Declaration of Voter's Rights

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Submission to the House of Commons’ Special Committee on Electoral Reform (11-9-16)

This is Fair Vote Canada Saskatchewan Chapter's co-spokesperson's Lee Ward's individual submission to the Electoral Reform Committee.  It ends, "Future generations will say we did a good thing introducing a proportional voting system.  They may just wonder, what took us so long." 

            At the very dawning of Political Science, Aristotle observed that the primary challenge for any democracy is to produce a government that reflects and aims toward the common good, that is serves the whole community or polis; and not just a particular faction, even the majority (Aristotle, Politics, 1280a6-12).  Although our idea of democracy differs in important respects from what Aristotle knew—we favour representation rather than Athenian-style direct democracy—the essential question Aristotle asked remains a timeless challenge to friends of democracy today: Does the way we elect our representatives serve the common good of the whole community?  In Canada I believe the answer is clearly no.  The problem is our outdated, distorted, and inequitable First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) or single member plurality (SMP) electoral system.  The problem is clear and so too is the solution. Canada needs to adopt an improved electoral system based on the principle of Proportional Representation (PR).  My preferred option is a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system with regional “top up” seats that combines elements of the Scottish, New Zealand and German electoral systems with features unique to the Canadian context.  Given that the empirical and comparative research outlining the technical aspects of these various electoral systems is widely and publicly available, in this brief I will focus primarily on the philosophical, psychological and normative dimensions of Canada’s electoral reform debate.
            Perhaps it will help us understand our condition today, if we step back for a moment to consider the historical progress of democracy in the past.  In the 19th and 20th centuries the democratic movement was animated mainly by the battle to expand the franchise to previously marginalized groups, especially the poor, racial, linguistic and religious minorities, as well as women and young adults.  These were heroic struggles that helped push forward the historical unfolding of the idea of human freedom and equality central to democracy.  In our time, in the 21st century, there is a new challenge confronting democracy.  It is a struggle less heroic than the suffrage movements of the past, but in some respects no less important.   I believe that it is our task in our time to transform an electoral system we inherited from past centuries when these ideals of equality were only very dimly perceived, and to redesign the great electoral machine of democracy in order to give substantive, concrete meaning to the democratic principle of treating every vote equally.  In the past we strove to expand the orbit of democratic rights.  Now we live in an age of enhanced social technologies that make possible the practical realization of these rights in an electoral system that truly empowers our citizens.  In this respect, changing the voting system is part of a larger process of democratic reform that could include reconsidering our voter enumeration process, as well as thinking more deeply about mandatory voting, the possibility of electronic voting and expansion of the franchise to sixteen year olds.  But make no mistake reforming the voting system is the most important and urgent task before us.
            We need to reflect upon the nature of the problem in our democracy.  It is well known that in modern Canadian history our putative “majority governments” rarely have been elected by the majority of votes cast in a federal election.  In our system a party that wins 39% of the vote effectively wins all of the power in our Parliament.  In every riding the candidate that wins a plurality of the vote acquires 100% of the right to represent the constituents in that riding.  In a multi-party democracy such as Canada has been for nearly a century, the FPTP or SMP model practically guarantees that the “winner” of an election has won the support of only a part, and typically not even a majority of the voters.  When you consider that a majority government in Canada may have as little as 39% of the votes cast in an election in which only 2/3 of the eligible voters even vote, then you wind up with governments that have acquired the active support of a subset of only 25% of the electorate.  How can this be democratic?
            The effect of this situation is what can only be identified as a democratic deficit.  Declining voter turnout in Canada to rates among the lowest of any advanced industrial democracy suggests that FPTP increasingly fails to meet the democratic expectations of 21st century Canadians.  Canadians expect their parliament to be more inclusive, more cooperative and more representative of our diverse country than ever before.  Hyper-partisanship and the micro-targeting of small demographics in select swing ridings are the direct product of our flawed single member plurality electoral system.  We have seen historically how sentiments of regional and sectional alienation flourish due to the legitimacy problem that arises when one party with less than true majority support imposes its mandate on the entire country.  Keep in mind also that in our parliamentary system we have no meaningful form of separation of powers or checks and balances on the power of the House of Commons.
            Proportional representation is the solution to the problems of our electoral system.  PR is adaptable to almost any context including Canada’s unique characteristics.  The central idea of PR is that it ensures that elections produce governments that reflect the values and choices of a voting majority by providing representation in proportion to votes cast. In a PR system applied to a multiparty democracy such as Canada, it is unlikely that one party will ever “win” all the power and thus our national politics will demonstrate greater consensus, power sharing and policies that represent Canada’s diversity.

