John Geddes

Why serious electoral reform is a tough sell

A new poll on changing how we vote shows support for the old way

There’s a new poll out today that probes Canadians’ views on electoral reform, commissioned by the Broadbent Institute, which concludes that the opinion survey uncovered a healthy appetite for change and, more precisely, that what voters really crave is some form of proportional representation (PR).

Since the left-leaning institute enthusiastically advocates for PR—a system where the number of MPs a party sends to the House would more closely reflect its share of the popular vote—that interpretation fits nicely with its policy bent.

Seen that way, these poll findings look like ammunition for PR proponents, notably including the NDP, to use when the new Liberal government sets up a promised parliamentary committee to study fundamentally changing the way Canadians vote.

Looked at closely, though, it’s far from clear that these numbers, gathered by the Ottawa firm Abacus Data, are really as solidly pro-PR as the institute’s take suggests. For starters, the way I read the results, the underlying desire for change of any sort is tepid.

The poll asked respondents to choose among four alternatives to describe their view of the basic issue: Canada’s electoral system needs to be completely changed; the system needs major changes; the system needs only minor changes; or the system is fine as it is.

Only nine per cent thought the system needs a total overhaul, while 33 per cent opted for major changes. I would add those together and conclude that 42 per cent want significant reform. On the other side of the scale, 41 per cent said only minor changes are needed, and 17 per cent are satisfied with the status quo. I would add those together and arrive at 58 per cent being disinclined to support ambitious reform.

But that’s not how the Broadbent Institute sees it. They add the 41 per cent who support only minor changes to the 42 per cent who want major changes, and arrive at 83 per cent favouring reform of some sort. To me, that’s counterintuitive. (I notice that the Abacus report on the poll colour-codes the data my way, using blue for the minor-change and no-change groups, and green for the major-change and total-change groups.)

As well, the poll’s findings on what Canadians value most about the electoral system don’t lean toward deep reforms. (Abacus conducted the survey online Nov. 3-6 with 2,986 Canadians 18 and older.) Asked to choose their five top goals for a voting system from a list of 15, a whopping 55 per cent picked a simple ballot. And the current ballot—mark an X by the person you want as MP—is about as simple as it gets.

The next most popular pick, at 51 per cent, is a system that produces strong and stable governments. This surely does not indicate any deep dissatisfaction with the way our current system routinely awards a strong, stable House majority to a party that only received a minority of the total vote. By contrast, 38 per cent of those polled thought it was important for the number of MPs a party gets to reflect its share of the national vote—the basic aim of PR.

All this is worth thinking hard about because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed that Canadians will never again elect a government the old-fashioned way—just voting for one candidate running in your riding, and whoever gets the most votes becomes MP. Trudeau promises to set up a parliamentary committee to look at other options, and pass a law to make changes within 18 months.

The poll asked Canadians if Trudeau should, in fact, follow through on that pledge. Only 44 per cent said the new government should go ahead with reforms, while 32 per cent don’t really care, and 24 per cent prefer to keep the existing system. In other words, the majority is either ambivalent or opposed to change, although that 44 per cent is a solid base to start from for anyone setting out now to build popular support for reform.

But what sort of reform stands the best chance gaining popularity? The Abacus poll put four alternatives in front of Canadians:

  • The way things are now, often called first past the post, in which the candidate with the most votes gets to be MP, and the rest get zilch.
  • pure PR: vote for a party and that national vote translates into the number of seats in the House.
  • mixed-member PR: vote twice, once for your riding’s MP, and again for a party, and seats in the House reflect the blend.
  • ranked balloting: rank candidates from most to least preferred. If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the top picks, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated. If a voter’s first choice is knocked off, their vote is automatically transferred to their next highest choice. This repeats until one candidate gets a majority.

In the poll, 43 per cent picked the status quo as the system they like best, followed by 27 per cent who most liked the sound of mixed-member PR, 17 per cent who preferred pure PR, and just 14 per cent who chose ranked balloting. That certainly makes PR look way more popular than ranked balloting. Still, the status quo is the strongest entry in the field.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In three separate referendums between 2005 and 2009—in Prince Edward Island, Ontario and British Columbia—electoral reform proposals were defeated. In a 2011 referendum, British voters also rejected a chance to overhaul the traditional system. This record of popular attachment to first past the post is endlessly frustrating to would-be electoral reformers.

That’s the way it is, though. The Broadbent Institute makes the case that its poll shows that PR is the most promising model for reform. But what Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef, the rookie MP assigned by Trudeau to push the reform file, really needs to be braced for is many Canadians remaining stubbornly reluctant to embrace any serious change at all.

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