Tag Archives: electoral reform

The Myth of the "Wasted" Vote

One of the most disturbing allegations to come out of the electoral reform debate was the notion that people who voted – but whose candidate didn’t win – had their vote “wasted.”

The biggest problem with this analysis is that it casts the meaning and purpose of voting in the narrowest light possible. Defined this way, the purpose of voting is only to elect your representative. Consequently, you either succeed or you fail. Once the vote is over, how you voted takes on no further meaning.

This, of course, is completely false.

Ultimately, governments may win a majority of seats in a legislature, but the margin of their victory does impact the manner and confidence with which they govern. Parties nervous about their future will look to see how they can steal votes from other parties by adopting (stealing) their ideas. In this regard, voting is a powerful signal voters can send, one that communicates quite powerfully to parties, letting them know what they should do if they want to increase their appeal to certain communities.

For a practical example, take a look at the Green Party in British Columbia. Does voting for the BC Green Party constitute a wasted vote? I believe not. I would argue the existence of the Green Party – and the significant vote that it garners – has forced the other parties to react to its agenda. Would we presently have a Liberal Party in BC that is implementing a carbon tax if it weren’t for the Green Party? I suspect not. The pressure this group brought to bear – by making clear that there is a voting constituency interested in Green matters – has been significant, even if it has not won any seats. I would argue that not one of those votes has been “wasted.” Each one has communicated a powerful message.

I can imagine that living in a riding where a specific party is unlikely to win can be frustrating – but calling those votes wasted reveals a misunderstanding of how the system can be influenced and unfairly devalues the voting process. I hope we get over using this language if we end up looking at electoral reform again…

I’m voting no to BC-STV

For those outside of British Columbia we have a referendum on May 12th to determine if the province should shift from its current voting system, called First Past the Post (FPTP), to Single Transferable Vote (BC-STV).

Watching the back and forth over the referendum on BC-STV has, I sense, left most citizens of British Columbia exasperated and confused. On both sides, people pronounce that a change will either bring political nirvana to the province, or utter disaster. It’s all a little over dramatic.

The truth is, the current system is not a disaster nor is the proposed change a nirvana. Both have strengths and weaknesses – this is because fundamentally, they are seeking to accomplish different things.

At present, our system favours geographic representation. In BC we don’t have a single election, we have 85 individual elections – one in each riding. Consequently, a party that wins 34% in each individual race could win every seat. This means that ideologically – a single perspective get represented. It is rare, but it is possible.

BC-STV is an attempt to create electoral outcomes that better reflect not how individual ridings voted, but how people voted across the province. In short, it seeks to enhance ideological representation by enabling voters who are distributed across ridings to elect representatives whose ideas resonate with them.

The challenge is, one cannot have it both ways. You cannot strengthen province wide ideological representation without weakening local representation. And herein lies the central trade off between the two systems: Local accountability versus great ideological representation at the provincial level.

Both are noble objectives. They just happen to be incompatible, one comes at the expense of the other. For me, this reduces any assessment of BC-STV to this question: do the benefits of improved ideological representation outweigh the costs of reduced local accountability? I think the answer is no.

In part, this is because I happen to place a high value on local representation. Others who think geography is less important than ideology will likely disagree (these are legitimate, and likely irreconcilable perspectives).

However, I’m also concerned about BC-STV because to achieve better ideological representation, I believe it makes some significant and problematic trade-offs (listed below). That, and there are the infamous unknown unknowns involved in adopting a new system.


The biggest problem with BC-STV is that, to achieve a balance between ideological and local representation, it presents votes with a system that is almost impossible to understand. I’m a policy wonk and a political junkie, as such I’m genuinely interested in these things and like to think I know a little about them. I’ve just gone through the literature umpteenth times and while I understand how it works, it is grossly complicated. I have not ideas of what its implications will be nor am I sure that the manner and order by which votes get weighted is fair.

One thing you want from an electoral system is that it be easily understood. This is important so that people know exactly who they are voting for and what their vote means. BC-STV is so complicated that the Vote No campaign websites directs readers to the explanatory video developed by the Citizens Assembly (their opponents). Even its advocates can’t explain it simply.


