with candidates appointed by central parties" (that's the description on your own blog recently). And I must say the NDP's "preferred" system sounds very much like what you call the classic. So it's not as if "no one" is proposing it for Canada.
Wilf Day is a widely read and prolific advocate for proportional representation.  Those interested might want to follow his blog.

July 2:  Something you don't see every day: vigorous and cogently argued advocacy for the first-past-the-post electoral systems. 

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