By: Connor Mycroft
So you just got through the midterm season, the next, closest thing to hell after exam season, and you just wanted to sit on your couch with your vice of choice and Netflix, or get obliterated at every Halloween party you can find this weekend. The closest you’ve come to engaging in anything political was watching the presidential debates for a good laugh between study sessions.
Well, you’re not out of the bush yet. You may have heard that starting October 29th and running until November 7th, Islanders will have the opportunity to vote in a plebiscite on electoral reform. You’ll get to choose between 5 different electoral systems, each with their own pros and cons, and each one able to fundamentally change the way our governments get elected, interact with the people, and interact with each other parties.
“But I just had enough trouble picking out a Halloween costume that wasn’t racist, sexist, or culturally inappropriate! Now you’re telling me I need to pick an electoral system that could have huge ramifications for how our democracy operates? And there’re five options!? I don’t even know what a plebiscite is FFS!”
Worry not, that’s what I’m here for. So buckle up, and get ready to take Connor’s Crash Course on Electoral Reform!
Why Does Any of This Matter?
How we elect our representatives plays a fundamental role in the way our democratic government is formed and operates. Electoral systems determine the way political parties run during election season, which carries into how they act as our representatives once elected.
Certain systems tend to favor two parties, while others create diversified, multi-party legislatures.
Some systems prioritize a simple ballot and the promise of stability, while others claim that representation is what’s ultimately most important.
Some prioritize your regional representative, while others prioritize the party.
It affects the level of cooperation within the legislature. How tasks are prioritized and the way new laws are formed.
Ultimately, our voting system is a reflection of our democratic values. How do we determine who represents us? How do we want them to be selected? These are important questions that are worth considering.
We are being given a chance to change a fundamental aspect of our democracy. You want your voice to be a part of this decision. Believe me.
Well, What’s a Plebica… Plebiscitation?… What Exactly are We Doing?
Here’s where things are dicey. Formally, a plebiscite is a direct vote where the whole electorate (meaning every eligible voter) votes on an important public question. Unfortunately, unlike a referendum, the government is not technically bound to the result of the plebiscite. It basically amounts to a glorified poll.
Also, the current government has recently said they will not disclose if there is a threshold of support needed for the system to change. We went through this very same process in 2005 (where we chose the status quo), and only 33% of eligible votes turned out to vote. Not exactly fair to have 33% enforce a system on the other 67%. Instead, the final results will be discussed when the Legislature sits again later in November. They could very well deem the turnout as being too low and throw the results out.
Not only is that extremely unlikely, but the importance here is that this is a vote on change. Do we want to keep the same electoral system we’ve been using for the past 140 years, or do we want a chance to replace/refine it with something else? Besides, the chances that the government wouldn’t actually act on the result is negligible, so long as there is an adequate turnout. It would be political suicide for them to reject change if Islanders clearly want it.
How/When Do I Vote?
If you are between the ages of 16 and not-quite-dead-yet then you can vote in this plebiscite. If you registered to vote in the last election, then you should still be registered to vote in the plebiscite. If you weren’t registered/old enough during the last election, or if you have moved, check the link below to see if you are registered.
The cut off for submitting registrations to receive your Voter Information Card by mail is October 31st at 12:00pm. All registrations received after that will be required to be sent by email or by contacting Elections PEI at 1-888-234-8683.
Good News: You don’t have an excuse to not vote!
For the first time, you will be able to vote using your telephone or online. You could literally vote while doing a keg stand dressed as Harambe.
When you get your Voter Identification Card, you will receive a unique PIN number that will be used to confirm your identification.
If you don’t trust online/telephone voting, or would just prefer to physically cast your ballot, polls will be open across the island on November 4th and 5th. More information can be found below.
Okay, So What are My Options?
Before we get this started, I would like to clarify that although I have my preferences, I am trying to present the systems in as concise a manner as possible, addressing the pros and cons of each. Any bias that may appear in regards to political parties is merely for the sake of example.
Also, if you don’t feel like reading a bunch of possibly dry electoral speak, I have compiled a simple pros-and-cons list at the bottom of each section. If you just want easily digestible rundowns of each one, I would suggest you check out the videos I have linked at the end.
The “old-tried-and-true” system we’ve been using for generations. If you have ever voted in an election before, this is the system you’ve used. You get your ballot with a list of the different candidates running in your district, you mark the one you want to win and submit it. In the end, the candidate who received the most votes overall wins the seat, and the party with the most seats forms government. That’s it. Done.
