Peru’s Big Surprise

Peru’s June 6 election was a big surprise containing a multitude of smaller surprises.

The biggest surprise was that Pedro Castillo, rural teacher and union leader, won the election with 50.1 percent, defeating Keiko Fujimori, three-time presidential candidate and daughter of imprisoned former president, Alberto Fujimori, who won 49.9 percent of the valid votes cast.

This is the culmination of several earlier surprises.

First, Castillo, virtually unknown in Lima, won the first round on April 14. He placed first with 19 percent, up from 2 percent of voter intentions in the polls in January and February to 4 percent in March and 7 percent in early April. Only a deeply fractured polity, with voters desperate for alternatives, could produce such an outcome. Despite social media, Peru is not yet a nation where public opinion resonates smoothly across the coast, highlands, and jungle.

Second, polls published immediately after first round showed Castillo with a huge lead, with roughly double voter intentions of runner up Keiko Fujimori. This revealed a potentially large pool of voters receptive to Castillo’s message of “no more poor in a rich country.” It also revealed the depth of hostility toward Keiko Fujimori, who faces numerous charges of corruption and is widely blamed for the obstructionism that dogged recent administrations.

Third, Castillo maintained his share of popular support (at roughly 40 percent), despite a viciously racist, often mendacious, and rhetorically violent campaign aimed at stigmatizing him as a communist, a terrorist, and an ignoramus. Even a massacre in the jungle perpetrated, apparently, by remnants of the Shining Path linked to drug-trafficking, had little effect on Castillo’s popularity. The Peruvian media’s disgracefully biased role had little effect outside urban areas.

Fourth, Castillo does not represent a renovated, moderated, socially-progressive, intellectually respectable left but an older more traditional class-struggle oriented left. His campaign is the spontaneous and direct—indeed, largely disorganized and chaotic—expression of rural poverty, abandonment, and neglect. The program of his party, Peru Libre, was written by former regional governor, Vladimir Cerrón, and is redolent of the radical left from the 1970s and 1980s.

Fifth, Castillo’s victory is a defeat for Peru’s 1993 Constitution, which was drafted following a self-coup by then President Alberto Fujimori. In April 1992, Fujimori closed the congress and suspended the constitution before convening a constituent congress to write a new Magna Carta. Castillo promises a referendum on whether to convene another constituent assembly to draft a yet another constitution.

Sixth, the proposal to change the constitution aims to challenge the neoliberal economic model that Peru has followed since the 1990s. This model led to rapid economic growth, especially during the commodity boom, and this lifted millions out of poverty especially in the urban areas. But the pandemic has been a blow to neoliberalism because revenue from the boom was not sufficiently reinvested in health care, education, and social welfare. Peru never adopted the kinds of radical reforms implemented in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and polls suggest they want moderate rather than radical changes. With Chile, the region’s neoliberal standard-bearer, rewriting its constitution, however, Peruvians may be willing to follow suit.

That said, for many Peruvians, and international community, the election is more than a surprise—it is a shock. There will be chaos and ungovernability. Castillo has never held public office and most of his entourage are neophytes. He lacks a majority in congress, and much of what he has promised will be difficult or impossible to achieve. To top it off, Peru is in the throes of a pandemic that has cost 180,000 lives, one of the worst outcomes, per capita, in the world.

Worse still, taking a page from the Trump “stop the steal” campaign, Keiko Fujimori has refused to accept the result, making baseless allegations of fraud, and challenging the result in the tribunals.

But it is also important to recognize that the election of Castillo represents a process of democratization of Peruvian society, and that this was made possible by a functioning electoral democracy. Now all actors must respect the outcome.

Runoff in Peru: A referendum on 1993 constitution

This post originally appeared as “Peru’s upcoming presidential election is really a referendum on its troubled constitution” in The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post on May 13, 2021. It was co-authored with Paolo Sosa-Villagarcia, (Versión en español aquí).

On June 6, Peru will vote in a runoff election for president, deciding between the top two candidates from first round of voting. On the left is Pedro Castillo, a rural teacher and street-fighting union organizer who came in first with only 19 percent of the vote; on the right, is Keiko Fujimori, who squeaked out 13 percent. Polls put Castillo in the lead. Castillo has promised a new constitution. Since Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of Peru’s now-jailed former dictator Alberto Fujimori, some observers fear that she would restore a corrupt and authoritarian dynasty. Constitutional reform may be Peru’s best alternative to becoming ascrisis-wracked and polarized as Venezuela.

Frontrunner Pedro Castillo faces off against dynastic candidate Keiko Fujimori

For decades, Peruvians have been divided over the legacy of President Alberto Fujimori, in office from 1990 to 2000, currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights crimes and corruption. His daughter, Keiko, thrice candidate for the presidency, faces 30 years in prisonfor allegedly receiving and conceal over $17 million in illegal campaign contributions from powerful business allies. Her party’s role in clashes among the legislature, executive and judiciary contributed to one of Peru’s biggest recent political crises, in which four presidentsrotated through the palace in five years.

Her father’s primary legacy is the 1993 Constitution, progeny of an autogolpe (or self-coup). In April 1992, Alberto Fujimori closed congress and suspended the constitution, drafting a new constitution to legitimate his rule. He fled in 2000 after his unconstitutional bid for a third term was derailed by a major corruption scandal, and was captured, tried and jailed in 2009.

Keiko Fujimori now defends the constitution and neoliberal economic model it enshrines. Castillo is campaigning as the outsider, candidate of a new party called Peru Libre. Like Alberto Fujimori in 1990, Castillo has never held public office. His run channels voter anger over poverty, neglect, corruption, a dismal pandemic response and economic crash – and focuses that on a call for a new constitution.

From self-coups to executive-led republican refounding in Latin America

The program of Peru Libre, drafted by its radical leader Vladimir Cerrón, outlines what has come to be known as republican refounding. Its plan is simple: Run for office promising a referendum on a new constitution; convene a constituent assembly, which may serve as a legislature; and submit the new draft to a referendum. This sidesteps the illegitimacy of the autogolpe, but can have similar consequences.

For example, Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chávez enjoyed broad popular and military support. But when he convened a constituent assembly, the opposition was effectively shut out; he used the assembly to expand executive power. When the opposition attempted to overthrow Chávez in an April 2002 coup, Venezuela accelerated its gradual but catastrophic regime breakdown.

Similarly, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa rewrote that country’s constitution in 2008, and then governed through plebiscites and appeals to public opinion, bypassing congress and relentlessly attacking his opponents. After he stepped down in 2017, his successor used a referendum to nullify a constitutional amendment that would have allowed Correa to run again, without term limits.

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales convened a constituent assembly. When that body could not reach consensus, Congress amended it; voters approved the new constitution in a 2009 referendum.  Morales then defied both the new constitution and a 2017 referendum upholding term limits, and sought a third term in office. Disputed reports of electoral irregularities in the 2019 election sparked protests; Morales fled to Mexico after the military withdrew its support.

Venezuelan-style authoritarianism is unlikely in Peru

Recent research (including our own, still underway) suggests that constitution-making can derail democracy when there are power asymmetries between incumbents and opponents. Castillo is unlikely to follow the Venezuelan path for three reasons.

First, if elected, Castillo is likely to be a weak president. He has neither Correa’s popularity, Chávez’s military background, nor Morales’ social base. He has a tenuous relationship with his own party, Peru Libre, which won a slim plurality of seats in the Congress, just 37 of the total 130.

Second, he faces powerful opponents. Peru’s electorate is conservative, especially in Lima. Memories of the internal conflict between 1980 and 2000 linger painfully. A fragmented but virulently anti-communist right-wing opposition aligned with powerful media and corporate groups will be tough opponents; some already talk about a possible coup.

Third, Castillo has pledged respect for the constitution and made alliances with moderate left-wing candidate Veronica Mendoza’s Juntos por el Perú, repudiating Cerrón’s suggestion that the left should seize power and stay there.

Constitutional change is therefore unlikely to derail democracy. A recent poll showed that over half the electorate supports constitutional change. Having committed himself to respecting the 1993 Constitution until it is replaced, however, Castillo will have to work within Article 206. That prohibits constitutional reform without the prior approval of congress, followed by a referendum.

The alternative: an accord on constitutional reform

Chile has recently done something that might be instructive. In response to protests starting in 2019, Chile’s lawmakers designed a constitutional process that has some guardrails. Their “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” gave Chileans the power to choose how they would elect a constitutional convention, which would then have the power to do one thing: draft a constitution to be submitted to a referendum. The constitutional convention cannot act arbitrarily, nor be subjected to interference.

Peru’s legislature could choose something similar, filling the assembly with representatives of a variety of parties, unions, business organizations, and other social and political groups. This could begin to close the representation gap left since the the party system collapsed during the Fujimori dictatorship, expanding citizen participation to encompass Indigenous peoples and the rural and informal poor.

Two possible roadblocks loom. Castillo could win, but the right wing could obstruct any efforts at reform. Or Keiko Fujimori could win, and turn Peru sharply in an authoritarian direction. Either could lead to dangerous confrontations. A precarious or unpopular president facing an implacable but fragmented opposition in Congress could undermine democracy.

