Some jumbled thoughts on the strategy of electoral reform

I posted yesterday of my plan to write several blog post on the Liberals’ plans for electoral reform and Senate reform. My focus is going to be on the strategic and tactical aspects of the government’s initiatives in these areas, and on how we might expect the opposition parties to react. I’ll start today by discussing electoral reform.  I am having trouble developing a coherent model of the politics of electoral reform, and so I’ll content myself by posting a series of rambling observations.

What the Liberals probably want to achieve

While the vague nature of the Liberals’ promise to reform the electoral system theoretically allows them to choose among a wide variety of alternative electoral systems, their choice is essentially over three three key aspects of the electoral system: 1) the district magnitude (i.e., the number of seats available in the district), 2) formula (i.e., plurality, majority, or PR), and 3) ballot structure (preferential or simple). The general effect of altering each of these dimensions is as follows:

  • The larger the district magnitude, the more political parties one can expect to contest elections and win seats. Specifically, if we denote the district magnitude as M, we can expect M+1 parties to contest elections (Cox 1997).
  • Proportional representation facilitates the electoral success of smaller parties, especially ones with with well-defined ideological niches. The propensity of PR to favour smaller parties is contingent on the district magnitude, however. The lower the district magnitude, the less proportional the translation from votes to seats, and the less “friendly” the electoral system is to smaller parties.
  • A preferential ballot structure favours centrist parties (and their candidates) because they can reasonably expect to be the second preference of many voters who prefer the more extreme parties to the left and right.

We can safely assume that the Liberals prefer to replace FPTP with an electoral system that reliably provides them with 1) at least a plurality of parliamentary seats such that they 2) regularly participate in government. To achieve this, the Liberals must choose an electoral system that simultaneously 1) prevents the Conservatives from capitalizing on the divisions between the Liberals, NDP, and the Greens and yet 2) still ensures that the Liberals are the dominant left-wing party.

List-PR, especially in large multi-member districts, is unlikely to achieve these ends. As a larger party, the Liberals benefit from electoral disproportionality. The risk inherent in adopting a highly proportional electoral system—such as list-PR in large multi-member districts— is thus that it would reduce the Liberals to just one of three fairly co-equal left-wing parties.* If this happened, the Conservatives might be able to form minority governments on a regular basis in a mirror image of the historical Swedish pattern, where a lack of coordination among three right-wing opponents often allows the left-wing Social Democrats to form single-party minority governments. This line of analysis suggests that the Liberals prefer to keep the district magnitude low. In this respect, the Liberals’ interests dovetail with those of the Conservatives, the other large party, and clash with those of the Greens and the NDP.

It’s unlikely, of course, that the Liberals would champion list-PR as the alternative to FPTP. Instead, they are likely to take their cue from recent electoral reform efforts in Ontario and BC, where voters were asked to consider replacing FPTP with mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) or the single-transferable vote (STV), respectively.  Both MMP and STV would do a better job than list-PR of protecting the Liberals’ position as the dominant left-wing party in Canadian politics. Under MMP, the Liberals could confidently predict to win large pluralities of district seats. This would leave them as obvious formateurs of any left-wing coalition government. STV could be applied in multi-member districts of, say, 3 seats. This would generate sufficient disproportionality to ensure that NDP and Greens could not eclipse the Liberals as the dominant left-wing party. In addition, the Liberals could expect to be the main beneficiary of NDP and Green voters’ second preferences.

Constraints / Why I think the Liberals are unlikely to opt for MMP (especially) or STV

The main problem with STV and MMP (especially) is feasibility. Both STV and MMP would require effecting a country-wide redistribution of riding boundaries. This would be hard to do given the Liberal’s self-imposed time frame of 18 months to introduce the necessary legislation. (Presumably that legislation will have to include district boundaries.  Of course, given their penchant for setting arbitrary deadlines, and then screwing the pooch in an effort to meet said deadlines, the Liberals might not give a damn about rushing through a country-wide redistribution – damn the torpedoes – before the next election.)

