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P3 : A Better Voting System for Canada

Posted on June 1, 2012

Dear friends,

On May 2, 2012, I was invited by Fair Vote Canada to their Annual General Meeting, in order to speak on a keynote panel, entitled “Achieving Proportional Representation in 2015″, which discussed the need for change in the way we elect our Members of Parliament. I took advantage of this opportunity to present the merits of the P3 voting system – proportional, preferential, personalized – which I recommend for Canadian federal elections.

As always, your comments are most welcome.

Happy reading!

Stéphane Dion

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P3 : A Better Voting System for Canada

 Stéphane Dion
Member of Parliament for Saint-Laurent – Cartierville
Liberal Critic for Democratic Reform

Introductory remarks for the AGM Keynote Panel –
“Achieving Proportional Representation in 2015”
Fair Vote Convention, Ted Rogers School of Management,
Toronto, May 2, 2012

The next federal election, expected in October 2015, will be held under our current, First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system. The Conservative government has shown no interest in dealing with the shortcomings of the system, and it is unlikely to change its mind should it be re-elected in 2015.

That means that once again, on election night, we are likely to wonder which region of our country will be virtually deprived of representation in the executive branch. Will it be the West, will it be Québec? In 1979, it was Québec; in 1980, the West. Between 1993 and 2005, we Liberals were fortunate to have Ralph Goodale and Anne McClelland. If they had not won their seats, often by a very thin margin, Saskatchewan and Alberta would not have been represented by strong ministers for a period of 13 years. Today, the federal Cabinet counts four out of the five Conservative MPs elected in Quebec, with questionable results regarding the quality of these ministers.

Our voting system weakens Canada’s cohesion. I do not see why we should maintain a voting system that makes our major parties appear less national and our regions more politically opposed than they really are.

Yet, to convince Canadian politicians and citizens to replace our electoral system is not an easy task. In recent provincial referenda, Canadians have rejected voting reform proposals. In addition, proportional representation is identified with the European continent, a continent that has to contend not only with an economic and financial crisis, but also with governance issues in various countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, etc. Not so long ago, many Germans were furious with the unexpected advent of a Grand Coalition. Elsewhere, we can see the familiar tribulations of Israeli partisan politics. So if we were to say to Canadians: “here’s a great idea – let’s import the voting systems of these struggling countries!”, it is safe to assume they would not be impressed.

If a resolution for proportional representation had been tabled at the last January 2012 Liberal Party biennial convention, the delegates would have rejected it. I have no doubt about that. In fact, it is quite an achievement that the delegates agreed to amend the First Past the Post system by adding preferential voting, also called “alternative voting”. It does not go far enough, but now that the Liberal Party has a foot in electoral reform, the debate should be more promising.

So what can be done between now and 2015 to advance the electoral reform debate?

What I think is achievable in our current federal context is for some national parties – hopefully the Conservatives, but at least  the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens – to have in their electoral platform a commitment to conduct a meaningful study and consultation on voting system reform – perhaps via a royal commission. This commitment has to be as assertive and official as possible, in order to avoid the usual pattern where parties are open to voting system reform when in the opposition, but much less so once they have won under the current rules.

In the meantime, we should not be afraid to continue the debate and investigate what kind of alternative system we could propose to Canadians in lieu of the current system.

It is crucial that in our search for a better alternative to FPTP, we keep in mind the specific context of Canadian federal elections. We have a wonderful but complex country – vast, diversified and decentralized. We cannot ignore our specificity when considering systems adopted by other countries.

A problem common to proportional representation systems is that they often lead to post-election negotiations between parties that may result in unstable coalition agreements, or in deals struck at the price of paralysis and the inability to make tough decisions. These agreements may surprise, disappoint or even anger voters. These complex deals may become particularly perverse in a highly regionalized context such as Canada’s.

I have thought about this issue over many years, with Liberals and Canadians of all allegiances. Many encouraged me to put pen to paper in order to clarify what I have in mind and to facilitate the debate. So last April, The Federal Idea, a Quebec think tank on federalism, published an article entitled “Which Voting System is Best for Canada?” , in which I described my own proposal for a proportional-preferential-personalized voting system – “P3” for short
(http://ideefederale.ca/documents/Dion_ang.pdf).

I take sole responsibility for the views expressed in this text: it was published with Liberal Leader Bob Rae’s consent but it does not reflect the position of the Liberal Party of Canada. My hope is that all the federal political parties will one day adopt these views, if not the proposal itself.

My formula might not be the best solution and I keep an open mind. However, I am encouraged by the interest my proposal aroused. I was even invited by Elizabeth May to speak on voting reform at the Green Party’s Biannual Policy Convention next August 18, in Sidney, BC. I will be going, happy to show – once again – our mutual commitment to cross-party cooperation whenever needed.

So let’s go to the proportional-preferential-personalized vote, or “ P3”. We would elect five MPs by riding, or perhaps four or three when a low population density warrants it. There would be some exceptions — such as the territories which, for practical reasons, would remain one-member districts.  But the standard would be five-member districts. The number of seats would remain the same; what would be reduced is the number of ridings.

At the ballot box, voters would first rank parties according to their preferences. They would not be required to rank them all. A voter may simply choose to vote for his or her preferred party. Second, voters would select their preferred candidate among those put forward by the party they select as their top preference. Let’s say that a voter chooses the Liberal party as his or her top reference; then, this voter would choose one candidate among the five liberal candidates.

This is how the ballots would be counted. First, the voters’ first party preferences would be counted. If one or more parties failed to obtain enough first choices to win at least one of the five seats, the party that got the smallest number of votes would be eliminated and its voters’ second choices would be transferred to the remaining parties. The second and subsequent choices of the eliminated parties would be allocated until all of the parties still in the running obtain a least one seat. This produces the vote percentages that will determine the number of seats obtained by the various parties.