Want to read more? 

ttps://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/04/28/peru-elections-pedro-castillo-keiko-fujimori-broken-democracy/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/11/15/bolivian-protests-unseated-president-so-why-are-they-still-streets/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/11/18/peru-had-three-presidents-just-one-week-how-could-that-happen/

Black Lives Matter: Protest and Division in Trump’s (Dis)United States

The unprecedented wave of protests that have roiled the United States in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 may well be recorded as that nation’s largest social movement. The video of George Floyd’s death, his neck compressed by the knee of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin for over eight minutes, groaning that he could not breathe and calling out for his mother, was sad and outrageous and yet consistent with deeply entrenched patterns of anti-black racial violence by police in the United States. The killing of Floyd followed other tragic deaths: Ahmaud Arbery was shot by vigilantes in February while he was jogging in a small town in Georgia; Breonna Taylor was, killed in her own home in Louisville as police they entered her apartment in search of a suspect.

Similar deaths sparked the Black Lives Matter movement seven years ago. The 2013 killing of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown led a small group of activists to use adopt the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. As the movement gained momentum and organization it was joined by high profile athletes like Colin Kaepernick, who took up the cause in 2016. BLM activists organized counter protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists gathered to “Unite the Right.” Since the election of Trump and the intensification of racial divisions in the United States, BLM has become a global movement for racial justice.

The high-water mark was reached in the Summer of 2020. Floyd’s death by torture led to one of the most dramatic shifts in public opinion recorded by pollsters. As many as 26 million people may have joined the protests. They often received the support and encouragement from progressive mayors, governors, elected officials, and in exceptional cases even law enforcement officers. In Washington DC Mayor Muriel Browser renamed a two-block strip of 16th Street leading toward the White House as Black Lives Matter Plaza, and wrote the words in large yellow letters (visible on Google Earth).

The outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter was a stirring repudiation of racism and violence but it may have been insufficient to pull the United States back from the brink of civic strife. The complex roots of anti-black racism and violence can be traced to the legacies of chattel slavery, the betrayal of the promises of post-Civil War reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and legal segregation, the Nixonian “War on Drugs,” the construction of a carceral state, the militarization of law enforcement, rising inequality under neoliberalism, and the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the black community. The cumulative effect of these mechanisms of perpetuation of racial hierarchy has been to weaken the vision of racial integration and justice that came out of the 1960s civil rights movement.

The African American community—and, to a lesser degree, the Latino community—has been criminalized and disenfranchised: they are massively overrepresented in the prison population, and their voting rights are infringed due to incarceration (so-called “felony disenfranchisement”). Stigma and fear motivate the base of the Republican Party, much of which is based on stereotypes that are continuously reinforced by right-wing politicians, Fox News, and other media. President Donald J. Trump from his bully pulpit has both contributed to anti-black violence and racism and benefitted from the ensuing malaise. He is not the first demagogue to play to prejudice and bigotry, but few can match his talent.

A self-absorbed and narcissistic personality may impede competent management of a pandemic, but it isn’t a liability when it comes to blame-shifting and race-baiting. What is truly disturbing about both Trump’s rise to power and approach to government is that he has built a political base of supporters who either embrace or willfully ignore the racist and misogynistic rhetoric he has uses and by which he gives them permission to indulge their own ignorance and intolerance. Rather than unifying and healing the country, Trump seeks to divide it. He does so because it serves the interests of his class. When he defends the names of military bases and statues of defeated traitors—the mediocre losers of a true American carnage—he is doing what racist oligarchs have always done. As Martin Luther King would have said, he is giving his base Jim Crow to eat: “If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”

King understood that nothing so threatened the status quo like a broad coalition—men and women, people of all races and religions, rural and urban—with a shared commitment to justice and equality. It would threaten what Trump truly represents: the power and privileges of an oligarchy that can only survive through division and polarization. Only by a continual campaign of fear mongering can oligarchic interests secure the votes of those whose very interests they undermine. Only by continuously feeding their base with lies—about the “deep state”, about threats to guns ownership and other “freedoms,” about women, minorities, immigrants taking away jobs and opportunities—can oligarchic forces prevent the emergence of a vision of the nation consistent with its founding aspirations (if not reality): that all people are created equal, and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Republican Party has become an anti-system insurgency bent on the destruction of US democracy. It both contributes to governmental dysfunction, and then blames the ensuing dysfunctional on government. Since at least the Reagan era, it has abandoned the commitment to the mixed economy that emerged after the Second World War and contributed to shared and sustained prosperity. It has fully embraced a neoliberal ideology that less government is always better. Less well understood is that neoliberalism in the US has been motivated by, and has reinforced, racism.

Racism aids neoliberalism because redistributive policies help minorities get ahead. As Arlie Hochschild puts it, conservative white supporters of the Tea Party believe that they have been abandoned by a federal government. But they do not blame big corporations for capturing government and imposing policies that have widened the income gap and reduced social mobility. Instead, they have nurtured a sense of grievance with the wider culture. “They feel their cultural beliefs are denigrated by the culture at large. They feel that they’re seen as rednecks, that they live in a region that’s being discredited. Many of them are deeply devout, but they see the culture at large becoming more secular. And then they see economically that this trapdoor that used to only affect black people and people one class below them is now opening and gobbling up them and their children too.”

For decades Republican politicians have primed their base to hate and fear minorities. They have opposed affirmative action, entitlement programs, and “special interests,” all of which have become code words for helping minorities get ahead. Reagan propagated the racist myth of the “welfare queen,” the perpetrator of welfare fraud; the idea of the black male as a “super-predator” originated with the Reaganite, climate-denying, neoliberal Manhattan Institute. Even the core neoliberal value of choice has a racist tinge. As Nancy MacLean has carefully documented, early advocates of neoliberal thought in the United States supported the privatization of public education in part because they opposed the racial integration of schools. In short, racism has long been a barrier not only to the development of social democracy in the US but even basic education, healthcare, and other public services. Racism and neoliberalism fit hand-in-glove.

This brings us to a central puzzle in US politics today. Why is the Democratic Party unable to generate a compelling alternative to the extremist, racist, and anti-democratic politics of the Republicans? With lacklustre Joe Biden as their candidate, and growing internal divisions between democratic socialists like Bernie and OAC and the party leadership, the Democratic Party has trouble capitalizing on social movement activism. Rather than being propelled forward, Democrats struggle to balance the need to reassure moderate and easy to frighten suburban voters while energizing an increasingly radicalized base. The Party’s embrace of neoliberalism and abandonment of the working class as they cultivated allies on Wall Street has left much of the working class in the heartland sharing the sense of abandonment that pervades the deep south.

To understand the dynamic at work, consider Kenosha, Wisconsin. A quiet lakeside community of about 100,000 people, Kenosha used to be an automobile manufacturing town. Now it is mainly a bedroom community for people who work in Chicago, a couple of hours away by train. It has a liberal arts college and an industrial park.  About three quarters of the population is white, most of the rest are African American and Latino. Kenosha seemed like an unlikely flashpoint for racial tensions in the US unless one looked under the surface. A few years ago, after a robbery, the Kenosha county sheriff expressed the kind of tough-on-crime views that suggest a deeper problem of race relations. “These people have to be warehoused,” he said. “These people are no longer an asset to our community, and they just need to disappear.”

It was in Kenosha in August that the police shot Jacob Blake in the back as he left the scene of an altercation and attempted to get in his car. The killing lead to several days of protest, during which vehicles were burned and government buildings and businesses were damaged. The National Guard was called in to restore order, and armed vigilante groups began to appear. Their presence was welcomed by local law enforcement officers under the direction of the county sheriff, and one of the vigilantes allegedly shot and killed two protesters. There could be no more graphic example of white privilege than the fact that armed white militias could want unimpeded through police lines after discharging their weapons in protests against anti-black police violence.

When Trump visited Kenosha he did not speak with the Blake family but instead praised the efforts of local law enforcement and offered more funding for policing and to rebuild businesses.  He attacked “Antifa,” criminals, illegal immigrants, and deplored lawlessness in Democratic-run cities. Of the vigilante, he suggested he was acting in self-defence.

Trump’s visit was controversial: both the Mayor of Kenosha and the Governor of Wisconsin told him to stay away.  But as one older working class white resident of Kenosha said: “It’s the first time in a week my wife and I have felt we could come anywhere near downtown…It sends the right message about who is in charge and who needs to stand down, what kind of country this is supposed to be and how people ought to behave.”  He went on to reflect on the broader politics of the visit, saying: “If the pictures people are going to see of Kenosha on TV and stuff — all the boarded-up businesses and barricades — help to remind Americans of that, and that pushes the voters to return Trump to office, then Trump’s visit was certainly the right thing,”

Back in Washington, Trump criticized “Critical Race Theory” as “divisive, anti-American propaganda,” and argued for “Patriotic education” while downplaying the legacies of slavery. In the debate with Biden he refused to unequivocally condemn white supremacy, and after the vice-presidential debate he attacked Kamala Harris as a “monster.” He also criticized Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan, after she was targeted by an armed militia to be kidnapped and murdered, saying she should be grateful to him for the investigation that led to the arrest of the plotters. Trump’s repeated suggestion that his supporters have to be vigilant about fraud raised the spectre of armed factions showing up at polling stations.

As the New York Times put it “the president has increasingly made appeals to the grievances of white supporters a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.” Whether running as the defender of “white America” is a winning proposition is an important question.  Unless the United States can find a way to come to terms with its racist past and present, it will go down in history as proof that power and wealth mean nothing if the citizens of a nation cannot agree on how to live together.