In order to create greater ideological representation BC-STV has to weaken local representation. It does this by making ridings (districts for Americans) larger. Consequently, in BC-STV we would end up with mega ridings, the largest being 372,000 sq km. But the ratio of elected officials to votes would however, remain the same meaning that each “riding” would be served by somewhere between 2 and 7 MPs. This has several problematic implications.

First, who’s accountable? When there is a problem in your riding who do you complain to? Who is your elected official? Do you complain to all seven? The one you voted for? The member who is part of the government? All of them? A 7 member riding dilutes the connection between the voter and their representatives.

Second, it can create problematic feedback loops. If voters who vote for the Green Party only ever contact the Green Party representative and Liberal Party voters only contact the Liberal Party member in their riding we run the risk of creating a selection bias driven echo chambers. Party’s actually become more ideological and partisan.

Finally, individual MPs voices are diminished. In our current system, MPs influence derives from the fact that they have a machine on the ground and that they know their riding better than anyone. Large ridings make this harder to sustain. More importantly, when there are multiple candidates from a single party in the riding, the party can choose to deploy more resources towards candidates that will not challenge the party or its leader. The outcome is that BC-STV actually weakens the independence of elected officials.

Small Parties, Big Voices

I’m not opposed to coalition governments per se but, unlike many BC-STV supporters, I do not think they are inherently good either. BC-STV supporters are correct in asserting that smaller parties will have a greater voice. What often isn’t explained is that that voice won’t be proportional to the number of seats they elect – it can end up being disproportionately influential. Imagine a small party that garnered 8% of the provincial vote holds the balance of power in the legislature. It can effectively make any demand it wants to prop up the government. As a result, a platform supported by just 8% of voters suddenly becomes dominant. I know many of my environmentalist friends are excited by the prospect of the Green Party holding that balance of power… but there is no guarantee that this would be the outcome. What if the nascent Conservative Party were to be that force? They would almost certainly force the Liberals – arguable the most progressive party on the environment and First Nations issues – to move backwards on issues like the Carbon Tax and the New Relationship.

For these and other reasons, I’m ultimately opposed to BC-STV. Is FPTP perfect? Hardly, but BC-STV is still less so.

I now there are a lot of readers out there who are supporters so feel free to vent below in the comments section. I’ll try to respond to counter arguments as best I can.

For those who want to know more and educate themselves before tomorrow’s vote, here is a link to the BC-STV site and to the No STV site.

electoral reform: maybe people just don't care

Yesterday, the Toronto Star had this fun story about the upcoming referendum on electoral reform. My favourite part was the beginning:

To find out what people think about the Ontario referendum being held a month from today, the Toronto Star stopped some 50 people at Yonge and Bloor Sts.

Just one person knew about it.

Only three others were interested enough to listen to what was being proposed.

Clearly this issue represents a burning platform for the electorate… Or not.

And let’s be fair – it is not like Canadians can’t get passionate about issues: The Charlotte Town Accord, Meech Lake, Free Trade, all caught voters attentions. If electoral reform hasn’t, maybe that means something…

Of course, proponents of Electoral Reform will claim this is because of a lack of press coverage and/or awareness on the part of the public. But then, this is the same bitter claim of any group whose issue isn’t dominating the news agenda.

Problematically, they’ll keep making that claim until their issue makes the news agenda and pierces the public’s consciousness. The basic precept being – everybody would care about this as much as I do – if only they were as well informed as I am.

Perhaps, or perhaps there is a simpler explanation. Maybe electoral reform is not a pressing issue to most people. Certainly a system the strengthens the power of the parties and the backroom boys isn’t easily going to inspire people I know…

Citizen Assemblies: Overstating the wisdom of crowds

On numerous occasions over the past few months I’ve heard people refer to Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” when explaining why any group driven project is inherently good.