            My preferred option for reform is MMP because I believe that it is best adapted to the features of Canadian political life.  I would recommend reducing the number of single-member ridings and establishing “top up” seats set by region that would be won by parties on the basis of the proportional share of their vote in the region.  I would prefer that members elected by the regional top up seat route be drawn from an open party nominating process or who qualify as being the losing candidates with the largest vote share among that party’s single member constituency contests.
            I believe that this or a similar form of PR would satisfy all of the guiding principles outlined in the public statement of the Committee Directorate.   It would ensure Effectiveness and Legitimacy by reducing the distortions of FPTP and better translate voter intentions into seats in Parliament.  MMP will also encourage a greater sense of democratic Engagement as voters will feel that every vote actually counts because for all intents and purposes practically every vote will go towards the election of a member of parliament.  Comparative research indicates that turnout increases in countries that adopt PR.  MMP also promotes Accessibility and Inclusiveness because underrepresented and marginalized groups will be more likely to be elected to parliament, if not from a single member riding, there is the additional opportunity of being elected as a candidate in a regional top up format.  Moreover, unlike some forms of Single Transferable Vote (STV) that can get very complex, MMP avoids “undue complexity in the voting process” as it would require nothing more than adding a second party-only ballot to the traditional candidate ballot with which Canadians are familiar.  Adding a second ballot to allow expression of partisan preference hardly demands abstruse speculative reasoning.  As for ensuring the Integrity of the voting system, MMP would practically guarantee a power-sharing government of some kind, unlike FPTP or ranked ballot in a single member constituency in which efforts to compromise only a small number of votes can reward one party with total victory in that riding.  Finally, MMP preserves Local Representation and the principle of accountability this promotes.  In the MMP system I propose every MP will have been elected through a constituency election or as part of a regional contest, and thus have to face re-election by the people, not simply appointment by party hierarchies. In fact, local representation would be enhanced over any electoral model that relies solely on single member constituencies because with MMP the typical Canadian would have more than one member representing his or her community.  MMP thus clearly fulfills the demands inhering in the principles outlined in the Committee’s mandate.
            I applaud the Committee Directorate’s statement of the principles guiding our examination of the various options available for reform.  I agree that practically all of these principles are integral to our idea of healthy democracy.  My one criticism is that the stated principles “Effectiveness” and “Engagement,” while good as such are, if anything, perhaps too timid.  I urge the Committee to consider the principle of Empowerment in your deliberations.  At its deepest level, the primary test confronting any electoral system is: How does it make the voter feel when she or he steps into the polling station?  Does the voter feel that her or his activity will have an impact or make a difference?  To my mind, there is no question that the FPTP has given millions of Canadians a feeling of disempowerment.  Our voter turnout rates are among the lowest of any advanced industrial democracy because so many of our fellow citizens feel that their votes do not matter.  The sad truth is that they are right.
            If you do not have the good fortune to live in a riding marked by some degree of parity in the correlation of partisan forces, then there is little incentive to vote because your vote will not make much of a difference in the outcome.  As a Political Science Professor I find it depressing to admit that this, but I cannot look my students in the eye and tell them that every vote matters in our democracy.  In Canada today this is simply not true.  We must not miss this historic opportunity to improve our electoral system.
            Empowerment as I understand it goes beyond “engagement” or “effectiveness.”  It is a radical principle, and it is a profoundly democratic principle.  It means literally every single voter having the power to elect a representative of their choice and every citizen experiencing the subjective feeling that he or she is part of the sovereign general will of society.  This lies at the heart of my problem with the idea of a ranked ballot used in a single member constituency to produce a fabricated majority, sometimes called the “instant run” off method.  In this model if your first choice does not have sufficient support, then the voter is told “don’t worry, the system will take your second or even third preferences and assign that support to another candidate.”  This form of ranked ballot certainly requires a great degree of engagement for the voters who have to ponder the intensity of their preferences ranging from “great I love this party or candidate” to “well this crowd at least don’t make me violently ill.”  This may be engagement of a sort, but how is this empowering? I don’t feel empowered when I go to a store to buy something only to be told I can’t have what I want, but they can sell me something else that I don’t like as much.   I don’t feel good or empowered in this situation.  Actually I feel disappointed or annoyed.  The only system that empowers the voters is one that ensures to the greatest extent possible that every individual’s vote—their real choice—will help elect their representative in parliament.  The only electoral system that achieves this sense of empowerment is PR whether it produces proportionality through regional top up sets added to single member constituencies or through a STV ballot attached to multimember constituencies.