Note. A version of this commentary appears in Quehacer in Peru.

Review of Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom

I am grateful to Douglas Kries (2019) for his review of Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom.  Kries is not in my camp, but a critical review is not only better than none, it offers an occasion for further reflection.

Kries notes that I am critical of neoliberalism, of money in politics and the oligarchical tendencies to which it gives rise, and of neoliberal leaders like Thatcher, Reagan, Pinochet and Trump. “The obvious rejoinder to Cameron’s critique of neoliberalism or free markets is that he does not seriously address the question of the importance of freedom. The American Founders, and others, thought that self-government was a good thing because through it citizen legislators, chosen by their fellow citizens, were able to exercise autonomy and advance liberty. Prudence was surely valuable to them, but they did not think they had to surrender governmental decision-making to a small group of elites in order to promote it. It is not clear that Cameron has thought through the implications his claims have for the idea of liberty.”

I find this objection puzzling since it is not clear why  prudence (or phronesis) should be opposed either to freedom or to self-government, and indeed full chapter of the book was devoted to the idea of development as freedom as understood by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. One could link free markets to political freedom, as neoliberal thinkers often do, but I find these arguments deeply problematic both in theory and practice (suffice it to mention the role of the Chicago Boys, including Friedman and Hayek, in Chile). More fundamentally, neoliberal prescriptions can undermine autonomy and liberty by inhibiting collective action in defense of the protection of rights and freedoms.

I think the more interesting point made by Kries is that Aristotle may not be relevant to contemporary pluralist societies. “The problem in recovering Aristotle’s notion for modern politics quickly comes to sight, however, as a disagreement about ends. In a ‘pluralistic’ age, there is no agreement about ends, or at least little agreement, and Aristotle is clear that if we get the ends wrong, prudential decision-making is just shrewdness or cleverness.” I think this is a very interesting problem.  “Cameron is to be credited with seeing the problem” says Kries. “He does not want to adopt an openly teleological position like Aristotle, however, as that would be opposed to ‘value pluralism,’ which he does not want to abandon. He tries to split the difference with what he calls ‘ethical convergence’ (75). He does not develop this position extensively, but apparently what he means is that the current pluralism of goods that we encounter in modern politics is ultimately destined to converge in a certain small set of goods.”

The first point I would make is that this problem is not limited to virtue ethics. The fact that in a pluralistic society there will always be differences with respect to the good creates profound challenges for political theory and practice.  Similar problems arise when we take a rights-based approach. Pluralistic societies are often divided on rights (consider abortion, sexual diversity, minority rights, and so forth). The fact that rights evolve, and that they conflict, and thus upholding rights is often a matter of balancing different rights-based claims, is not a good reason to suggest that there is something wrong with rights. Some rights become deeply entrenched, widely accepted, and robustly enforced, while others are more contested.  In other words, it is not clear to me how finding agreement on what is good is any different, in principle, from balancing rights. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that more work has been done to understand rights and how to balance them in countries like Canada and the US. A similar argument could be made about utilitarianism, but it is a feeble defense of an argument to suggest that other theories fare no better.  So a more productive response is to develop the idea of convergence on the good.

We already agree on many common goods. As Andrew Yuengert says, “I think the case for despair over agreement on basic goods is overstated. We have more in common than we admit. If human flourishing were not a shared reality, we could not talk about people doing well or poorly in life, making good and bad decisions.” Common goods are not merely a matter of taste or preference. A good teacher will be able to educate her pupils more than a mediocre one. The good in question is the imparting of skills and knowledge to the pupil. Despite pluralism, any practice can be performed well or badly, and we generally recognize such differences. Indeed, our society can scarcely function without recognizing these differences.

Consider the pandemic: most publics had little difficulty recognizing that “flattening the epidemic curve” was a good worth pursuing. Public health measures are necessary to ensure our society flourishes. We also have a common interest in the capacity of our fellow citizens to transform resources at their disposal into improved functioning. The idea of investing in human capabilities rests on the idea that people are better off when they have acquired the skills and knowledge necessary to flourish. The insight is captured by the old saw: it is better to teach people how to fish than to give them fish.  If this is true, then what we are saying is that one gets closer to a good life when one has certain capabilities. A flourishing society demands investments in human capabilities.

The acquisition of moral skill and will is a developmental process. It involves culturally transmitted language and tools, the ability to use evidence and logic in reasoning, and the security and leisure time necessary to exercise citizenship rights. On simply cannot engage actively and fully in democratic self-government unless one has acquired a full set of capabilities, and these do not appear out of nowhere.

It is worth noting that these argument are in tension with neoliberalism. The human capabilities approach explicitly rejects the presumption that markets are sufficient to generate the goods we need to flourish. The idea that goods are not a matter of taste is anathema to any theory that assumes preferences must be given and not questioned. And the kind of policies necessary to ensure the full exercise of citizenship rights require a far more robust role for the state than neoliberalism allows.

 

Notes

Cameron, Maxwell A.  Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom: Between Rules and Practice. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Kries, Douglas. (2019). Review of Maxwell A. Cameron, Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom: Between Rules and Practice. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 215.). The Review of Politics, 81(4), 695-697. doi:10.1017/S0034670519000433

The 2018 BC Referendum on Electoral Reform: The Challenge of Citizen Consultations

Maxwell A. Cameron
Megan Dias
Chuka Ejeckam

Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions
The University of British Columbia
Vancouver BC Canada V6T 1Z1
Max.Cameron@ubc.ca

April 2019

Published as: Cameron, Maxwell A., Megan Dias and Chuka Ejeckam. “The 2018 BC Referendum on Electoral Reform: The Challenge of Citizen Consultations,” Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law, Vol. XIII, Special Issue on Election 2019.

Authors’ Note. Chuka Ejeckam and Megan Dias are the authors of a report on electoral reform written for the Broadbent Institute. Dias also worked with the Tyee to create an explainer video, while Ejeckam participated in a debate held by Simon Fraser University on electoral reform. Cameron was invited by the Attorney General of BC to offer advice on the public consultation process. He also submitted an expert report on proportional representation to the Ministry of the Attorney General. The views expressed in this paper are exclusively those of the authors.

 

Introduction 

Electoral reform events are rare (Nohlen 1984; Katz 2005: 58; Shugart 2008: 8), and case studies of rare phenomena are important (Gerring 2011: 1154). This study of a public consultation to change a voting system—the 2018 BC referendum on electoral reform—offers a glimpse into why electoral reform is difficult to achieve, and it provides insight into how reform efforts might be better designed. Although the status-quo prevailed, and the voting system was not changed, the process was worth documenting and analyzing. Our study highlights the importance of well-constructed measures of citizen consultation and engagement, the absence of which, in this case, weakened the effort to reform the electoral system.

There are three paradoxes of electoral reform. In the first place, as all political reformers know, those who hold power are typically unwilling to change the system through which they gained access to public office. That is why demands for reform often come from political outsiders who have not yet achieved power. Moreover, the will to reform is often diminished by success in attaining power. This paradox applies to the reform of electoral systems. Successful political parties have few incentives to change the electoral rules under which they came to power (Shugart 2008: 46, 54). Parties may advocate for reform when they are in opposition, and abandon reform once in power. For example, the federal Liberal Party came to power on a promise to make 2015 the last election under First Past the Post (FPTP, see glossary), a promise that was abandoned when it was elected with a majority government.

There is, however, a circumstance that might seem, at least intuitively, to favor electoral reform. Minority parliaments (see glossary) may be more likely to initiate electoral reform, especially when the balance of power is held by a smaller, under-represented party that has an unequivocal interest in a more proportional electoral system. This second paradox, however, is that the time horizons of minority governments may be short, while electoral reform often takes a number of electoral cycles to complete. Moreover, politicians may underestimate the complexity of changing electoral systems. In particular, they may fail to anticipate the need to build a broad, cross-partisan mandate for reform. So, while minority parliaments may initiate reform, they may not be able to bring the reform process to a successful conclusion.

A final paradox concerns partisanship. Some of the most important goals of electoral reform—for example, making the electoral results more proportional, encouraging more cooperation in the legislature, and so forth—are not fundamentally about specific parties or partisanship; indeed, one of the goals of electoral reform may even be to reduce partisanship. However, many of the changes that electoral reform is likely to bring have partisan implications, and those who have the power to change the electoral system are inevitably going to see the issue through partisan lenses. It is entirely to be expected that politicians will decide whether and how to change the electoral rules depending on expectations about whether they will be able to win elections under a new voting system.

Electoral systems are not necessarily a formal part of the constitutional structure of a democracy, but since they involve the rules by which we select those who rule it has become a norm in Canada that they must command broad and cross-partisan support. Changing the electoral system for partisan advantage is rightly seen as inappropriate. There is, therefore, a delicate balance to be found between partisanship and reform. If voters see reform as inappropriately motivated by partisanship, or as exacerbating excessive partisanship, they are less likely to support it. As we shall see, evidence from BC suggests that the process of electoral reform should, as much as possible, be arms-length from partisan politicians. Yet, partisanship is inevitably a driver for electoral reform.