My favourite has been the explanation regarding how citizen’s assemblies – because they tend to be composed of 100 or more members – are inherently wise and therefor produce a good outcome. To begin with, I find it interesting that those who defend electoral reform rarely talk about the merits of the proposal and instead refer to the soundness of the decision making process used to reach them. Citizen assemblies, it must be said, are not some magical process that produce inherently good outcomes. Indeed, if those who invoke his book had actually read it, they’d realize the Surowiecki’s analysis not only fails to support their contention about the process, it may actually do the opposite.

Pause for a second, and think about the logic that says a solution is good simply because it was arrived at by a large group of people. It is actually quite frightening. Indeed, one of the first things Surowiecki points out is that not all crowds are wise. The statement hardly needs supporting, but Surowiecki nonetheless trots out numerous examples of unwise crowds – angry mobs, investors in a stock bubble, and the various branches of US intelligence services. It’s not simply the size of a crowd that makes it “wise” it is also the rules that guide its behaviour. To be specific Surowiecki cites four key elements (which I’ve cribbed from wikipedia):

Diversity of opinion: Crowds – even those whose members hold ill-informed or eccentric interpretation of the known facts – will be wiser then groups that possess identical data, similar perspectives, or interpret data in a similar fashion.

Independence: Crowd members opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.

Decentralization: People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.

Aggregation: A mechanism for turning private judgments into a collective decisions.

Violate one of these elements and your crowd risks becoming a mob. By my estimation, citizen assemblies run the risk of violating three.

First, the diversity of opinion is at risk. While citizen assemblies’ proponents would have you believe they are composed randomly, this is in fact, not the case. Firstly, there are a number of people who, for reasons of work or family, would not participate. But what really interests me is that people opposed to change (and possibly those who are simply indifferent) are less likely to participate. If you thought a proposition (such as electoral reform) was silly, would you spend a year debating it – or would you simply await your opportunity to vote against it at the end of the process? Participation in these assemblies is almost assuredly tilted toward those predisposed to favour change – e.g. the crowd is more likely to be homogeneous in its desire for change and its perception of the electoral system.

Second, citizen assemblies are less likely to be independent. If you enter into a process to change the voting system the pressure to support change, any change, must be intense. Imagine if you sat around for a year listening, debating and arguing, and came out of the process agreeing that the status quo was ultimately superior to any other option. What a frustrating outcome! Tax payers would question why the money was spent and your friends would ridicule you for “wasting your time.” Worst still, what if the assembly couldn’t agree? What would that say about its constituent members? The internally created pressure on assembly members to put forward something, anything(!) new, and to have a clear majority of assembly members support this proposal was likely intense. I’d wager that once momentum for one solution began to emerge, other members were willing to bandwagon along “for the sake of the process.” In short, assembly members allowed their opinions to be determined by the opinions of those around them. (except, of course for those who held out. The same people who – from first hand accounts – were invariable referred to as stick in the muds and ‘difficult’ people. “Think like the rest of us or we’ll socially ostracize you…” isn’t that a sign of a mob?)

Finally, citizen assemblies have poor mechanisms for aggregation. Although neither the BC nor the Ontario Citizen assemblies required it, both placed strong emphasis on reaching consensus – articulating it as an ideal. If there is one system of decision-making Surowiecki believes makes a crowd dumb, it is a consensus-based approach. In order to reach consensus crowd members sacrifice the previous three elements – diversity, independence and decentralization – in order to gravitate towards the group’s mean. In effect the group’s collective knowledge and diversity of analytical ability is lost. This is the antithesis of a wise crowd. It is a crowd that actually gets dumber with time because it has less data, less analysis and fewer perspectives with which to assess the problem. It isn’t that people agree – they simply censor themselves to prevent disagreement.

This isn’t to say the Citizen Assemblies came to a bad solution for electoral reform (although to confess, I think in both BC and Ontario they did) . Again, all I wish to convey is that the citizen assemblies are not some magical process that produce inherently good outcomes. These process are neither democratic, representative, nor inherently superior – so don’t let supporters of the ballot initiatives bully you with process arguments. Let’s assess these proposals based on their contents – and what they do to democracy in Canada (which, in Ontario’s case, strengthens the parties and the backroom boys).