Seems easy right? Well, that’s because it is. It is by far the simplest, and most straight forward of the systems on the ballot. However, it also comes with its fair share of problems.
For one, the candidate only needs to get the most votes in the district, not a majority of votes. What this means is that a Candidate could get as little as 30% of the overall vote and still win, meaning that 70% of the voters in that district did not vote for their representative. This is what people are referring to when they talk about “wasted votes.”
Taking this the full distance, it means that the party that forms the government could hold a majority of seats without a majority of support of the people. The overall popular vote (the percentage of islanders who voted for each party) does not count for anything other than an argument for Proportional Representation. For example, currently the Liberal Party holds 67% of the seats and only 40% of Islanders voted for them. Meanwhile, 37% of islanders voted PC and they only hold 8 seats (30%), and 10% voted for the NDP and Green party, yet only the Green Party got a seat. This discrepancy between seat count and the popular vote is usually seen as the biggest fault of FPTP.
It also leads to strategic voting, which is when you vote for a candidate that isn’t your preference because you want to avoid an undesirable outcome (usually to prevent another candidate from winning). You may support the Green party, but you know that the race between the Liberal and Progressive Conservative candidates is close. You definitely don’t want the Liberal to win, so you vote PC, even though you would rather vote green. Since you know your vote won’t matter because the green candidate will lose anyways, you opt for a “lesser-of-two-evils” approach.
People have also accused the FPTP system of naturally creating a two-party dominated system. Between wasted votes and strategic voting, third parties have a very hard time establishing themselves in the legislature. Since they rarely have a chance to prove their worth, support for them dwindles as people shift to supporting one of the two main parties, leaving the third parties to either fold or remain on the fringe.
Not everything is bad with FPTP, however. Why else would we have used it for as long as we have? Perhaps the strongest argument for FPTP, outside of its simplicity as explained earlier, is the fact that it has a tendency to create Stable Majority Governments. This can be seen as a blessing or curse depending on your outlook, but basically what it means is that more often than not, the party that wins forms a majority government, meaning it will always have the confidence of the house (an important aspect of parliamentary procedure). If a party wins the most seats but it isn’t a majority of seats, it forces them to either form a coalition with another party or proceed as a minority government. Coalition and Minority governments can be unstable and unpredictable, as alliances shift and parties fall out of favour with one another. Also, it seems to result in elections every other year until one finally wins a majority, so there’s that. This will be touched on further in the section on Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP).
It also gives you a direct link to your representative because each member represents a specific geographic area. When you go to vote, you are theoretically voting for the person first, and the party second. Since that person is being directly elected by their community, it is expected that they will bring the communities perspective to the legislature, as opposed to that of only the party they represent. That connection with your elected official is usually a key factor in peoples’ decision to support FPTP.
- Stable Majority Governments (Usually)
- Representatives Directly Chosen by and Answerable to their Communities
- Straight Forward and Easiest Voting Procedure
- Candidate Only Needs the Most Votes, Not the Majority
- Legislature Rarely Reflects Overall Popular Vote
- Leads to Wasted Votes and Strategic Voting
- Favours a Two-Party Systems
Notable Countries Using It: United States, United Kingdom
- First-Past-The-Post + Leaders
This option keeps things largely the same as the standard FPTP, except for one major difference.
Under this system, Party Leaders would not be required to run in a specific district as they do today and instead would be elected to the legislature if their party receives at least 10% of the overall popular vote. The Party Leader would not be required to represent a specific district, and instead would be beholden to the entire Island. As an example of how it would have changed things in the last election, both the PC’s former leader Rob Lantz and NDP leader Mike Redmond would have a seat in the legislature today.
Although this does allow for more representation in the legislature, many people argue that it amounts to nothing more than tokenism that fails to address the fundamental flaws with FPTP. It also means that the number of seats in the legislature will be in constant fluctuation since certain parties will not always be able to reach that 10% threshold.
However, UPEI’s own Don Desserud has argued that there is a real constitutional and logistical issue with this system that needs to be addressed. Since the leader would not be representing a specific district, and instead would be there solely because they are the party leader, what happens should if the party decides to replace their leader after the election? Since you cannot force a member of the legislature to resign, would it leave that person as an independent, beholden to no specific district? What if they do resign? Will the replacement leader simply be placed in the legislature despite the fact that people did not vote specifically for them? There is talk that the system could be Constitutionally Challenged if these fundamental problems can’t be addressed.