How can these paradoxes of reform be overcome? A key lesson from the 2018 BC referendum is the importance of public consultations and their design. Around the world, a wide range of mechanisms and innovations have been devised to consult citizens, including citizens’ assemblies, deliberative polls, citizens juries. The use of such deliberative and participatory innovations might have taken key decisions out of the hands of politicians, and thereby addressed concerns about partisan manipulation of the process. However, to be successful, deliberative and participatory processes require a major investment of time and resources. Ideally, parties advocating reform should commit to these strategies during election campaigns—rather than advocating a particular outcome (whether a referendum or even a promise of change like “making 2015 the last election under First Past the Post” [Barton, Do 2015])—and pursue them over multiple electoral cycles.

We review the BC referendum on electoral reform and argue that the consultative process was flawed, but not for the reasons that were often suggested by journalists and pundits. Ironically, the BC referendum was criticized both because it ostensibly stacked the deck in favor or electoral reform and because it stacked the deck against electoral reform. In contrast, we argue that the process was flawed in its inability to engage citizens, provide space for public engagement, and deflect the objection that reform was motivated merely by partisan gain. Ironically, BC’s electoral system may have contributed to the flaws in the process. Although this article does not analyze the merits or demerits of alternative electoral systems, there is evidence that proportional representation contributes to less adversarial and more consensus-oriented politics (see, for example, Lijphart 1999: 275; Powell 2000). The politics of the electoral reform process reflected the polarization and winner-take-all tendencies typical of majoritarian systems.

The paper is organized into three substantive sections. The first section analyzes how the reform agenda was set, how the consultation process was designed, and how the ballot was constructed. The second section analyzes the referendum process. The third section analyzes the outcome. The paper concludes with lessons for future electoral reform initiatives, and, indeed, any initiative that aims to consult and engage citizens around a major public policy issue. We hope the analysis may be of interest and value to the movements, parties, and governments that seek to improve parliamentary government in Canada.

I. The Consultation Process
British Columbia held two referendums on electoral reform before 2018. After a 1996 election which saw the BC NDP form government despite winning fewer votes than the Liberals, and having won a greatly exaggerated majority in 2001, taking 77 out of 79 seats despite receiving only 58 percent of the vote, the Liberal party proceeded to deliver on the promise of a Citizens’ Assembly made during the election campaign (Carty, Blais, Fournier 2008: 141). The Assembly chose the Single Transferable Vote system (see glossary), and the proposal was put to a vote in a referendum in May 2005. Although Single Transferable Vote was favored by an absolute majority (58 percent, and a majority in 77 of 79 ridings), it fell short of the 60 percent threshold set by the Liberal government. A subsequent referendum did not change the outcome: 61 percent of the electorate opted to keep FPTP in May 2009.

In 2017, the NDP, led by John Horgan, ran on the promising of changing BC’s voting system to a proportional system. So did the BC Green Party, under the leadership of Andrew Weaver. Indeed, the Greens were open to introducing proportional representation through legislation without a referendum. The result of the election not only gave a barest of majorities to parties that favored electoral reform, it also reinforced some of the reasons motivating reform. When the final ballots were counted, the result was 43 seats for Liberals, 41 for the NDP, and 3 for the Greens (Shaw 2017). The Greens won only 3 of 87 seats despite winning almost 17 percent of the popular vote. The result placed the Greens in a position of king-maker regarding forming government, and strongly motivated to change the electoral system.

Since no party commanded an absolute majority in the legislature, talks were held between the Greens and both the Liberals and NDP (see Shaw and Zussman 2018). Weaver put PR on the table, but did not see it as a deal-breaker (Hoekstra 2018). Despite pessimism about whether a stable minority or coalition government could be formed (Laanela 2017), a supply and confidence arrangement (see glossary) was ultimately reached between the NDP and the Greens (“B.C.’s NDP” 2017; “BC NDP and Greens” 2017). As part of the deal, the two parties agreed to hold a referendum on proportional representation in 2018, which created an extremely quick timeline. After Premier Christy Clark resigned in early August 2017, the NDP quickly formed government and, in its throne speech, promised to set the terms for a referendum to take place no later than November of 2018.

Newly appointed Attorney General David Eby was recused from cabinet deliberations in order to serve as neutral arbiter in the process. He set out to launch a process of consultation via a government website, engage.gov.bc.ca/HowWeVote (Palmer 2017). In addition to the online questionnaire, which was open to the public at large, the polling firm Ipsos was commissioned for study of public opinion that would be statistically representative. A team of civil servants in the Ministry of the Office of the Attorney General was charged with coordinating the process. The initial options presented during the survey and public consultation included systems widely used throughout Europe and around the world.

Policy experts pushed back: why not consider newer and more innovative made-in-Canada approaches? A submission to the government by an ad hoc group of electoral system experts, the “BC Symposium on Proportional Representation,” recommended, inter alia: Dual Member Proportional (DMP), Rural Urban Proportional (RUP), and Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) as well as a number of other systems. DMP is an innovative system that would have created binomial ridings in which the primary candidate for each party would be chosen by plurality and the secondary by proportional representation. MMP was a well-known system, pioneered by Germany and adopted by New Zealand in the 1990s. Rural Urban Proportional (RUP) was a combination of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) in the rural areas, and Single Transferable Vote (STV) in the cities (BC Symposium on Proportional Representation 2018).

The Attorney General sided with the experts. Eby ignored the recommendation of his own caucus and the BC Greens–who made a joint submission recommending a mandate-only question (that is, no specific PR system would be on the ballot). The government did not, however, consider the experts’ warnings that meaningful public engagement takes time and must be carefully designed (Thomas 2018), and that rushing into a referendum would prove hazardous for this government. Instead, the government pushed ahead, and on May 30 details of the referendum were released by the Office of the Attorney General (“B.C. government” 2018).
A controversial decision by the Attorney General was the use of a two-part ballot structure. The first question would establish public support for the principle of proportionality. The second would ask which PR system voters prefer. Voters were given the opportunity to rank their preferences of the three PR systems offered; Dual-Member Proportional, Mixed-Member Proportional, and Rural-Urban Proportional. Voters were permitted to rank these options regardless of their answer to the first question. As well, voters could rank one, two, or all three of the choices as they saw fit. The outcome of the second question was to be determined by plurality. Per the referendum’s design, the outcome of the second question would only take effect if changing to PR received majority support on the first question.

There were good reasons for this approach. First, a majority (58 percent) of those who responded to the survey said voters should be able to rank order their support for alternative systems. Second, it is pointless to rank alternatives unless there is agreement on the principle of proportionality. And there is no mandate for change unless that principle is explicitly established. There is an implicit hierarchy in the decision voters faced. At the highest level, they were asked whether they wanted PR. The second-order question was which PR system would be best. Third, polling suggests that FPTP is likely to be the plurality winner among electoral systems—it is, after all, the devil voters know. PR supporters often fail to converge on a single alternative, yet prefer any PR system to the status quo. The best way to test this claim directly was to ask the question directly. Fourth, voters who favor the current systems, but want a say over which PR alternatives is picked if there is a change, can express both preferences. Similarly, voters can choose PR without taking a position on the type of system.

A similar ballot was used in New Zealand in a referendum on electoral reform in 1992. The first part of the ballot asked voters if they wanted to retain FPTP or change the system, and the second part gave voters a choice between four different system. However, New Zealand held a second referendum in 1993 in which voters were given a choice between FPTP and MMP, which was the system that was preferred by the largest number of voters on the second part of the ballot in the 1992 referendum. MMP was introduced in 1996, and reaffirmed in a referendum in 2011.

The BC NDP pursued a high-risk strategy by presenting voters with three unfamiliar alternatives and putting them to a vote without giving citizens a chance to familiarize themselves with each of the systems. The Office of the Attorney General had the benefit of hearing expert and public opinion, but citizens were not given meaningful opportunities to engage in a discussion of what should be on the ballot. Although the public was surveyed, and had the option of submitting proposals to the BC government, most voters found themselves thrust into a referendum with a low level of knowledge of why electoral reform was on the agenda, and little understanding of the options on the ballot and why they were chosen. Nevertheless, for better or worse–and far from stacking the deck–the process was an attempt to give voters a choice that reflected the best available thinking among electoral reform experts. Rather than an excessively politicized process, it was, if anything, an expert-driven process. But since it was not transparent, credence was given to the suggestion that the reform effort was primarily motivated by partisanship. Not surprisingly, voters quickly divided down partisan lines.

II. The Referendum Process
When, on May 30, the office of BC Attorney General released its report detailing the results of the consultation process, it also stipulated a set of conditions any future electoral system would need to meet, outlined the post-referendum process through which the new system would be implemented, and laid the groundwork for legislation to regulate the referendum process itself. There were three specific requirements of any proportional representation system to be implemented (Attorney General of BC, 2018: 7). These were: (1) that electoral reform could not produce an increase of more than eight Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in the province, (2) that electoral reform could not reduce the number of MLAs serving any region of the province, and (3) that no party receiving less than 5 per cent of the popular vote would receive sets in the provincial legislature. The report also indicated that specific details of any new system would have to be determined after the vote by an all-party committee (Attorney General of BC, 2018: 7).

The referendum’s official voting period spanned from October 22 to November 30, during which period mail-ballots were distributed to voters to be returned to Elections BC. Ballots could also be submitted in-person at any Referendum Service Office, the locations of which were identified on the Elections BC website. The referendum’s official campaigning period began on July 1 and ran until the end of the voting period. On November 23, Elections BC announced the deadline for ballot return would be extended by one week, to December 7, citing ongoing Canada Post strikes as reason for the decision.

