It’s time for an electoral reform uprising

November 25, 2008

Where electoral reform and STV have been defeated, it has often been due to extensive mis-information campaigns right before the referendums by established interests with deep pockets.  Reform in New-Zealand was almost defeated by heavy corporate spending against the proposed proportional representation system, and recently STV was narrowly defeated in a referendum in Cincinnati by a smear campaign that spent $100 000 in the last week before the vote.  In BC in the 2005 referendum on BC-STV nobody expected the vote to come anywhere near the 60% threshold, but since it nearly made it last time, it is expected that wealthy interests will spend much more to defeat it this time.

The article below was written by Larry Gordon (Executive Director, Fair Vote Canada) just after the federal election. He discusses how the fight for electoral reform is really a battle between the grassroots on both left and right and the party insiders and special interests that have more than their fair share of influence under our current system. Originally published at on October 28, 2008.

Another federal election. Another train wreck for democracy.

We have seen it all before. The only question is whether we learned anything new this time. As Albert Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.”

Thanks to our dysfunctional first-past-the-post system, the disconnect between how we marked our ballots and what we got was stunning, as usual. The Conservatives won 143 seats, when they deserved only 117. The Bloc won 50 seats when they deserved only 28.

On the other side of the ledger, the Green Party received no seats, when they deserved 23. The NDP won 37 seats when they deserved 57. Even the poor Liberals deserved five more seats than they received.

Had we voted the same way in a fair voting system, producing proportional results, Canada would likely have a Liberal-NDP-Green coalition government. But if we had actually used a fair voting system, many people would have voted differently, casting sincere votes for the parties they supported, rather than negative votes against parties they feared. More people would have voted, because every vote would really matter.

So imagine that – an election outcome where Parliament reflected the will of the people and government reflected the will of the majority.

How do we end the insanity of our first-past-the-post system? Let me propose a three-step program.

Step one is to put voting reform where it belongs on the political priority list of the nation: right at the top, above all others, bar none. The same goes for the political priority list of every activist.

Yes, the economy is tanking. Climate change is accelerating. Urban infrastructure is crumbling. And on and on. But we won’t get the right answers from the wrong governments and grossly unrepresentative parliaments.

Step two requires what many would consider an unnatural act. Take your usual political framing and toss it out the door. This is not about left versus right, or urban Canadians versus rural Canadians, or Toronto versus the rest of Canada.

This fight is between ordinary citizens and elites.

At the founding conference of Fair Vote Canada, Judy Rebick said this is possibly the only issue where grassroots citizens on the left and right have a common cause: fighting for real democratic control over those who currently wield undeserved power in a largely unaccountable system. More importantly, if we don’t build a strong multi-partisan front for fair voting, we will simply never win.

Step three is forcing implementation of a citizen-driven reform process that places the electoral reform decision in the hands of voters rather than the governments created by the current system.

One option is to use and improve the citizens’ assembly and referendum models developed in British Columbia and Ontario. New Zealand used another approach. A Royal Commission first identified a number of alternative systems. In an initial referendum, New Zealanders voted on two questions: whether they wanted electoral reform and which of the alternatives they preferred. In a second referendum, they voted on their preferred alternative versus first-past-the-post.

These are the steps we need to take federally – the sooner the better.

Meanwhile, an opportunity for the first provincial breakthrough is quickly approaching. On May 12, 2009, British Columbians will vote in a referendum on the single transferrable vote (STV) proportional voting system, as recommended by the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. The same referendum question was asked in 2005, when nearly 58% voted in favour, only to be blocked by B.C. Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell, who rigged the game by setting a 60% threshold.

Campbell is applying the same undemocratic threshold this time with full support from the B.C. NDP. Yes, that would be the same B.C. NDP whose grassroots supporters voted overwhelmingly in favour of reform last time and will likely do so again this time.

If British Columbians crash the 60% threshold on May 12, or vote overwhelmingly in favour making it impossible for the next government to unilaterally negate a majority decision by the electorate, then the reform movement will have its critically important first victory, and others will follow.

Virtually all other Western industrialized nations – the U.K. and U.S being the other outriders – adopted fair voting systems early last century. Will the results of Election 2008 be the spark that ignites an unstoppable Canadian reform movement? Let’s hope so. It is far beyond the time to drive a wooden stake through the first-past-the-post system and cast out the power-mongers and unjust politics it spawns.

Larry Gordon is co-founder and executive director of Fair Vote Canada, a multi-partisan citizens’ campaign for electoral reform.


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