- Allows for more Representation in the Legislature through the Party Leaders
- Other Points Outlined in FPTP Section
- Fails to Address the Fundamental Complaints Against FPTP
- Major Constitutional Issues Surrounding Resigning and Replacing Leaders
- No precedent to follow
Notable Countries Using It: n/a
- Preferential Voting
This is the system we are using to vote in this plebiscite. Basically, when you get your ballot on election day, you will rank the candidates in order of preference (1 being your most preferred). You would be allowed to rank as many or as few candidates as you choose, meaning you aren’t forced to rank a candidate that you don’t like.
A candidate must have a clear majority, meaning at least 50% +1 of the vote, to be declared the winner. If after the first round no candidate has a clear majority, then the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated and those ballots are redistributed to the other candidates based on those voters next ranked candidate. This process of elimination continues until one candidate clearly has over 50% of the vote.
The benefit of the Preferential Ballot is that it produces winners that a larger number of voters can agree on. Instead of FPTP where a member can win without a majority of support, under Preferential Voting the winner always receives at least 50%+1. Since you can choose how many candidates to rate, you don’t have to be concerned about your vote contributing to someone being elected that you didn’t want, either.
However, it still does not alleviate some of the concerns associated with FPTP. For one, it still fails at establishing proportional representation, since the overall popular vote is not reflected in the final result. In fact, it can actually lead to even more over-representation than under FPTP. For example, the average Canadian voter’s second pick is often the Liberal Party. Obviously, under PV this could lead to overwhelming or even perpetual Liberal victories. Regardless of your political leanings, it’s not hard to see the problem here.
There’s also an indication that PV is susceptible to the Condorcet effect, which basically states that the candidate that wins would be the same one who would win under the FPTP system. All the PV system does then, in this case, is elongate the process involved in determining the winner (= more taxpayer $$$) and gives people the impression their vote contributed more than it would have under FPTP.
Also, Preferential Voting typically trends towards a two-party dominated system like FPTP and does not altogether eliminate strategic voting.
- Candidates will always win with a majority of votes, albeit slightly removed (in the same sense as your cousin.)
- Voters Get to Express Their Preferences
- Simple Ballot.
- Minority Governments Still Possible (if that’s your preference)
- Can skew votes even more than FPTP
- Fails to establish proportional representation (to be fair, it isn’t set out to do that)
- Winning candidate would often be the same winner under FPTP
- Doesn’t stop Strategic Voting
- Favours Two-Party dominated system
Notable Countries Using It: Australia, Ireland, Czech Republic
An MMP ballot would have two parts. The first part would have you selecting one candidate from a list of candidates in the same way as we do now under FPTP. 18 of the 9 seats in the Legislature will be picked in this fashion.
On the second part, you would effectively be voting for the party. Each party will produce a list of candidates to represent the whole island, and you will select which of those six you would prefer from the party of your choice. This second part of the vote will determine the popular vote for the island, and the 9 remaining seats will be divided up amongst the parties so that the overall legislature more closely resembles the popular vote of the island.
The benefits of MMP are that it acts as a hybrid of both Direct Proportional Representation (which isn’t an option, for good reason) and FPTP. Proponents argue that it provides the best of both worlds; a set of directly accountable regional representatives, and a legislature that more closely resembles the popular vote of the whole island.
However, this is where detractors see the biggest issues. For many, MMP appears to create a Two-Tiered Legislature, where those voted directly by their community are held in higher, more authoritative regard. Alternatively, those elected as members of the Party and not of a community wouldn’t be technically beholden to anyone other than the party itself, so if you have an issue with members “towing the party line” head warning. Not only that, but electoral districts will get larger with the reduction from 27 seats to 18, meaning that each regional representative will have less direct contact with their electorate as they are stretched over a larger area.
Although, proponents of the MMP see the benefits it has over FPTP to be of greater consequence. For one, it allows for third parties and their supporters to get representation within the legislature. This theoretically encourages greater political diversity, which will shape the debates and proceedings that occur in the legislature. More islanders will feel as though their opinions are being reflected by their elected members. Governments that have implemented some version of Proportional Representation are shown to have greater gender parity and more minority representation.