The province’s Chief Electoral Officer was empowered to provide non-partisan information to voters regarding the referendum (Attorney General of BC, 2018: 7). A website was created to inform voters of the three PR systems offered, and provide information regarding the referendum process itself. Two organizations were selected to act as the official proponents and opponents of electoral reform in the referendum. The group Vote PR BC was selected to support changing to a PR system, while the No BC Proportional Representation Society was selected as the official opponents. Both groups were granted $500,000 to conduct their campaigns between July 1 and December 7. The groups were also permitted to accept campaign contributions of up to $1,200 from Canadian citizens and permanent residents of British Columbia. Specific requirements were made of the groups’ operations, including providing their name and contact information in all advertising, spending no more than $700,000 total on the referendum campaign, and filing disclosure reports with Elections BC.

In addition to the several unofficial debates between opponents and proponents of electoral reform which occurred during the referendum campaign, at least two officially sanctioned debates took place. On October 22, representatives of the official ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ sides of the campaign met in a debate hosted by the Vancouver Sun. On November 8, CBC Vancouver hosted a 30-minute electoral reform debate between Premier John Horgan of the BC NDP and BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson. Horgan spoke in favour of adopting proportional representation, while Wilkinson spoke against.

After the voting period closed on December 7th, Elections BC took two weeks to review the ballots and tally the results. They released the results at a press conference on December 20th.

III. The Outcome
The status-quo prevailed, and by a wider margin than expected; 61.3 percent of those who voted supported FPTP, 38.7 percent voted for PR. Voter turnout was 41.2 percent, lower than either of the two previous referendums on electoral reform in BC–turnout was 61.48 percent in the 2005 referendum, and 55.12 percent in 2009. As for what PR systems British Columbians support, MMP was most favoured, with 63.05 percent of voters ranking it first, on the second round of counting. However, there were significantly fewer responses to the second question of the referendum question than to the first. Indeed, 1,391,423 ballots were received and considered by Elections BC. Of these ballots, 99.09 percent answered the first question, while only 59.78 percent answered the second question.

From the numbers released, it is not possible to tell whether those who voted for proportional representation in the first question were more likely to answer the second question as well, but this seems logical. Proportional representation only won over 50 percent of the votes in 16 of BC’s 87 ridings. Of these 16, 14 were located in the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island — 8 in the Lower Mainland, and 6 on Vancouver Island. Of the 8 in the Lower Mainland, 7 were in Vancouver proper. Of the 6 in Vancouver Island, only 1 was north of Victoria. Interestingly, these results are very similar to those of the 2009 referendum. On that occasion, support for PR was mainly concentrated in the Lower Mainland and the southern part of Vancouver Island.

Several exit polls, released after the results were made known, offered possible insights into why voters voted the way they did. An Angus Reid exit poll suggested that the voters’ partisan leanings were a significant predictor of how they voted. 70 percent of those who supported the NDP in 2017, and 74 percent of those who voted for the Green Party, voted for proportional representation, while only 16 percent of those who supported the BC Liberals did (Angus Reid, 2018). The same poll also suggested that 41 percent of voters had made up their mind before the campaign even began, perhaps already influenced by these partisan cues. This poll also found striking differences in age cohorts. 67 percent of those between the ages of 18-34, and 54 percent of those between the ages of 35-54, stated that they voted for PR. Only 35 percent of those above 55 said the same. Of those who voted for proportional representation, 78 percent said that the fact that their “vote will matter more in a PR system” was a major reason for their vote. 76 percent said that the current system creates unfair results. 65 percent said it will force politicians to compromise more. Interestingly, 47 percent acknowledged that the fact that the BC NDP and the BC Green supported PR influenced their vote. Of those who voted for FPTP; 68 percent said it was because it was the “best system available,” 65 percent said they did not want more minority or coalition governments, 63 percent said they saw no reason to change, 62 percent thought FPTP was easier to understand than the other proposed systems, and 58 percent said that they were greatly worried about the rise of fringe political parties under PR.

A Research Co. exit poll reported results similar to the outcome of the referendum. The poll, which was conducted online between 18-20 December 2018 among 803 respondents in British Columbia, revealed why such a large percentage of British Columbians decided not to vote in the referendum. According to the President of Research Co., Mario Canseco, “not feeling informed enough” was the number one reason eligible voters gave for not voting (Canseco, 2018). The same survey found that voters were wary of the process by which reform was undertaken. 41 percent of the respondents strongly agreed, and 35 percent moderately agreed with the statement: “Politicians are in a conflict of interest when it comes to making decisions about how we vote, so any future proposals should involve an independent, non-partisan citizens’ body.” Similarly, 21 percent strongly agreed, and 34 percent moderately agreed with the statement: “An independent, non-partisan process should be set up to reflect on the results of this referendum and recommend what British Columbia should do next.”

Finally, the survey asked the following question:
Suppose an arms-length review panel recommended that British Columbia hold another referendum on electoral reform at the time of the next election with guarantees addressing the major concerns that arose in the recent referendum. Now suppose that the ballot question were the following: “British Columbia is proposing to elect our MLAs by Proportional Representation. This means that the MLAs elected in each region would accurately reflect the diversity of political views in each region. The number of MLAs in each region of BC would stay the same and voters would vote for individual candidates, not for party lists. There would be a moderate threshold to encourage parties to have broad policy platforms.” “If voters endorse Proportional Representation, an independent citizens’ panel with representatives from around the province would deliberate on and recommend a final system that would be voted on in the legislature in a free vote. If accepted, there would be a confirmation referendum after we have used the new system at least twice.” How would you vote? Choose one.
In this scenario, 41 percent definitely or probably would vote for PR, while 36 percent definitely or probably would vote for FPTP. 18 percent were not sure. Imagining such a scenario caused voters who voted for FPTP in the 2018 referendum to change their mind, as well. Of these voters, 15 percent said they would support PR if it was recommended by an independent body of citizens, and another 15 percent said they would be undecided (Canseco 2018).

Whatever the reasons for the voters’ choices, the outcome was clear and unequivocal. All politicians accepted it, and expressed a willing to move on from the issue of electoral reform. John Horgan released a statement saying that, while he was disappointed, he respects the result. Finance Minister Carole James took this further. In a press conference, she stated that “electoral reform is finished.” Andrew Wilkinson argued that the result was a “clear message” that British Columbians do not want reform. In his statement, he also reiterated his belief that the process was “flawed” and that the NDP had “stacked the deck” in favour of reform (Eagland, 2018).
Several weeks after the results were made known, David Eby spoke out, defending the process and the ballot structure (Shaw, 2019). He stated that the first question gave citizens a clear option: do they want to keep the current system, or move to a proportional one? He defended the second ballot question by saying that advocates for reform, and British Columbians in general, could not agree on a single preferred system. Putting multiple systems on the ballot and allowing voters to rank them reflected this, and gave voters a meaningful choice. Eby ultimately said he would not change the process at all. While he did muse whether a Citizens’ Assembly would have affected the outcome, he said he personally believed the referendum result reflected the preferences of British Columbians (Shaw, 2019).

Conclusion
We began by observing that a party that has won under a given set of electoral rules may feel it has little to gain from changing those rules. In the case of BC’s electoral reform initiative, however, the NDP leadership appeared to have decided that the benefits of electoral reform, or at least the benefits of fulfilling an election promise, outweighed the potential costs of remaining with the status quo. The fact that the NDP and the Greens were able to work effectively together in a supply and confidence arrangement pointed to the potential upside of an electoral system that would make coalitions and minority governments more commonplace. The Greens in particular were motivated to change an electoral system that clearly disadvantaged them. However, the cooperation of the NDP and the Greens may also have created in the minds of some voters the impression that these two parties were seeking to change the electoral laws to transform a temporary partisan advantage into an institutionalized feature of the political system. This impression was reinforced by the rapid pace of reform which was also a reflection of the minority position of the NDP. This brings us back to our second paradox of reform: Minority governments may not have the time horizons necessary to carry through on such a difficult and challenging process.

In particular, minority governments may not have the patience to create arms-length, credible, and broad public consultation. The recusal of the Attorney General was insufficient to create a sense that there was a genuinely neutral arbiter overseeing the process. Experts played a role in shaping the process, but not a sufficiently visible public role such as might have given citizens confidence that the process was guided by the public interest. Without meaningful public deliberation and participation, reform foundered on partisan dynamics that are toxic to achieving public goods. In the 2005 referendum–the only referendum in which PR received majority support–the vote was preceded by a Citizens’ Assembly that gave voters explicit input in determining which systems to present for the public to vote on, and created effective electoral-reform ambassadors whom had received extensive education on electoral systems that they could share within their communities. As the Research Co. survey notes, voters’ sense of not being sufficiently informed was a significant motivator for both voting ‘No’ in the referendum, and not voting at all.

The ‘Yes’ campaign was unable to turn dissatisfaction with the FPTP voting system into support for change. A potential majority of British Columbians may well prefer a system that reduces the need for strategic voting and does not generate false majorities. But such sentiments were insufficient to overcome the reservations many voters had about changing the system. On balance, we believe that the 2018 referendum provides compelling evidence that the type and quality of public consultation matters. Voters’ survey responses, and evidence from past referendums suggest that voters are open to change, and that they value broad and rigorous public consultation, but unless the decision-making process is taken out of the hands of politicians, and voters are provided with the information they need to make an informed choice, the public remain skeptical of partisan manipulation.