            One of the main issues this committee will have to confront is what I call the “change problem.”  Some of those who oppose any electoral reform will try to make the argument that the current system is familiar to us and thus has some kind of default claim on the loyalty of Canadians.  They will plead that “FPTP has worked well to produce stable, majority governments and has stood the test of time through war and peace.”  Therefore any change to something as important as our electoral system is simply too risky, too uncertain.  Even some people who identify with the pro-electoral reform camp accept this basic premise and insist that “yes some change is needed but not too much change.”  Reduce some of the worst features of the current system, but do not eliminate too much that is well-trodden.  This is the specious attraction of the ranked ballot in single member majority, “just a little tinkering.”
            I find this argument utterly unpersuasive.  Change is required whenever inequities that have been tolerated in the past become intolerable.  I submit that this is the state we have reached in this country regarding First-Past-the-Post.  The public, especially young people, want to see fundamental change not only in the way we elect MPs in the mechanical sense, they want to see a transformation in the way our political elites dominate political life in its totality.  Whatever may be their feelings about specific electoral reform proposal A in contrast to electoral reform proposal B, Canadians are tired of false majority governments with the temerity to claim to represent the whole of this vast, diverse and complex federal political community.  In the last election in October 2015, Canadians expressed their desire to end the hyper-partisan, wedge issue politics that flourish in our traditional FPTP system.
            Now is the time to take seriously the new creed of innovation that is sweeping through all of our political, economic and social organizations.  On every university campus in the country we see signs heralding Innovation and Transformation. Can it really be the case that we are thoroughly unsentimental about every aspect of our communal life except the way we elect our Members of Parliament?  Is it possible that in this one vital plane of our political association we should accept: “If it was good enough for Lord Simcoe, it is good enough for me.”  The principles of justice may be eternal but the mechanical structures and social technology of democracy need to be revamped and improved periodically.
            Canadians are ready for a more consensual and inclusive form of political representation that calls upon us to fundamentally alter the way we view elections.  Instead of having the first question we ask on election night being “Who won?” Canadians look forward to a time when our first instinctive reaction to election results is “What did the people, my fellow citizens, say with their vote?”  Only later will we ponder which party or parties won in the technical sense.  Frankly, in a PR system the people win every election.
            This kind of dramatic transformation in our political culture is possible, but it is important to recognize that this kind of change does not arrive spontaneously or through purely organic growth.  It is na├»ve to believe that change will always happen, if it is meant to happen.  History shows us that it takes concerted, deliberate action with strong institutional support often to right even the most obvious injustices.  There are those who will say that high-minded rhetoric about democratic ideals is all very nice, but the practical political reality is that human beings are creatures of habit that will always revert back to what they know instead of untested schemes.  I admit that there is some truth to this.  Those of us who came of age under the old FPTP system may take time to adjust and learn the unfamiliar patterns and rhythms of power in the new system.  As a political scientist I may have to unlearn everything I thought I knew about Canadian elections and our party system.  But the reforms this committee are considering are not primarily about me.  With all due respect these reforms are not even about the members of this committee.  Improving our democracy is about the future.  Tomorrow I will teach an Introduction to Politics course at the University of Regina.  The incoming class at the UofR today were in diapers on 911.  Young Canadians are not as wedded to the current system as we sometimes assume they are.  My experience is that they typically do not suffer from intellectual myopia or sheer force of habit.  Young Canadians see the problem of disproportionality in our current system and they expect it to be repaired and, if need be, replaced.
            Let me end this submission with the example we can draw from one other important electoral reform in modern Canadian history with which I know everyone on the Committee (indeed every parliamentarian in Canada) is familiar.  Every MP in Canada was elected in ridings that were drawn by a process of boundary adjustment governed by the Electoral Boundary Adjustment Act first introduced back in the 1960’s and amended several times since then.  Prior to this time, constituency boundaries had been drawn by the government or parliamentary committees typically controlled by the government.  This principle of periodic partisan electoral boundary adjustment was the tradition in Canada, as it still is in most of the American states in which the state legislatures draw the congressional boundaries.  The idea of independent, nonpartisan commissions drawing electoral boundaries on the basis of scientific data and reasonable community of interest was something we Canadians learned from the Australians.  It made our democracy better.  It is almost inconceivable that Canada would go back to the partisan boundary adjustment process that seemed so natural prior to 1964.  I believe that something similar will happen with respect to reforming our voting system.  Future generations will say we did a good thing introducing a proportional voting system.  They may just wonder, what took us so long.

