Electoral Reform

During the last federal election cycle, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s platform included electoral reform. Citing citizen discontent with the current system, the Trudeau campaign promised that 2015 would be the last year that the federal election would use the First-Past-the-Post system. On Thursday, November 3rd, 2016 the Ward 4 Youth Councilor Meegan St. Denis led the LYAC in a discussion on electoral reform, addressing alternative electoral systems, voting methods and voting restrictions. Councillors also addressed whether change was necessary, how a new system should be determined and the challenges of mandatory voting.

Who Should Read This?

  • Public Servants who would like insight on the perspective of London youth on electoral reform
  • People who want to know more about the electoral system and the possible changes that may come to it

The First-Past-the-Post System

Meegan started the discussion by recounting her experience at the larger city-wide town hall discussing electoral reform. She described the heated nature of the conversations and the passionate views Londoners held regarding the issue of electoral reform. Meegan decided to bring some of the same questions discussed at the town hall to the LYAC, to get further perspective on this issue. In order to prepare everyone to participate in the discussion, she provided a description of the current electoral system in Canada, the First-Past-the-Post system.

So what is the First-Past-the-Post system?

The First-Past-the-Post is an electoral system in which each voter casts one vote for a candidate of 
their choosing, and the candidate that receives the most votes wins the election. It is important to understand that under this system, it is not required that a majority of votes is cast to be the winning candidate. This means that having the most votes is not equivalent to having a majority of the votes. 
For example, imagine Candidate A, Candidate B and Candidate C are all running against each other in a particular region. Under the current system, Candidate A may win power, despite the majority of voters not voting for them. 
How is this possible?
 Well, let’s say there are 100 people voting in this region. 34 people vote for Candidate A, 33 people vote for Candidate B and 33 people vote for 
Candidate C. Under the current system, the person with the most votes, in this case Candidate A, wins the election. They are the candidate “first past the post”. This occurs even though 66 people voted against the winning candidate.

Alternative Electoral Systems

Having provided an overview of the current system, Meegan offered alternative electoral systems and asked the group if they felt the electoral system needed to be reformed to one of these alternative systems.
The alternative electoral systems offered were:

Proportional Representation

Votes are cast towards parties not individual candidates
The percentage of votes attained is the number of seats in parliament the party receive s
o i.e. If 30% of voters vote for the LYAC Party, then the LYAC Party receives 30% of seats in parliament

Ranked Voting/ Single Transfer of the Vote

  • Instead of casting a vote for one candidate, the voter ranks all the candidates
  • The least popular candidate is then cut from the race and the ballot of those that ranked the losing candidate as their top priority is distributed to the subsequent choice on the ballot
  • This process continues until a candidate receives a majority of the votes

P3 (Proportional-Preferential-Personalized) System

  • Keeping the total number of seats in parliament the same, the number of jurisdictions would decrease, so that there may be 3-5 MPs per riding as opposed to just 1
  • First, the voter ranks the parties in accordance with their preferences. They are not required to rank all the parties, only the ones that they prefer
  • The second step is for the voter to choose one of the candidates put forward by the voter’s top choice party
Any party that does not win a seat is eliminated, and the ballots that cast them as the top preferences are reallocated to the next choice

Mixed Member Proportional

  • Each voter casts one vote for a party, and one for a candidate
  • There may be multiple candidates for the same party in one jurisdiction

Changing the First-Past-the-Post

Considering the alternative options available, the councillors discussed their thoughts towards electoral reform. Most members leaned towards the mixed member proportional system. Their reasoning was that in this system, you would still be able to have the party you favoured control parliament the way they do now, but you would not be forced to vote for a candidate you don’t like to ensure this happens. Many councillors echoed that this would be great because they would be able to have a local candidate of their choosing regardless of what their party affiliation was. Essentially, they said it was the best of both worlds. You could have the candidate that was best for your local region, but you would also be able to have the party that was best for the nation ruling the country. It would no longer be a difficult choice voters would have to make.

The Harper government and the 2015 election were brought up to further explain the benefits of the mixed member proportional system. A councillor pointed out that Prime Minister Harper was able to have a majority government with only about 35% of the vote, a statistic that none of the councillors were pleased with. Another councillor cited the 2015 election and said it was unfair that people had to strategically vote for a party that they did not like, to ensure that split voting did not cause the party that they least favoured to win. She said elections should be about voting for who you want to be in power, not a political game of kicking out a government that you do not like.