 

Bibliography

Attorney General of BC, May 30, 2018. How We Vote: 2018 Electoral Reform Referendum. Report and Recommendations of the Attorney General. British Columbia.
Barton, Rosemary and Trinh Theresa Do, “Justin Trudeau vows to end 1st-past-the-post voting in platform speech,” CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/justin-trudeau-vows-to-end-1st-past-the-post-voting-in-platform-speech-1.3114902
“B.C. government releases details on electoral reform referendum,” The Province, May 30, 2018.
“B.C.’s NDP and Greens join forces,” May 29, 2017. CBC news. https://www.cbc.ca/news/thenational/b-c-s-ndp-and-greens-join-forces-1.4137141
“BC NDP and Greens ratify deal to work together,” May 30, 2017. The Canadian Press & News 1130, https://www.citynews1130.com/2017/05/30/bc-ndp-greens-ratify-deal-work-together/
BC Symposium on Proportional Representation. February 28, 2018. “Recommendations on Election Reform in British Columbia,” Vancouver, BC. https://electology.org/bcprsymposium
Canseco, Mario. 2018. “Confusion Influenced Referendum Voters in British Columbia,” Research Co. https://researchco.ca/2018/12/21/referendum-exitpoll/
Carty, R. Kenneth, André Blais, and Patrick Fournier, 2008. “When Citizens Choose to Reform SMP: The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform,” in Blais, André, ed. To Keep or To Change First Past the Post: The Politics of Electoral Reform. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 140-162.
Eagland, Nick. 2018. “No change: B.C. voters back first-past-the-post system in electoral reform referendum.” Vancouver Sun. https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/b-c-s-electoral-reform-referendum-results-to-be-released-at-230-p-m Last accessed: January 9, 2019
Gerring, John. 2011. “The Case Study: What it is and What it Does,” in Robert E. Goodin, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Political Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1133-1165.
Hoekstra, Gordon. “B.C. Election 2017: Green Leader Andrew Weaver keeping options open in historic breakthrough,” Vancouver Sun, May 11, 2018. https://vancouversun.com/news/politics/b-c-election-2017-green-leader-andrew-weaver-keeping-options-open-in-historic-breakthrough
Katz, Richard S. 2005. “Why Are There So Many (or So Few) Electoral Reforms?” in Michael Gallagher and Paul Mitchell, eds. The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-76
Laanela, Mike, “Why a B.C. Green-NDP coalition is no slam dunk,” CBC. May 23, 2017: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/green-ndp-alliance-1.4127751
Lijphart, Arend. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, New Haven: Yale, 1999.
Loenen, Nick. 1997. Citizenship and Democracy: A Case for Proportional Representation. Toronto: Dundurn Press.
Nohlen, Dieter. 1984. “Changes and Choices in Electoral Systems, in Arend Lijphart and Bernard Grofman, eds. Choosing an Electoral System: Issues and Alternatives. New York: Praeger, pp. 217-224.
Palmer, Vaughn, November 24, 2017. “NDP pushes electoral reform, but keeping an ‘open’ mind” Vancouver Sun. https://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/vaughn-palmer-ndp-pushes-electoral-reform-but-keeping-an-open-mind
Pilon, Dennis. The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System. Toronto: Edmond Montgomery, 2007.
Powell Jr., G. Bingham. Elections as Instruments of Democracy: Majoritarian and Proportional Visions. New Haven: Yale, 2000.
Shaw, Robert. January 9, 2019. “Attorney General says clear ballot produced clear loss in B.C. pro-rep referendum.” Vancouver Sun. https://vancouversun.com/news/politics/attorney-general-says-clear-ballot-produced-clear-loss-in-pro-rep-referendum
Shaw, Robert. May 25, 2017. “NDP wins in Courtney-Comox, leaving Liberals with minority government,” Vancouver Sun.
Shaw, Robert and Richard Zussman. 2018. A Matter of Confidence: The Inside Story of the Political Battle for BC. Victoria, BC: Heritage House Publishing Company.
Shugart, Matthew Soberg. 2008. “Inherent and Contingent Factors in Reform Initiation in Plurality Systems,” in Blais, André, ed. To Keep or To Change First Past the Post: The Politics of Electoral Reform. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 7-60.
Thomas, Megan. “Question for electoral reform referendum will be ready by fall, says B.C. premier,” CBC news April 26, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/proportional-representation-referendum-1.4635794

 

Glossary of Terms

Coalition: two or more parties, with enough seats between them to command the trust and confidence of the House, agree to form government and share cabinet or other appointments.
Dual Member Proportional (DMP): A PR system in which most districts would be amalgamated with a second district to create two-member districts. Parties would nominate pairs of candidates in each district, and each voter would cast one ballot. The first candidate would be elected on the basis of the plurality result, as in FPTP; the second would be allocated on the basis of the province-wide vote and the individual district results (Attorney General of BC 2018: 3).
First-Past-The-Post (FPTP): An electoral system based on constituency-level competitions among candidates from different parties. Each riding is carried by the candidate who wins a plurality of votes. Also called Single Member Plurality (SMP).
Mixed Member Proportional: A “hybrid form of PR combines single member districts elected by plurality with a compensatory party list that is utilized to ensure that the overall election results are proportional for the parties.” (Pilon 2007: 184).
Minority government: government is formed by a party that does not have a majority of seats in parliament.
Proportional Representation: A family of electoral systems based on the principle that the proportion of seats for each party in a legislature should roughly match its share of the popular vote (Pilon 2007: 185).
Rural-Urban Proportional Representation (RUPR): STV is used to fill seats in multimember districts in urban areas, while MMP is used in most rural areas. “In the MMP regions, a small number of List PR seat are filled proportionally on a regional basis.” (Attorney General of BC 2018: 4).
Single Member Plurality (SMP): See First-Past-The-Post (FPTP).
Single Transferable Vote: “A form of PR where voters mark their preferences (i.e. 1,2,3, and so on) over the range of candidates in a multi-member riding and candidates who obtain the quota are declared elected” (Pilon 2007: 185).
Supply and confidence: An arrangement in which parties agree to support each other in votes of confidence and on budgets to ensure the survival of a minority government.

 

Bios

Maxwell A. Cameron is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia (UBC), in which capacity he runs an annual Summer Institute for Future Legislators. His research focuses on comparative democratization (especially in Latin America), constitutions, and ethics in politics. His publications include Strong Constitutions (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Megan Dias holds a Masters of Arts in Political Science from the University of British Columbia (UBC). Megan has written about electoral reform for several Canadian newspapers, and has given public lectures on reform in BC. She is currently working as a Program Coordinator with the Institute for Future Legislators at Ryerson.

Chuka Ejeckam is a Master’s student in the Political Science Department at the University of British Columbia (UBC), and has worked as a research assistant in UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), as well as with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). He has written for the Broadbent Institute on topics including drug policy and electoral reform, and served as a facilitator at CSDI’s annual Summer Institute for Future Legislators. His work focuses on political and economic inequality, drug policy, and labour.

Extremism should ease with electoral reform

By Douglas Todd, The Vancouver Sun, July 20, 2018

It’s not hard to find Canadians who believe many things are going horribly wrong with democratic institutions.

Democracies are weakening through polarization, overblown rhetoric, extremism, corruption by big money, excessive partisanship, hyper-competition, an inability to compromise and a lack of shared vision of the public good.

The head of UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions has written a new book bent on reforming the systems and beliefs that create such havoc and hand too much power to oligarchies, small groups that control nations and regions.

Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom (Oxford University Press), by Max Cameron, offers astute observations and philosophical insights about how to rebuild democratic institutions based on the Aristotelian idea of practical wisdom.

I talked to Cameron about the way his book’s themes dovetail with what is arguably this year’s most important democratic issue for British Columbians: The November mail-in referendum on proportional representation.

I have written about how proportional representation systems used in dozens of advanced nations generally (with oft-cited exceptions) lead to greater political consensus, compromise and coalition-building.

One big advantage of proportional representation, in which parties gain seats in rough proportion to total votes cast for them, is that it combats what Cameron calls “false majorities.”

It’s becoming common for political leaders in Canada and the U.S to exploit the 100-per cent power they obtain after winning just 40 per cent or less of the vote.

Many first-past the post winners have been characterized as extremists, such as Donald Trump, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and even, according to some, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and B.C’s Christy Clark.

I’ll dig further into arguments about extremism, since both sides are using them in the debate over proportional representation in B.C., which is characterized by some of the negative forces Cameron cites. But before doing so I’ll highlight some of the democratic advantages Cameron rightly maintains could come with electoral reform.

RELATED

The UBC political scientist believes the first-past-the-post-system that predominates in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Venezuela, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere incites politicians and their rich backers to fixate on a winner-take-all mentality, leading to abuse of power.

“I think electoral reform could reduce hyper-competitiveness. First past the post tends to polarize the electorate into two parties and increases the chance of false majorities. By contrast, proportional representation encourages coalition-building. I expect parties would be less adversarial in the struggle for power when they know they will be compelled to cooperate in order to govern,” Cameron said.