Citizens' Assemblies – In opposition to responsible government

Some of you may recall this great debate we had on the site over the merits of Citizens’ Assemblies. My friend, David Brock has gone and added fuel to the fire with an op-ed entitled “Ontario abdicates its duty on electoral reformin Thursday’s Toronto Star.

David punches a number of holes into the Citizens’ Assembly process, but I think his ultimate critique drives to the heart of the matter – that even citizens’ assemblies cannot escape the problem of representation. Someone, somewhere, made choices about which groups should and shouldn’t be represented within the assembly. This, naturally, has an impact the outcome. Choices will be made that favour some over others.

Representative democracy is far from perfect, but it at least allows those choices to be debated openly. Citizens’ Assemblies, in contrast, are top-down, opaque processes with little oversight or self-correcting mechanisms. I’m still searching for the evidence to see how they produce better, more equitable or more ‘representative’ outcomes.

The Trouble with Citizens' Assemblies

My friend Peter MacLeod published this web-exclusive op-ed in today’s Globe and Mail where he complained about the critics’ harsh treatment of Citizens’ Assemblies. Peter (and I) may not like the language used by some of its critics but he still has to explain why citizens’ assemblies are an appropriate approach to decision making, something I’m not sure his op-ed accomplishes.

What is that famous Churchill quote? “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Let’s be clear, citizens’ assemblies, despite their non-binding nature, are a form of governance. Moreover, despite what their champions claim, they are not democratic. Randomly selecting citizens cannot ensure a province or country’s citizens’ diverse interests and concerns are effectively represented. We use democracy to make decisions because we believe it is the best process by which conflicting interests can be debated and citizens’ issues can be engaged. Is it perfect? Hardly. But citizens’ assemblies are less so.

To see their possible shortcomings one need only look at the BC citizens’ assembly. As Andrew Potter notes in This Magazine “The Assembly’s director of research (i.e. the fellow in charge of bringing in the experts) is Ken Carty, former chair of the UBC poli sci department. According to a colleague of mine who worked in the department under Carty, decisions at faculty meetings were always entertaining, because of the mechanism Carty used to take decisions. What mechanism was that? STV voting. Coincidence?” Moreover, a scan of Carty’s publications shows that his initial writing focused on politics in Ireland: the only other country in the world to use the system like BC STV. Does this mean Carty unduly influenced the assembly? I don’t know. But this, a problematic process, is exactly the type of issue an opposition party would bring to the publics’ attention in a public debate on a policy initiative – and yet where is the role of opposition in a citizens’ assembly?

If a community felt it couldn’t trust its politician on a given issue – such as electoral reform – why not call a commission? Although less sexy, Canada’s history is filled with notable and effective commissions that have laid the groundwork for some of the country’s most significant reforms and policy decisions. These include: public healthcare, bilingualism, and free trade. Because commissions bring together experts with diverse opinions and engage in public consultations they can accomplish many of the goals of citizen assemblies while simultaneously ensuring that numerous informed opinions are represented in the discussion. Can anyone name a process where we purposefully select non-experts to make a decision? When I get on a plane I don’t believe I will be best served if the pilot and crew are randomly selected from the passenger manifest! I’d definitely prefer an expert pilot and crew to manage the flight. The passengers may tell them where they’d like to go and offer some other suggestions, but I think we’d probably all feel safer knowing there was an expert behind the wheel. Moreover, as life and death flying a plane may be, I’m fairly certain decisions about our country are actually still more important.

My friends know I’m a fan of open-source public policy, mostly because I believe it will allow citizens, in a sophisticated and cumulative manner, to shape how our country should operate. However, there is nothing about open source public policy that is democratic – a constraint we must recognize and live by. The problem with citizen assemblies is its champions don’t believe they are bound by such constraints. A citizen assembly’s product is usually pre-sold as democratic and legitimate. Maybe one day the process will be refined in such a way that this will be true, but for now, such a description is misleading, and dangerously so, as it popularizes these assemblies’ recommendations on a false foundation.

[tags]Citizens’ Assemblies, electoral reform, Canadian politics, BC Citizens’ Assembly, Ken Carty[/tags]