Such considerations leave STV as a dark horse alternative IMO, but they do not make it a non-starter.  The problems confronting MMP run much deeper, however. MMP is likely to find itself in tension with the “senatorial floor” clause in of the 1867 Constitution Act. This clause guarantees each province at least as many seats in the House of Commons as it has in the Senate. The need to respect the senatorial floor clause will in my view mandate that any MMP system operate on a provincial rather than a national or regional basis, unless the Liberals are willing to substantially increase the size of the House to accommodate the list-tier seats (and this is probably a non-starter).**  The huge variation in the size of provinces would then generate wide variation in proportionality across provinces.  I could see this as fertile ground for legal challenges.*** While the courts have generally granted Parliament wide latitude in structuring the electoral system, any law suit would eat up limited time.  I just can’t see the Liberals fighting in the House, the media, or the Courts for MMP: MMP just doesn’t give the Liberals’ sufficient electoral return to justify all the potential trouble.

Almost by default, then, the Liberals are left with  the alternative vote (AV) (i.e., ranked ballots) as their most preferred alternative to FPTP. AV has three key advantages from the Liberals’ perspective: 1) it uses single-member districts, so it can be effected without altering existing riding boundaries; 2) precisely because AV uses single-member districts it is disproportional, and as such it tends to operate to the benefit of larger parties (like the Liberals); and 3) AV tends to benefit “moderate” parties, that is, parties that can expect to be voters’ first or second choice. As the centre party of the Canadian party system, the Liberals can reasonably expect to be the second preference of progressive Conservative voters, and also of mildly left-wing voters who are suspicious of handing power to the NDP or the Greens. STV in small districts is almost as advantageous for the same reason.

I don’t think the above is especially earth-shattering, but it does help establish the Liberals’ preference orderings over electoral systems:

AV >> STV (given small M) & FPTP > MMP.

It’s not exactly clear to me how the Liberals value STV relative to FPTP. My thinking is that there’s a district magnitude above which the Liberals prefer FPTP.

In the next few posts, I’ll consider electoral reform from the Conservative and NDP, Green & Bloc perspectives.  This will help to identify potential coalitions for the various alternatives.  I’ll then consider how it all might go pear-shaped for each of the parties.


*Large-M list-PR poses another risk to the, the Liberals and the Conservatives, and that is that it will encourage their fragmentation into smaller, more ideologically coherent parties. Of course, I would expect all parties to champion a closed-list to forestall this possibility and retain their oligopoly on the Canadian party system.

**Consider, for example, that the senatorial floor, for example, constitutionally guarantees PEI 4 seats.  I don’t see how one could, say, amalgamate PEI’s 4 ridings into 2 ridings, and then argue that 2 seats on a national list of 169 seats are somehow PEI’s.  Which 2 seats would those be and what is the electoral connection between the PEI electorate and the occupants of said seats?  I’ll bet that PEI (and every other province) will demand that the electoral connection between the province and its House of Commons’ seats be crystal clear — and I’d bet the SC sees things the same way.  I see two ways to achieve this:
  1. Double the size of the HOC.  PEI would then retain its 4 district seats – and “presto”, problem solved.
  2. Use provincial lists (as in Germany).  This is far more likely.  Of course, it’s less desirable from the perspective of the NDP and the Greens (especially) because smaller lists (especially in Atlantic Canada) will preserve some disproportionality. This will favour the Grits and Tories.

***In Germany, for example, small parties successfully litigated the practice of the larger parties retaining their überhängmandaten; this violated the guaranteed of proportionality, they argued.  I could see similar arguments being made if the Liberals worded the legislation so as to require the electoral system “make every vote count”  (the phrase employed in their platform).  Of course, this problem dogs FPTP due to malapportionment across provinces (also a function of the senatorial floor), and several groups have tried to litigate against FPTP on these grounds.  The difference is that litigants will now be able to ground their challenges on a specific piece of legislation as well as the Charter.

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