(Slightly) shorter Coyne

Elsewhere you will find a lengthy piece by me explaining why I support the electoral reform (STV) option in Tuesday’s BC’s referendum. But for those pressed for time, here’s the gist:

Think of all the things you detest about politics as it is practiced in Canada today.

– The viciousness.

– The emptiness.

– The lack of real options.

– Voters being told they can’t vote for the party they support, but must support another party, to stop yet a third party — that is, to prevent “vote-splitting.”

– The preponderance of so-called “safe” seats.

– The vast and artificial disparities in representation between regions — no Liberals in Alberta, no Tories in Toronto, etc

– The discrimination against new or small parties like the Greens

– MPs who have little role but to vote with their party.

– Being forced to choose between a candidate you can’t stand running for a party you support, or a candidate you like running for a party you despise.

And so on.

Well: we can just sit and complain about it, as important issues are ignored, voter turnout declines and our politics slide ever further into the mud. Or we can do something about it.

If we are to do something about it, we need to understand the causes of our present fix. And, while no cause explains everything, number one on the list of explanatory variables is the way we elect members of Parliament and the provincial legislatures.

The case against first past the post isn’t just the bizarre and indefensible anomalies it produces: the phoney majorities, the regional ghettoes, the huge discrepancies in what a vote is worth, depending on where you live and what party you vote for and how the splits play out. Those are real enough, and they’re offensive to any idea of democratic equality: the bedrock principle of one person, one vote. But they’re not the whole story.

Because those same anomalies aren’t just one-offs. Nor do they tend in the same direction. Rather, they produce wild swings in outcomes from one election to another.

That’s because the present system is “winner take all” — 30% of the vote in a riding is often enough to claim 100% of the power to represent it; 40% or less of the vote overall is enough to win 60% or more of the seats. And a swing of 2% in the vote can lead to dozens of seats changing hands — spelling the difference between a majority for one party, or a majority for another.

That’s a highly risky situation for the parties. So they react as you might expect: they take no chances of doing something that might lose them that 2% of the vote, like taking a position on an issue that might involve some departure from the other parties, or the status quo. When they are absolutely forced to take a stand, at election time, it is generally with some trivial, risk-free gimmick with which they hope to attract “swing voters” their way. That’s when they are not busy attacking their opponents, in as nasty a tone as they can manage: if they can’t add to their own vote totals, they can at least subtract from the other guys’.

And then we wonder why turnout is falling.

So if you think we should do something about this, consider the alternative: proportional representation. In a proportional system, such as the STV model being debated in BC, politics is no longer a series of winner-take-all bets, where a minority is entitled, by the whims of a few swing voters and the accidents of split votes, to rule over all opposition from the majority.

It is a politics, not of wild swings, but incremental gains; not of partisan attacks, but persistent advocacy; one that presents the voters with a menu of different political options, broadly reflective of the differences that exist at any time in society, but which acknowledges that these are contested, and must be contested in a democracy. It is this contest of ideas — a contest for every vote, in every seat, every day – that defines politics under PR: not the quick and dirty coup d’etats that are typical of first past the post.

So if you’re frustrated with politics as it is, think of how politics could be. Imagine going to the polls on election day, knowing that the result was not a foregone conclusion — that you could actually have a hand in electing someone. Imagine that new parties, parties of ideas, could start up to challenge the tired old brokerage parties, without being told that it was a waste of time, that their supporters were just splitting the votes. Imagine a more civil politics. Imagine!

The STV model has a particular advantage: you can vote directly for as many or as few candidates as you like, rather than just voting the party line (although you can do that too). So you can pick and choose among the candidates your party puts forward, or give a nod to another party’s candidate you particularly like. The system rewards candidates with cross-party appeal — mavericks, independents, people who reach out to their opponents rather than demonize them.

But of course, it’s so complicated, the critics complain. After all, you have to rank your choices — 1, 2, 3, and so on — rather than just marking an X. And that counting system! Transfer value formulas! Droop quotas! Ha ha ha.

Well, yes, it’s a little more complicated to vote. And it’s a lot more complicated to count — or at least, to explain how the count works. But it produces much more sane and explicable outcomes. Whereas first past the post may be simpler to count, but produces completely insane outcomes. Isn’t it worth putting a little more effort in at the front end, to get a much better result out the back?

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