A timeline of my volunteer work on voting system education and advocacy
2015 – Learning the Systems
I became interested in voting in 2015, after Justin Trudeau had made a promise to replace Canada’s First Past the Post electoral system.
On November 4, 2015 Trudeau became prime minister. First Past the Post was slated for replacement.
Voting systems matter because they produce incentives that affect the way political parties behave. The situation after the 2015 federal election was intriguing because we were told the voting system would change, but didn’t know what system would be selected. I set out to learn more about the different ways of voting, particularly the various forms of proportional representation.
See my November 2015 blog post:
Selected Videos on Electoral Reform
2016 – Dual Member Proportional
In early 2016, I started collaborating with Sean Graham to refine and promote the voting system he designed specifically for Canada: Dual Member Proportional (DMP). Very few people knew about the system at the time, but it was gaining traction in Prince Edward Island.
I studied the system in depth, running simulations and analyzing various design options. In consultation with PEI activist Anna Keenan, Sean and I worked out an enhancement called the reserve which helps ensure all parties elect their strongest candidates.
DMP was ultimately selected as one of five systems (including the status quo) to appear on the 2016 PEI Plebiscite on Electoral Reform. Even some of the conservative MLAs – who are normally quite negative about electoral reform – appreciated Dual Member Proportional.
With DMP on the ballot in PEI, I tried to raise awareness about the system across the country. Here’s a blog post I wrote to assure advocates the system does indeed produce proportional election outcomes, despite keeping all representatives tied to small districts.
I also submitted a proposal to the federal committee studying electoral reform options.
Incentives Matter: A Case for Dual Member Proportional
Here’s an except from the brief:
Parties, politicians, and voters generally act in their own self-interests. This is not a criticism, but rather an acknowledgement that desirable behavior will follow from a system that introduces the right incentives. Above all else, Canada should implement a system that incentivizes competition for every vote. This narrows the choice to a form of proportional representation, and DMP stands out as the proportional system requiring the least change.
My most significant contribution in 2016 was writing the script for the DMP video, and working with media production students at Ryerson to get it animated and produced.
I also worked with data visualization specialist Stephen McMurtry, helping him create an interactive website that visually compares several voting systems using data from the 2015 election.
Toward the end of 2016, there was a moment of excitement when a campaign directed by Anna Keenan led to a proportional system winning the plebiscite in PEI. The winning option was Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), which is also a form of proportional representation. DMP received the most 2nd-choice votes (Islanders could rank the options 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.), which is respectable given there were five systems on offer.
Shortly after the plebiscite victory, everything went wrong. PEI’s governing party refused to accept the results of the plebiscite, and instead arranged for a do-over referendum to coincide with the next provincial election. Also, the federal committee failed to reach a consensus on an alternative voting system. Early the next year, Justin Trudeau announced he would break his promise to replace First Past the Post.
2017/2018 – BC Referendum
Even though Trudeau didn’t deliver on electoral reform, he got a lot of Canadians interested in the subject. To capitalize on this interest, BC NDP leader John Horgan promised a referendum on changing British Columbia’s system to form of proportional representation.
On July 18, 2017, Horgan became premier of BC. The province where I was born and raised was about to have a referendum.
One of the problems with the federal reform process of 2016 was a lack of basic knowledge about proportional voting systems. To help decision makers in BC avoid the same difficulties, I prepared and submitted a collection of one-pagers describing eight concrete models. This document should be a useful resource for anyone who wants to quickly get up to speed on what proportional representation might look like in Canada.
A Catalog of Proportional Systems for BC
In addition to educating people, the catalog was meant to guide MLAs toward better voting system implementations:
By submitting eight options for consideration, one of my objectives is to steer decision-makers away from inadvertently introducing ticket-splitting tactics into provincial elections. These tactics emerge under certain two-vote MMP models which exclude district votes from the calculations that allocate compensatory seats to parties. Under such systems, many British Columbians would have to endure appeals to give their district votes to a large party and their regional votes to a small party.
The truth is that it doesn’t matter all that much which category of proportional system is selected. It could be Mixed Member Proportional. It could be Dual Member Proportional. It could be the Single Transferable Vote. What does matter is how the system is implemented. Unfortunately, problematic implementations of MMP have emerged in a number of jurisdictions. I wrote an article to help Canadians understand the importance of choosing an MMP model that discourages tactical voting and ensures a high degree of competitiveness and proportionality.
Bon MMP, Bad MMP
In February 2018, I was one of about 15 or so experts invited by the Center for Election Science to participate in the BC Symposium on Proportional Representation. We gathered in Vancouver, then continued our discussions remotely in pursuit of a set of consensus recommendations. In the end, we submitted a report to the Attorney General of BC.
The Attorney General took a number of the Symposium’s recommendations in designing the referendum. British Columbians were asked to choose (1) whether they wanted to change the voting system, and (2) what system they preferred in the event of change. It was nice to see Dual Member Proportional as one of the options. Mixed Member Proportional and Rural-Urban Proportional were the other two.
Although I was satisfied with the referendum ballot, it did expose voters to a number of unfamiliar concepts. And so, to help people make sense of the options, I collaborated with a BC artist on the following video.
BC Referendum Made Simple got over 100,000 views on Facebook, and the 2016 video on DMP picked up an extra 20,000 views on YouTube over the course of the campaign. But after working hard to ensure the materials we put out were accurate, it was frustrating to see a great deal of misinformation appear not only in campaign ads put also in the mainstream media. The No side won for a number of reasons, but the media’s role in promoting their claims deserves attention given the importance of responsible journalism to a healthy democracy.
In any case, I do anticipate the adoption of proportional representation somewhere in Canada in the near future. I hope the resources I’ve worked on will continue to help Canadians inform themselves about voting systems and the incentives they produce.