Dr. Lee Ward, Associate Professor, Department of Politics and International Studies, Campion College at the University of Regina

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Most Important Two Minutes of My Life

Meeting No. 24 Special Committee on Electoral Reform
Evening Addition 20:36:30

Dear Electoral Reform Committee,

Your mandate and my vision need proportional representation which makes this the most important two minutes in my life.

I've had fierce conversations about why civilizations rise and fall.  Author Chris Harman says civilizations rise when citizens "remold society around the values of solidarity, mutual support, egalitarianism, collective cooperation and democratically planned use of resources." 

Civilizations fall when citizens fail to maintain these values.

Let's focus on the value of "democratically planned use of resources."  As an environmentalist, I was frustrated when a wage slave would step between me and the tree I wanted to hug.  Then I realized that the tree wouldn't need hugging if the wage slave’s owners did not undemocratically use resources in ways that externalize costs on the poor and the environment and then use the profits to amplify their voices.

As citizens, we can best maintain our values if our voices have proportional representation in our House of Commons.  This gives a foundation of consensus rather than majority rule.  Countries using proportional representation have risen to the top for voter turnout, women and visible minorities in government, income equality and strong economies, and, my priority, environmental protection.

Give Canadians the opportunity to remold our society around our values.  On December 1, identify proportional representation as the electoral reform that offers effectiveness and legitimacy, engagement, accessibility and inclusiveness, integrity, and can offer Canadian-made local representation. 

Thank you.

Nancy Carswell
Senior Researcher into Happiness


Monday, September 5, 2016

Finding a Better Electoral System

Imagine you are living in the age of cavepersons with a constant supply of water and food in your cave. Would you ever risk venturing outside? Brain research reveals there is a demographic in our cave that has a brain designed to venture outside—teens. Ironically, it is our teens' drive for reward that has become the foundation of our existence as they enthusiastically ignore consequences. Sometimes they take themselves out of the gene pool and sometimes they succeed in a "better way" that benefits all of us.

Our government has promised to replace our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system with a better way. While some think keeping FPTP is keeping us safe, among other severe problems, it favours survival of the richest.

  The Electoral Reform Committee (ERRE) is reporting in December on two options; ranked ballots and proportional representation (PR). Ranked ballots would not meet the requirements of effectiveness and legitimacy, engagement, accessibility and inclusiveness, and integrity. PR meets all of these plus we can customize it for the requirement of local representation. No constitutional changes needed.

The "teen" brain found PR is a better way in 35 other robust democracies including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. In our Canadian cave, let's replace adversarial first-past-the-post with consensual proportional representation. Tell your MP and/or tell the Committee ( that PR is the better way to make every vote count.Nancy Carswell, Co-spokesperson Fair Vote Canada Saskatchewan Chapter

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Electoral Reform Committee Not Looking at Status Quo

I jokingly say I prefer being on a committee of one—me or someone else. Imagine you are the committee responsible for electoral reform in Canada. Your Liberal party campaign promise was that the 2015 federal election would be the last using our first-past-the-post (FPTP) winner-take-all-losers-get-nothing plurality-majority electoral system. Your committee must report by December 2016 on reforms that include ranked ballots and proportional representation.

The Conservative Party has vowed to block any electoral reform without a referendum. Perhaps though it would be wiser for the Conservatives to support proportional representation rather than counting on a referendum to keep the status quo. If your committee report recommends proportional representation, the Conservatives would get seats proportional to how voters voted—9 more than FPTP gave in 2015.

If your committee report recommends ranked ballots (which is still winner take all), it could give the Liberals a perpetual advantage. What advantage? In experiments, voters on the right rank Conservatives #1 and Liberals #2. Voters on the left rank NDPs #1 and Liberals #2. All the Liberal #2s plus their own #1s rank them into first place.

