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Think hybrid: can we have our ranked ballots and proportional representation too?

Written by Ian Sherman

Living as I do in rural Cape Breton, my very strong feeling is that we’ll never see our largely rural province adopt electoral reform without first seeing a working precedent established either federally or by another province. With that in mind I'm hoping this post will help to seed the concept of a simple hybrid electoral model, one that would offer a compromise to tradition as a means to implementing proportional representation at the federal level. 

It would be regrettable if the unmistakable sigh of relief which accompanied the election of the Trudeau government gave way to complacency.  Canadians should remain mindful that our current First Past the Post (FPTP) system allowed a government elected with less than 40% of the popular vote to systematically mount [what was in my opinion] an autocratic assault on democratic principles. 

Last December the Broadbent Institute released a comprehensive study on electoral reform which received praise from numerous Canadian groups deeply concerned that FPTP does not fairly represent each vote cast.  Feedback heavily favoured an alternative system of proportional party representation (based on party percentages of the national popular vote) over a ranked ballot model.

Ranked ballot models allow voters to cast ranked preferential votes to best ensure that candidates who win closely contested ridings represent majority opinion at greater than 50%. Their glaring downside is that minor party supporters do not see their first preference votes fairly represented in Parliament as with various proportional models.

While campaigning in the Liberal leadership race, Justin Trudeau expressed a personal preference for a ranked ballot model, “wary of disconnecting any MPs from specific groups of citizens or geographic location”.  He went on to say that "The fact that every single politician needs to earn the trust of a specific group of constituents who cover the broad range of Canadian public opinion strengthens our democracy." 

Elected with less than 40% of the popular vote, the Liberals now make up 60% of the voting seats in their recently announced committee on electoral reform.  They may very well - in the end - make a case for a ranked ballot model.  Their argument would cite the complexity of proportional models as a distinct shift away from the familiar tradition of electing one’s local MP at the riding level.

There needs to be debate regarding an alternate choice to adopt an understandable hybrid model comprised of ranked ballot and proportional components. Such a hybrid would incorporate traditional voter preference and MP accountability at the riding level while rectifying the failure of both FPTP and ranked ballot models to enfranchise significant groups of like-minded voters within that broad range of Canadian opinion.

Considering the diminishing relevance of preferential choices, the ranked ballot component might simply offer voters just two preferential votes.  The first, marked with either the traditional ‘X’ or a 1, would continue to represent a voter’s party of choice.  Second preferences marked with a 2 would be added to candidate totals only if no candidate attained a total greater than 50% of all first preferential votes cast.

Adding in the second preferential votes to candidate totals would likely see winners in those closely contested ridings exceed 50% of the total of all 1st and 2nd votes cast.  In any event, they would better represent the wishes of their constituents than under FPTP.  Seating those elected MPs from all ridings would continue to fulfill the provincial proportional representation formula mandated by the Constitution.

The proportional component of this hybrid system would enfranchise all votes cast within each province simply by adjusting a political party’s actual voting power to numerically reflect its percentage share of the national popular vote. This would raise the fundamental question as to what minimum percent of that national popular vote constitutes a significant constituency of Canadian opinion.

Any party not achieving whatever minimum threshold was set would not qualify for proportionally adjusted voting power on the floor of the Commons.  That threshold would likely be set within a range of 5% to 10% of the popular vote. Hence, there would be no avenue for fringe parties to mess up the works thus refuting a well-worn argument against adopting proportional models in general.

The ranked ballot component would help well-established minor parties to increase their share of the popular vote, given that their supporters would have second preference hedge votes in hand. The proportional component would strengthen democracy by inspiring those absentee voters disillusioned with the present system to register and cast a vote, knowing that their first preferential choice would now meaningfully count.

A hybrid model utilizing these two components would require that a single party earn 50% plus of the popular vote to act as a majority government. This would restrain radical political ideology while acknowledging the varied cultural and political landscape of Canada.  Coalitions would simply highlight the compelling circumstance that we need to work collaboratively in the face of daunting challenges.   

Amending our electoral system to enable minor parties to exercise proportionally adjusted voting power in the Commons would enfranchise the earned trust and support which singular voting constituencies extend to their party of choice and its stated policy objectives – at the polls.  This bow to fairness is essential to countering the opaque corporate lobbying presence which undermines the present system.

Simplicity has been regularly touted as a key aspect of whatever choice the Liberals say they will eventually make.  This proposed hybrid model avoids the list systems, reconfigurations of ridings, and different classes of legislators involved in purely proportional models.  Multiplying a party’s percentage of the popular vote by 338 seats is as complicated as it gets toward making each vote meaningfully count.     

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Ian Sherman is a visual artist and Council of Canadians member residing in Cape Breton Island.

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