Applying Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom to the electoral reform debate, Cameron said with many current systems, particularly first past the post, “people neither acquire nor cultivate the skills and knowledge demanded by politics — like listening carefully, speaking respectfully, deliberating openly, judging wisely and acting collectively. And when our politicians model the worst kind of politics, citizens either take their cues from politicians and replicate what they see, or they tune out.”

Proportional representation fosters long-term stability, which benefits citizens. They endure fewer “policy lurches,” which occur when new parties with near-dictatorial term power summarily dismantle the otherwise popular programs their opponents brought into being.

Proportional representation would also reduce oligarchies, where power is vested in the hands of a few and the gap expands between the rich and the ignored lower classes. “(Since) a key democratic deficit that contributes to oligarchy is lack of representation,” Cameron said, “electoral reform that would improve representation could help us resist oligarchic tendencies.”

What will proportional representation do about extremism?

B.C. opponents of proportional representation are stressing it will fuel so-called “far-right” extremism, like the nativist parties that have arisen in parts of Europe. But is that realistic?

“Proportional representation means more parties, which mathematically means smaller parties. In B.C. that would create opportunities for the Greens and Conservatives. I think that is perfectly democratic. If these parties can win five per cent of the vote, why should they not be represented?” said Cameron.

The anti-proportional representation camp appears to be worrying that smaller right-wing parties would have too much of what Cameron called “blackmail power” over a minority government. But politics in Europe is much more complicated than most North Americans understand.

For starters, the populist parties that have recently won office in Poland and Hungary would still have been successful under first past the post, Cameron said. And the “extreme neo-Nazi” parties that opponents of proportional representation often like to cite “are shunned just about everywhere, outside Austria.”

Some nativist parties in Europe do have influence on the political centre, however, Cameron said. And that’s contributing to open debates in some countries about continuing with high levels of refugees and immigrants.

Could the same thing happen here? Cameron said European nativist parties are “reacting to a massive wave of immigration which is very different from what we’ve experienced in B.C.”

Like him, I’ve provided evidence Canada is one of the most successful multicultural jurisdictions in the world. “It is always possible that we could be swept up on anti-immigrant sentiment,” he said, “but if that is the case I don’t think the best way to fight it is by denying representation.”

Indeed, Cameron justifiably says that what he calls the “Brexit disaster” occurred in Britain because politicians didn’t listen to grassroots concerns about the unfettered movement of migrant workers within the European Union. The dangers of extremism dominating in B.C., he thinks, are exaggerated.

This week members of the left-wing Centre for Policy Alternatives came out with a parallel position. Seth Klein and Vyas Saran argue that those claiming electoral reform will feed extremism in B.C. are raising a red herring. “No electoral system has a monopoly on either preventing or fostering far right parties,” write Klein and Saran, “and those advancing claims to the contrary are merely cherry-picking examples to make mischief in this referendum.”

Of course making a shift to proportional representation is not the only reform that Cameron and others desire to improve democracies. It’s absolutely crucial, in addition, to keep removing big money from campaign financing.

“We also need more democratic political parties, less discipline in the legislature and more initiative for ordinary MLAs. And we need a more active and robust civil society to hold politicians accountable,” Cameron said.

Which are all good. That’s why my hope is British Columbians will smoothly advance through the next step of the electoral reform process in this November’s referendum.

Political Party Debates in Canada

The following remarks were presented before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, House of Commons, Canada, November 28, 2017. 

Thank you very much for the invitation to appear before this committee. I strongly support the initiative to create a commission or commissioner to organize federal debates.

The status quo is problematic in many respects. The main concern I wish to address is the lack of transparency, accountability, or public engagement in the organization of debates. Although political debates are an important part of our democracy, the way we organize them is not particularly democratic.

The creation of a commission or commissioner could provide an opportunity for deeper and more meaningful public engagement and deliberation in our election campaigns. Improvements could be made not only in the form and content of debates, but also in the process by which they are organized.

A commission or commissioner could also provide an opportunity to involve a broader spectrum of voices from Canadian society—including First Nations, youth, women, and minorities.

Most importantly, in my view, it would also create an opportunity to counteract the fragmentation of our public life, which I believe is tearing at the fabric of our democracy. We are only beginning to see the effects of this fragmentation.

More and more Canadians get their news content from social media platforms that divide us into smaller publics rather than binding us into one. Political debates are one of the relatively few moments when the whole public can come together and participate in a common activity.

I believe it is important that we do everything we can to sustain a flourishing public life. We need more opportunities for dialogue, deliberation, and engagement of the public in our politics.

It is for this reason that I am involved in a school for politicians at UBC. The Summer Institute for Future Legislators is a program designed to foster the kinds of skills and knowledge needed to be good citizens and good statespersons.

Our participants learn to debate. They engage in question period in the Legislative Chambers. They run caucus meetings. They organize committees and hear witnesses.

And one of the most fascinating transformations that we observe is how participants are quickly seized by the spirit of team work and partisanship. But they are also keenly motivated by a desire for public service. We watch them struggle to balance advancing the interests of the team and working together to find the common good.

That sort of balancing act is what politics involves. It’s what citizenship involves. Unfortunately, there are too few opportunities for citizens to acquire the skills and knowledge to deliberate, to compromise, to balance goods, and to make collective decisions. These are not skills you learn in a textbook. You learn them by doing.

Political debates represent a marvelous opportunity to cultivate citizenship. But to serve that purpose, they cannot be monopolized by parties and the media. We need the involvement of civil society to ensure that the goal of debates is not simply to entertain or create a spectacle, or only to serve partisanship: we need them to promote citizenship as well.

We can imagine ways that debate could be organized and given a form and content that would serve the public interest better than our current system. Very briefly, let me suggest a few ideas for making political debates more democratic.

The commission or commissioner might have an advisory body that reflects Canada’s diversity.

A commission/commissioner could be empowered to place the organization of debates in the hands of an independent body that would include, in addition to representatives of the parties and the media, citizens, civil society groups, and universities. Placing this responsibility in the hands of Elections Canada might be unwise. It must stand above the fray.

The organization of debates should involve open and transparent public engagement to ensure that the key decisions about who participates, what questions are asked, the format, and other matters, reflect the broadest public interest.

In the spirit of our Westminster system, leaders’ debates could be complemented by debates in ridings across the country, as well as debates on specific topics involving ordinary members of parliament. These could be videotapped and made publicly available.

The public should be encouraged to participate in debates by holding their own local face-to-face meetings in small groups or medium-sized assemblies. This could be done by introducing a “deliberation day” holiday (an idea championed by James Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman 2004).

Some of these ideas have been more fully developed in other places (see Owen and Griffith 2011), and it would be worthwhile to build on this work. Needless to say, an ambitious agenda to democratize debates would take some time to develop. Creating an independent and adequately funded commission or commissioner would be an excellent first step.

Notes

Fishkin, James and Bruce Ackerman, Deliberation Day. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Owen, Taylor and Rudyard Griffiths, “The People’s Debates: A report on Canada’s Televised Election Debates,” written on behalf of the Aurea Foundation. April 2011.

Better Democracy

From Reflections of Canada, Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

Canada has an exemplary democracy, but it is showing signs of stress as it enters its 150th year. It is not that our institutions are deeply flawed, although they could surely be improved. Rather, our democracy is stressed because we are having trouble sharing the burdens of responsibility at a time when citizens are under pressure to compete in an increasingly market-driven world.

Democratic elections often pose existential choices. What kind of country are we? What do we want to be? And by what means can we achieve our ends? These choices test our collective wisdom. We hope and expect that our fellow citizens will select their representatives in a manner consistent with our collective aspirations as a people. If voters fall under the sway of a demagogue, democracy may be undermined. If a majority chooses a party that a substantial minority finds reprehensible, the value of democracy is diminished for the minority. Citizens in a democracy, unlike in other systems of government, have a stake in the moral character and judgment of their fellow citizens and representatives. This shared responsibility is one of democracy’s greatest features. And also one of its greatest challenges.

One of the signs of a stressed democracy is declining voter turn-out. According to Elections Canada, voter turnout has declined from an average of 76 percent in federal elections in the 1960s and 1970s to around 71 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, and to 63 percent since 2000. For engaged citizens, participation is a civic duty, which is sustained through civic rituals like voting. For apathetic citizens, voting is a bother. They may not care about the outcome or may think voting makes no difference. Or perhaps they believe that all politicians are the same. Whatever the reason, non-participants refuse to partake in the nation’s communal political life. As a result, the public sphere is diminished both by their absenteeism and by what it conveys to others—that voting is a waste of time.

Another sign of stress is the lack of interest in politics. Few Canadians are members of political parties, much less active participants in riding associations. As a result, they have little experience with the political process. Ignorance can be as corrosive as apathy. So-called low- information voters often make decisions based on gut instinct, favouring “truthiness” (what feels true) over the truth. This encourages politicians to act manipulatively, for such voters are vulnerable to fake news, dog whistles, scandal mongering, and vote suppression, all of which occur with growing regularity in Canadian elections.

Caught up in the demands of everyday life, many voters are so focused on the short term that they cannot slow down to consider the impact of their decisions on future generations. Preoccupied with their own problems, they may fail to take a more encompassing view of what is good for them and their community. To be better citizens, we need to cultivate empathy—the capacity to feel and see the world from the perspective of others—understanding, and judgment. Otherwise, apa-thy, ignorance, myopia, and egocentrism may prevent voters from acting in ways that would have the approval of their own better selves. With greater motivation and knowledge, an apathetic or ignorant voter might come to see the importance of voting—and voting wisely. But how and where do we find our better selves?