Proportional representation is not just fair for the Conservatives; it is fair for all Canadians. It is the system that over 80 countries have progressed to because it is consensus based rather than majoritarian oppositional so parliamentarians can focus on policy rather than politics.

The committee wants to hear from you at "PARTICIPATE in the study" or ask your MP about their electoral reform town hall.

Nancy Carswell, Co-spokesperson Fair Vote Canada Saskatchewan Chapter

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ping Pong and Political Policies

What do Canadian politics and ping pong have in common?  At the Saskatoon "Making Every Vote Count" Green Party event, former MP Bruce Hyer explained how our winner-take-all voting system turns politics into a game of ping pong.

In order to win votes, Party R must differentiate itself from the other parties.  Party R enacts their promises when they win and then get bounced off the table by voters.  Party L reverses Party R's policies and enacts the opposite.  Policies get batted back and forth like a ping pong ball.

Unlike first-past-the-post (FPTP), Hyer said that proportional representation (PR) produces longer-lasting policies resulting in better governance.  This is supported by an article on how Scotland's PR is helping change politics.  Journalist Adam Ramsay wrote, PR "seems to have replaced the pendulum of Big Ben, swinging back and forth between two increasingly tired parties."

Hyer also constructed a check list for what a democratic electoral system should provide.  While FPTP and alternative voting/ranked balloting get check marks for local representation and accountability, unlike PR, they miss check marks for fair representation, reflecting Canadian diversity, or giving voters equality. PR gets check marks for all plus for good governance because cross-party cooperation yields the mentioned longer-lasting policies.

Thankfully, the Liberal government is now basing its electoral reform committee seats proportionally.  Connect with your MP today and ask them to invite you to their electoral reform town hall.  Phone or visit
Nancy Carswell, Co-spokesperson Fair Vote Canada Saskatchewan


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Electoral Reform Need Not Be Like First-Past-the-Post on Steroids

There was dancing in the streets—or at least in the offices across Canada of non-profit organizations when the Liberals announced a committee on electoral reform that will be looking at systems to replace first-past-the-post (FPTP). Why would non-profits be dancing? Their hope is that the 2019 federal election will use a system of proportional representation (PR); one where seats in the House of Commons will be in proportion to the way people voted.

Community-serving non-profits recognize that FPTP serves the rich community as the rich can bet their money on a party and influence the election. Then, post-election, they have their hands on the reins.

Ominously, as well as PR, the Liberals are considering a ranked voting system called preferential-balloting or alternative voting (AV). Analysis show that Liberals would win with AV because being in the middle of the Conservatives and NDP, people would rank them as a second choice. Enough second choices makes you a winner. Ed Broadbent says, "Simply put, ranked ballots in a federal election would be like First Past the Post on steroids – even larger false majorities, results even more outrageously torqued and even more unrepresentative of the popular will."

The electoral reform committee is charged with finding a system that is effective and legitimate, engaging, accessible and inclusive, and has integrity and local representation. The committee is setting up consultations; written, online, and face-to-face. Visit to compare PR and AV then let the committee know which you think is best for all Canadians.

Nancy Carswell
Co-spokesperson Saskatchewan Chapter Fair Vote Canada

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Can You Name All Six Parties That Ran in the 2016 Saskatchewan Election?

Can you name all six parties that ran in the 2016 Saskatchewan election? Each of these parties is a voice for their voters yet we ended up with a two party government. Where are the other four voices?

Of the 431,140 votes, 277,379 were cast for the winners and 153,761 were cast into the wind. Adding in the 320,424 eligible voters who did not vote, we have 63% of the people of Saskatchewan without a voice in government. Yet, we are told we have a majority government.

Recently Stephen Lewis says replacing first-past-the-post with proportional representation (PR) "is a fight we have to win: it should consume our energies." PR is any voting system designed to produce a legislature where the voices of voters are represented in proportion to their numbers—not their bank balance.

Countries with PR like Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have more income equality and more gender equality in government. They are more likely to have stronger economic growth and at the same time better environmental report cards. Why? Because the parties don't waste energy beating each other, they use their energy to win voters and cooperate for the common good.

If the Liberals don't come calling to consult you on their promise that the 2015 federal election would be the last using first-past-the-post, you can call on Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef to support PR. Once our votes count federally, it won't be long before they count provincially.

Nancy Carswell
Co-spokesperson Saskatchewan Chapter Fair Vote Canada