After a little bit of discussion on the merits of the mixed-member proportional system, councillors started to think more critically and brought up some of the following concerns with mixed-member proportional system:

  • What about youth who do not have political affiliations, will they leave that part of the ballot blank? Would this invalidate their ballot?
  • Would people care to research the party vs. the local candidate? Wouldn’t they just vote for their favourite party twice?

There were also a couple of councillors who pushed back on the idea of having any electoral reform at all. They felt that the current system is the most efficient of all the electoral systems. Deciding the winner would likely take up to a week for the other systems proposed. Additionally, a councillor added that it provided the clearest representation of whom the country wanted to lead, so it shouldn’t be changed.

Mandatory Voting

The councillors next discussed whether mandatory voting should be adopted.

What is mandatory voting? 

Mandatory voting means that everyone who is eligible to vote is legally required to vote in the election. All of the councillors were against such a measure. Some of the concerns they had included:

  • It is not morally right to force people to choose one of the options provided, as they may not like any of the options, and not voting would be their political statement.
  • Voting is a right, not a responsibility. If people don’t want to vote that’s their choice. If the government is concerned with engaging voters, they should look to other means of encouraging voting. For example, provide a tax break to those who vote.
  • There is no option to choose none of the candidates, this may just lead to spoiled ballots and not actually expressing opinions (Spoiling the ballot is when one purposely makes their ballot void)
  • If people who do not care are forced to vote, wouldn’t that open up opportunities for vote buying? They may be inclined to vote a certain way in exchange for some promises.

Along with means to encourage voting, the councillors also suggested the implementation of increased civic education in high school to get young people invested in voting and elections.

Electronic Voting

The leading councillor asked whether the councillors supported the introduction of online voting. At first, everyone was vehemently against online voting for many reasons, but mostly due to security concerns. Councillors were concerned about the website being hacked and the server purposely being overloaded to prevent voting. Pulling back from their initial rejection and re-thinking the question, councillors conceded that the federal government would likely have extremely high security to prevent from attacks and that currently there are less secure methods (i.e. mail voting) that are allowed to exist. Considering such challenges, some councillors conceded and decided that electronic voting may be beneficial and should be adopted. However, there were still two concerns councillors had with electronic voting:

  • How would you prove that the person voting online was the person who was registered to vote?
  • How would you ensure privacy in one’s house? There may be situations where people will feel compelled to vote the way members in their house are voting because they don’t want to be caught voting against the popular consensus in their house.

Voting Age

Generally, the councillors agreed that the voting age should be reduced to 16. If people are trusted with other responsibilities at 16 (i.e. driving, making medical decisions), why stop them from voting? Additionally, councillors pointed out that 16 was the age that most high school students took their civics class. They found that it would be beneficial and more engaging if students were able to exercise the civic duty of voting soon after they had learned about it. Statistically, if one does not vote within the first 2 elections that they are eligible, they likely will not vote for the rest of their life. Thus, providing students with the opportunity to vote while it is still new and exciting to them, will encourage a lifelong habit of voting.

Regarding the argument that at 16, youth are not knowledgeable enough to vote, the councillors pointed out that there are plenty of individuals over 18 who have no political knowledge. So, in reality, voting restrictions are not really about being knowledgeable enough to vote, and resultantly, 16 year olds should not be prohibited from voting for that reason.

No councillor thought that the voting age should be increased.

Change By Referendum?

Finally, councillors considered whether the decision to bring in a new electoral system should be decided via referendum.

What is a referendum?

A referendum is where the general public votes on a question. In this case, they would be voting on the question along the lines of “Should there be electoral reform?” The decision reached by a referendum is not binding on the government, but it usually guides their policy action.

Ultimately the council decided against such action because they felt that citizens may not understand the full scope of the decision they are making and thus may make an uneducated decision. Further, referendums are very expensive to hold, and the council didn’t feel that it would be worth the costs.

Big Questions

  • Which system will the government adopt in replacement of the current First- Past-the-Post system?
  • How much public opinion will be considered in the framing of a new system?
  • Will a change in the electoral system get the populace more engaged in 
elections and the voting process?

Councillor Notes:

  • One councillor was not sure why the council was against referendums because they are not binding
  • Another councillor pointed out that referendums tend to be defeated a lot. They ask: Is there a potential bias here or do the people really not want something new?