Democracy in the classical sense (the Greek word is a conjunction of “rule” and “the people”) provides mechanisms through which citizens may become more engaged, knowledgeable, empathetic, and aware of the ways in which their own lives are inextricably bound to the fate of their fellow citizens. These mechanisms include deliberation, judgment, collective decision-making, dialogue, and conflict resolution. The more citizens are engaged in deliberative processes of meaningful decisions, the more they are able to understand the perspective of others and see their own problems in the light of larger circumstances. The end result is that citizens can reach more mature and enduring judgments, and that is why democracy is better than its alternatives: it makes for better citizens.

In a representative democracy like Canada, the opportunities for direct participation in decisions affecting one’s self and community are limited. Citizens elect their representatives to govern on their behalf, rather than participating directly in self-government. There are few opportunities to participate in deliberation and judgment, to listen and learn from the perspectives of others, and to make decisions of real consequence. Without continuous reinforcement and opportunities for practice, the character and virtue necessary for active citizenship atrophies, and tends to be replaced by apathy, ignorance, short-sightedness, and selfishness. One of the most powerful objections to contemporary liberal democracies is that they do not provide opportunities for the kind of active citizenship necessary to ensure the vibrancy of the practice of democracy.

It is sometimes said that people get the politicians they deserve. It would be more accurate to say that good institutions alone are not sufficient to ensure virtuous citizens and leaders. As Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue in their book Practical Wisdom, a capacity for self-government must be cultivated to ensure voters and their representatives are discerning, judicious, responsible, and generous in outlook. What many Canadians see when they look at their representatives is very different, Alison Loat and Michael Macmillan claim in Tragedy in the Commons. They often see pandering, toxic negativity, excessive partisanship, and permanent campaigning. They see parties operating like public relations vehicles for candidates who worry more about how they are perceived in the polls than serving the public good; desire for media attention leads politicians to gratuitously attack each other, undermining trust in both politicians and politics. They see political parties exaggerate their differences, to the detriment of their ability to work together to get results. They see politicians who ignore evidence, devalue science, and make ill-informed decisions. They see the influence of money, which forces politicians to be permanent fundraisers, often at the expense of time they could spend legislating and governing.

Many, though not all, of the defects in contemporary democracies can be traced to features of neo-liberal globalization: the promotion of competition in all spheres of life, the overreliance on rules and incentives, and rampant individualism.1 The heavy-handed use of incentives and rules promotes the desire for external rewards or gratification, rather than the search for fulfillment through activities like citizenship. A self-centred individualism weakens the bonds of attachment to others and can lead to alienation and, in the extreme, mental health problems. Unchecked competition undermines a healthy culture based on the pursuit of happiness, intrinsic rewards of social activity, solidarity with others, and the ability to work together toward common goods. Such values, which are embraced in many Indigenous cultures and in local and neighbourhood associations, are necessary resources for a vibrant democracy, yet they are under constant threat.

So, what are we to do?

Political cultures depend on practices, and the practice of democracy is a good place to start if we wish to make improvements in our political system. The representative institutions of parliamentary democracy need to be supplemented by participatory innovations that provide citizens with opportunities to acquire the skill and know-how necessary for being good citizens and politicians. Participatory budgeting, which could be adopted in many Canadian municipalities, creates opportunities for engaged citizenship by giving neighbours a say in the allocation of part of the municipal budget. Such innovations provide practical and experiential training for democratic citizenship. Citizens assemblies, in which randomly selected members of the public are given the opportunity to deliberate and propose legislation, are another participatory innovation with the potential to enrich the everyday experience of citizens. Even traditional institutions like schools and universities can do more to pre-pare people for public life by creating spaces in which individuals can experiment with the activities of representation, deliberation, legislation, coalition building, and conflict resolution. Mock parliaments in high school motivate students to vote when they come of age.

This is not to say that we should not also strive to improve our democratic institutions. For example, some form of proportional representation might mitigate Canada’s highly adversarial and hyper-partisan politics. In the short term, hope for electoral reform has been frustrated precisely because of the kind of partisan logic entrenched within the current first past the post system. The failure underscores the need to create well-designed deliberative procedures when crafting reforms—not poorly conceived town hall meetings or superficial Internet quizzes. Even without institutional reform, however, change can come through organizational innovation. For example, Canadian political parties are due for an overhaul. Party discipline needs to be relaxed and more power given to caucus rather than to party leaders. Nomination processes need to be more transparent and better regulated. Parties need to be more deeply rooted in civil society and more democratic in their internal functioning.

More fundamentally, preserving the vitality of democratic practices and institutions demands that we counteract the forces promoting competitive maximizing and individualistic self-gratification. Competitive maximizing may be desirable in the context of business, provided it is well regulated. But when the ethos of competitive maximizing spills over into other spheres of public life, it corrupts and demoralizes institutions necessary for good government. The democratic case for rolling back the rights of corporations is a persuasive one, and we need to seriously rethink the idea of corporate personhood. One cannot attribute to corporations such attitudes as care or responsibility, which are essential for moral agency. Corporations should, therefore, be barred from funding political parties, think tanks, and schools, and their public licence to operate should be conditional upon business practices that advance human needs and environmental sustainability.

To rein in the ethos of competition, it is necessary for politicians to downgrade economic growth and unfettered competitiveness as policy objectives, and emphasize well-being and happiness. Such a “human development” approach offers a powerful alternative to economic growth. Indeed, many countries are beginning to integrate the goal of happiness in policy-making. Bhutan, for example, has pioneered the concept of gross national happiness to replace the gross national prod-uct.2 In Latin America, Indigenous social movements have sparked a lively debate about how to replace a materialistic concept of the good life with sumak kawsay: living well, in harmony with nature and others. One way to promote the objectives of such movements is by constitutionalizing rights that enable non-material fulfillment, including a healthy environment, education, high-quality public child care, and health care. Recognizing Canada’s Indigenous legal and constitutional traditions opens a pathway to similar sources of the wisdom necessary for collective flourishing.

Canada’s sesquicentennial marks an occasion for celebration but not complacency. If democracy is to thrive, it must offer meaningful opportunities for participation and collective decision-making. For a country like Canada, the risk for future generations is not that democracy will be abandoned or overthrown, but that it will be diminished, corroded, and hollowed out by the more powerful forces of the global marketplace. The struggle for democracy is ultimately an effort to ensure that our institutions provide a process through which citizens can find meaningful answers to existential questions. What do we, as a country, wish to do and be? What is good for Canada, as a nation? In seeking answers to these questions, we must strive to perfect our democratic institutions to serve our better selves.

Voting for Democracy

A challenging but magnificent feature of democracy is the way it makes each citizen reliant upon the character and good judgment of all others. Democracy comes to an end if citizens and politicians act only in their narrow, short-term self-interest; but if we have an enlightened and long-term sense of our values and interests, and elect politicians with a vocation for serving the common good, democracy can produce the most just and decent societies in human history.

As we approach the halfway point in this campaign, and with tonight’s leaders’ debate looming, it is worth asking whether party leaders are seeking to buy our votes by cutting tolls and fees, and promising bridges in one place or another, or whether they are offering us a vision of the kind of society in which we wish to live.

Is it to our narrower self-interest that the leaders appeal, or to the common good of all? With all the private cash in politics we have reason to be alert to the inevitability that the parties will be particularly responsive to the interests of their donors. Money in politics undermines public trust because we the voters cannot afford but to ask how the promises parties make align with the interest of their donors.

Will the leaders transcend partisanship? Parties have a tendency to become oligarchies. This is because their raison d’être is winning elections. Competing militates against other functions parties serve: representing constituents, finding legislative compromises through deliberation, and encouraging internal democracy. While some degree of partisanship is desirable—disciplined parties are absolutely necessary in a parliamentary democracy—good government demands a spirit of compromise and a commitment to public service.

How well do the leaders speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, like those among us living in extreme poverty, the homeless, children, nature, or future generations? Many of our fellow citizens will not vote on May 9. They may be struggling to survive from one day to the next. They may lack the skills and knowledge to be active citizens. They may have given up on a system that ignores them. Low turnout is correlated with fewer goods and services. We can judge our leaders by their responsiveness to the voice of the voiceless.

Finally, we should consider whether we being gamed. Our first-past-the-post electoral system encourages the perpetuation of a two-party system in which polarized parties struggle to reach the threshold of majority government, often by narrowly parsing the vote and targeting swing ridings. Strategic voting is another unwelcome effect of the incentive structure of our electoral system. A more proportional system would foster more parties, and create incentives for them to work together between elections. We can’t change the system but we can control our response to it.

Let’s not get distracted or disillusioned by negativity and personal attacks. Let’s ask whether our leaders are encouraging us to think in terms of our long-term, enlightened self-interest—what is good for us and our community as a whole—or whether they are pandering to our narrow, short-term interests, and pursuing the agendas of party and money. The best corrective to the distortions inherent in our system is the wise judgment of an informed electorate.

The act of voting is more than a vanishingly small individual contribution to the outcome of an election. It is about each of us making the story of democracy our own. The heart of that story is the epic human struggle for freedom, justice, and equal citizenship. Our task is to be worthy of that struggle and to hold our leaders accountable to democracy’s robust demands.

A version of this commentary appeared on the CBC election blog.