Then, the voters’ choices as to their preferred candidate among those attached to their preferred party are counted. If a party obtains two seats, that party’s two candidates who received the highest number of votes would win those two seats.

That’s it. That’s the way P3 would work. Granted, it is more complex than the current system. In a simplicity contest, it is difficult to beat FPTP. But I would argue that P3 is not more complicated and may even be simpler than most electoral systems used around the world.

The greatest advantage of P3, in the Canadian federal context, is that it would correct the artificially-increased regional concentration of political party support. P3 would correct this harmful regional distortion, because it would be difficult for a party to win more than three seats out of five in a riding. Thus, seats would be truly up for grabs in all ridings, even in the most Conservative ones in Alberta and the most Liberal ones in Toronto and Montreal.

P3 voting would be less likely to result in one-party majority governments. But should a coalition government prove necessary, P3 would prepare parties to make it a stable and coherent government.

Because it would be in every party’s interest to persuade voters who do not make it their preferred choice that it represents a second acceptable choice, parties would be encouraged to highlight similarities in their platforms and objectives. This way, by seeking out the transfer of subsequent voting preferences from their respective voters, the parties would be better prepared to govern together.

Voters would be less suspicious of coalitions, and less surprised by them, because electoral campaigns would not focus anymore only on wedge issues and personal attacks, but also on compatibilities, respect and cooperation. On election night, MPs would know to which combination of voters they owed their election. The makeup of coalitions would be influenced by voters, and as a result, they would likely be coherent.

Under P3, coalition governments would likely be stable governments formed by two or three national parties, ready and able to govern together, with support spread out across the country.

Parliament would be made up of MPs who would all have a home base, even if they would no longer have a monopoly in their riding. This parliament would likely be more representative of women and cultural diversity, as the parties would have an incentive to diversify their offering of candidates in each riding.

Voter turnout might be higher than with the present voting system because voters of all political persuasions could hope to influence the allocation of seats everywhere in Canada, either with their first or subsequent choices. Because every vote would matter, voters would be more likely to cast their ballot.

Canadian voters would very quickly appreciate how much more of a say they would have in the political system. They would be able to rank the parties according to their preferences, to select their preferred candidate in their preferred party, and to vote for their true preferences instead of juggling random strategic calculations. They would no longer have to wonder whether they should abandon voting for Party A and instead vote for Party B in order to block Party C. They would simply rank these parties according to their preferences. After the election, they would be able to deal with the MP of their choice in their riding, instead of having only one as is the case now.

Today, voters are helpless when they are stuck for four years with a lazy, incompetent or absentee MP. In the new system, constituents would be able to deal with another elected official. Competition among the five MPs in a single riding would provide Canadians with better territorial representation.

That means that candidates of the same party would compete for seats, which could undermine party cohesion. But with this new kind of competition, the candidates would still have to act as team members. They would have to show cohesion for their own party to be able to rally the votes needed to obtain seats. Those parties best able to combine cohesion and internal competition would have the best chances of winning — to the benefit of Canadians.

Canadians are fed up with politicians not walking the talk about doing politics differently. In politics, Canadians want healthy competition — robust but respectful. They want election campaigns to focus on substantive issues rather than on personal attacks. Once the election is over, they want to see parties cooperate in pursuing the country’s common interest, and they want this cooperation to reflect our nation’s diversity.

The P3 voting system does not guarantee this, but it does increase the chances of us getting closer to this ideal. In order for politicians to truly change their behaviour, changes need to be made to the voting rules. P3 would change them for the better.

With P3, we would get a voting system that enhances the presence of our political parties Canada-wide, reinforces the level of cooperation that should exist between parties, makes every vote count and ensures that there are seats truly at stake throughout Canada. P3 voting would be a customized voting system for Canada, a set of ground rules that fit the characteristics and need for cohesion of our vast, decentralized and diverse country.

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  1. Avatar of Real Lavergne Real Lavergne said on

    I joined Fair Vote Canada recently, and have been looking at the various options. I think that the P3 principles of proportional, preferential and personalized are well worth incorporating in any system, as they will ensure that voters feel as empowered and engaged as possible. However, most of the commissions that have looked at the issue, including the Law Commission of Canada in 2004, have recommended some form of Mixed Member Proportionality (MMP). Could we look at an option that combined MMP and the P3 principles? The answer is yes. For instance, suppose that we defined voting regions of 15 ridings each under the current system. Each such region would then be carved up into 10 local ridings to elect 10 MPs, plus 5 regional MPs. The 10 local MPs could be elected using preferential voting, combined with an instant runoff to ensure that the winner was elected by a majority (based on second preferences). Voters would also vote for regional representatives for the party of their choice. Party candidates could be the same as for the local elections, with second and third choices coming into play depending who was already elected locally by the time the regional count was being done. The five regional positions would be allocated to parties to bring their share of the 15 seats roughly in line with their share of the vote. There you have it: personal, preferential and finally proportional. Advantages to this model are that local MPs continue to be elected in districts of modest size, and that it is a bit less biased towards domination by the top three parties.

  2. Avatar of Rhea Pretsell Rhea Pretsell said on

    The P3 proposal is definitely an improvement on the current FPTP system, but it fails to address women’s inequality in the political realm. UN Women estimates that countries with FPTP electoral systems, without any type of quota arrangement in place, are not likely to reach the “parity zone” of 40 to 60 percent until near the end of the century. It’s disconcerting that only the NDP has committed to running 50 percent women candidates in elections. Surely, we can do better.

  3. Avatar of Robert Tanguay Robert Tanguay said on

    This idea has potential. Convincing Canadians to adopt this system is possible. Are Canadian politicians ready for this type of change?

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