Why don’t MPs vote electronically?

The arguments for and against one small change

The idea that MPs should vote on bills and motions electronically is an interesting case study in parliamentary reform.

On a certain level, it is a bit silly that MPs should have to stand one-by-one and the clerks should have to read out each of their names for their votes to be counted. For the sake of efficiency, MPs might instead, as representatives do in other jurisdictions, cast their votes electronically.

The McGrath committee recommended a move to an electronic system in its second report (at page 119 here). The committee decided that the non-electronic system was a poor use of time and resources. Members would vote at their desks and a display panel in the House would show the results (I imagine now we’d go with some kind of jumbotron hanging from the ceiling that could also be used to show highlights from QP during breaks in the action and incite the various sides to cheer louder). The McGrath committee also allowed that some votes might be done the old-fashioned way if there was sufficient desire to do so. In 2003, the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons recommended the idea of electronic voting in principle and sought further study.

So, on the one hand, it might save some time. On the other hand, there is a certain accountability to having to stand and show oneself to be casting a vote.

But there are also anthropological arguments to consider.

At a meeting held seven years after his committee’s final report, James McGrath (pronounced McGraw) suggested that electronic voting might, conversely, make it easier for dissent from the party line to be registered.

If we had electronic voting in the House, it would go a long way in freeing up the House in terms of the confidence convention. It’s awfully difficult to stand up and vote against your party knowing you’ve got the whip breathing down your neck and knowing full well that the consequences of what you’re doing, in addition to getting yourself a slot on The National that night, are going to eliminate any chances you have of getting on a junket in the future … by and large, if we are going to free up the private member, give him greater independence from the party whips, electronic voting would be a very useful and helpful step in that direction.

Former Progressive Conservative MP Patrick Boyer expressed similar thoughts at a forum in 2006.

Three times when I was in Parliament, on the government side, I actually voted against legislation that the government was sponsoring and that I was expected to be supporting. It is not the easiest thing in the world when names are being called out row by row, it is being televised, everybody’s watching, and you’re standing not with your party but with the opposition, and voting with the opposition. At that point the jeers and the catcalls come, and stories such as “Split in the party ranks.” This is punishing, and it sends an inhibiting message to parliamentarians.

I think electronic voting could overcome some of the institutional weight that is suppressing a lot of MPs. They talk about free votes in Parliament. Well, the real way to make that happen is to bring in electronic voting.

At that same forum, former Liberal house leader Don Boudria has said that he nearly had agreement to go forward with electronic voting in 1997.

There is, conversely, an argument against electronic voting though—explained to me by former NDP MP Bill Blaikie—that has basically nothing to do with the actual registering of votes. Here is Mr. Blaikie, a member of the McGrath committee, at that forum in 2006.

I have to say that even though I signed onto to the McGrath committee, I’ve spent the rest of my parliamentary life fighting against electronic voting. I always felt that the expectation for electronic voting was inflated. The only reason I was for it in the first place was that I thought it would actually make free voting easier. The McGrath committee did recommend that on special occasions you retain the right to have a standing vote on a big vote, on a constitutional vote or whatever. But there is an unintended consequence of electronic voting if people just come in and shove the card into their desks and walk out again.

I have found that a lot of parliamentary business is done in the melee before a vote. That is when all the members of Parliament actually get to see one another. We do not see each other in the parliamentary restaurant any more. We do not even see many of our caucus any more. People have become much more atomized and individualized. But before a vote, you have all 308 people milling around on the floor. That is when I go to see the Minister of Immigration about some case. That is when I go to talk to the Minister of Transport about a labour dispute I have. That is when I do a lot of parliamentary business. We could lose this as one of the unintended consequences of having electronic voting.

It is periodically useful to be reminded that MPs are, in fact, human beings.

Mr. Blaikie’s view is also seemingly supported in Britain. The UK Parliament’s website explains its voting procedures here and included is a note under the heading, “Why aren’t divisions electronic?”

Plans to introduce electronic or mechanical voting systems in Parliament have been considered but no single alternative gained great support. Also, physically congregating in the voting lobbies gives the Members a good opportunity to talk and conduct business with each other in an informal setting.