Here is the second contentious issue, and it really depends on your point of view. Because the legislature will inevitably comprise of more parties than just the two dominant one, this system often produces minority governments. Now, as mentioned in the section on FPTP, this can be a real issue. Although it is assumed that the party who won the most seats will be a part of the government, they need to court other parties to join together as a coalition in order to hold a majority of seats. If the winning party fails to accomplish this (be it through their own arrogance or that of the opposition parties), we could see a situation similar to Spain where they have been without a sitting government for almost a full year. Minority governments also have hard times passing any legislation, because the opposition parties can vote as a block and prevent any government laws from passing. They also have enough votes to declare no confidence in the government, meaning voters would have to return to the polls.
If you remember the period between 2006 and 2011, you know the problems with minority governments.
Alternatively, If you remember the period between 2011 and 2015, you know the problems with majority governments.
Proponents of MMP claim that these issues with minority governments only exist because we operate under the FPTP system. If we operated under MMP, our legislature would have to be more cooperative and willing to facilitate other views. The winning party would have to form coalitions with other parties, meaning that the legislation will better encompass the views of all islanders. Unfortunately, as the Spain example indicates, MMP does not always lead to this perfect outcome. It should also be noted that Majority Governments would still be possible under MMP.
There is also an issue with how those candidates on the “party list” are chosen. If implemented, it will be up to each party to determine which people get chosen to be on the list. Evidently, each party will have different means of choosing these candidates, and many point to scenarios where people could be placed on the list through political or financial favor.
- Incorporates Best Parts of both FPTP and Proportional Representation
- Mostly Eliminates Wasted Votes and Strategic Voting
- Better reflects the Popular Vote of the Island
- Diversifies the Legislature
- Majority Governments Still Possible
- Chance for Strong, All-Encompassing Coalition/Minority Governments
- Chance for Unstable, Deadlocked Coalition/Minority Governments
- Loss of Some Regional Representation
- Possible Two-Tiered Legislature
- The Dreaded “Party List”
- Complex Ballot
Notable Countries Using It: New Zealand, Germany, Mexico
- Dual-Member Proportional
This system is very similar to MMP but with some key differences. Whereas with MMP you have two selections, with DMP you make one selection. Each party runs two candidates in each district, and you vote on the pair. The first candidate is chosen through the traditional FPTP model. The second seat for every district is then assigned so that the party distribution in the legislature resembles the proportions of the popular vote. The members will be chosen based on where the party was most successful. It is expected that the top three performing candidates will be selected.
Although it carries over some of the same faults as MMP, it fixes quite a bit. For starters, it fixes a lot of the concerns surrounding regional representation. Since two members are running per district, those who are selected based off of the popular vote are assumed to represent their district. This also eliminates the sour “party list”. It doesn’t fix all the issues, though. Is the member selected through proportional representation actually representative for that district? If they were selected based off of the party vote, then won’t they be expected to simply tow the party line?
If you aren’t a fan of the proportional vote determining who gets selected, this system is not for you. We would first have to increase the seats from 27 to 28, with 14 seats being determined by FPTP and the other 14 determined from the popular vote (MMP it is 18 and 9 respectively).
Another key factor is that this system has never been tried anywhere else. It was designed specifically for PEI, due to our history with two member district and our small size. Unlike FPTP+L, which is more of a tweak to FPTP, DMP is a complete overhaul. And whereas there are existing examples of countries using MMP, we will be the first to use DMP. There could be many unforeseen issues/conflicts that arise that we will have to discover first-hand.
Here’s the thing, we all know that the Island isn’t exactly pro-active when it comes to change. Now that electoral reform is a hot issue across Canada, the fact that we are fronting the charge is impressive. Hell, I will be shocked if we choose MMP, let alone anything that isn’t the Status Quo. But for us to choose a never-been-done-before system? Cannot see it.
- Benefits of MMP
- Increased Regional Representation from MMP
- Simpler Ballot
- No “Party List”
- Never Been Used Before
- Questionable Representation
- More “Assigned” Seats
- Are you Tired Yet?
Notable Countries Using It: n/a
As you can see, no particular system is inherently the best. Each one has its fair share of faults, as well as successes. When deciding upon which system would be the best for PEI, you really need to look at what you want to prioritize, and what you would like to see changed.
If you’ve gotten this far and have decided “screw it I’m just going to stay with the status quo” I wouldn’t blame you. Electoral systems are surprisingly complex and our current system has undoubtedly provided stability and ease of use for generations. Besides, the Plebiscite is practically set up to keep things the same anyways.
But that means that those who want change need to get out and vote. Make sure you get others out to vote as well make your opinion heard. Fight for what you believe in. Contribute to the change you want to see.
Just watch these videos.
First-Past-The-Post + Leaders