Just How Many “Yellow Dogs” are There? Why First Past the Post Limits the Competitiveness of Canadian Elections

Following on from my last post, my colleague Daniel Westlake quickly put some data together, showing how big a problem yellow dog ridings really are (short answer: pretty big).

Somewhere Left of Ottawa

In a recent blog post (and submission to the House of Commons Committee on Electoral Reform) my colleague Stewart Prest highlights the presence of “yellow dog” ridings as one of the problems with first past the post electoral systems. Yellow dog ridings are ridings which are said to be so uncompetitive that a party could run a yellow dog and still win. One of the problems with first past the post is that there are significant numbers of ridings in which parties have little incentive to respond to voters. A seat won by 10 percentage points is worth as much as a seat won by 15 percentage points, so parties do not gain much from trying to appeal to voters in ridings they are very likely to win. Similarly, it makes no difference whether a party loses a riding by 10 percentage points or 15 points, so parties have no…

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Process, Security, and the Yellow Dog Problem: My Submission to ERRE

Submission to the House of Commons Committee on Electoral Reform

I focus my comments on three issues that I believe have not yet been sufficiently addressed: 1) a “micro-level” consideration of voting under different systems; 2) the potential security implications of a move to online and electronic voting; and 3) a way forward on still unresolved issues of process, including whether to refer the question of reform to a Citizens’ Assembly and/or a referendum.

The Yellow Dog Problem

The many expert testimonies before the committee have done an effective job of discussing the various macro-level trade-offs inherent in a switch to a different electoral system. Accordingly, I turn my attention to a “micro-level” issue that in my view has received insufficient attention, one specific to majoritarian systems. I call it the yellow dog problem. The name is a reference to an old expression heard now and then in rural Alberta to describe a safe seat. In such a riding the favoured party could run a yellow dog and win comfortably, or so the saying goes.

Politics is experienced differently in yellow dog ridings. Elections, and indeed competitive politics in general, seem like things that happen somewhere else. Other parties often do not bother to build up a presence. Citizens who want to get involved locally must join the dominant party, effectively the “only show in town.” Those who do not want to do so—in some cases more than half the local population supporting various other parties—have no meaningful way to participate. Many simply drop out of the political conversation as a result, finding more productive ways to spend their time. The net result is a kind of selective alienation, in which competitive politics happen in some parts of the country, but not others.

The situation would be quite different under the various forms of mixed and PR systems currently under consideration. Supporters of all parties would have a real reason to remain engaged in the process no matter where they live. By the same token, all parties would have an incentive to compete everywhere in the country, including in another party’s yellow dog ridings. I believe our political discourse would be richer for such an outcome; accordingly, other things being equal, I see this as a clear point in favour of mixed and PR systems.

Security and online and electronic voting

 While many frame the issue of online voting as a question of efficiency, youth engagement, or more general accessibility, I think it must be considered primarily as a security question. Elections are, in part, processes of legitimation. Citizens accept the governance of one group of politicians or another in part because they accept the integrity of the electoral process by which that group was chosen. That trust in the system is crucial to the continued functioning of Canadian democracy. Once shaken, such trust can be difficult or impossible to win back.

The example of the 2016 US election is an important one. Each week brings fresh reports of online attacks launched against different states’ electoral systems. Some attacks are alleged to be the work of foreign powers. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that voter registration systems had been probed in more than 20 states. So far, Americans still seem to broadly accept the legitimacy of their electoral system, but one report of online electoral fraud could change that.

Part of the problem is the role of perception. It may one day be possible to guarantee the security of an online or otherwise electronic voting system, though evidence suggests we are not yet there. It is arguably impossible, however, to ensure popular perception of such security. Electronic and online voting methods inevitably require an additional layer of trust in comparison with current voting methods. Canadians will have to trust that the online vote is secure, that electronic voting machines were built and programmed correctly, that both have been protected against every potential form of tampering. One report of interference, even if ultimately unsubstantiated, could be enough to undermine that trust.

The consequences of such failure are high. Elections are a series unique one-off events. While an online business might get a transaction wrong, issue a refund, and promise to do better next time, there are no do-overs in an election—at least, not without triggering a potentially catastrophic loss of faith in the system. The worst-case scenario for an online business is that it fails, and another takes its place. There is no other electoral system waiting in the wings should Canadians lose faith in ours.

It is for such reasons that I strongly urge caution when considering electronic voting, and even more so when considering a move to online voting. Accessibility and outreach are important, but there are other and in my view safer ways to pursue both—from moving to a greater emphasis on mail-in voting, to expanding the number and diversifying the location of polling stations, to a creative engagement activities by Elections Canada and non-governmental organizations. For instance, one of the key findings of a recent Samara report on youth engagement is that politicians must make a greater effort to meet with young Canadians in the spaces they actually spend time. The same logic holds true for voting—placing polling stations in more diverse locations, where people actually tend to spend time, simultaneously reduces both physical and psychological barriers to voting.

The Process of Reform

Clearly, some of the most vexing questions facing this committee relate to process. How best to narrow the potential menu of options for electoral reform, and eventually to make a decision? Do we need a referendum or a Citizens’ Assembly?

There are times when referenda are necessary, but they are comparatively few and far between in the context of a representative democracy such as Canada’s. Fundamental, irreversible changes such as to the boundaries of the polity and other definitive aspects of the social contract ought to be put before the people. At the other extreme are the many quotidian choices best left to the government of the day, which then stands or falls on their record in the next election.

In between such clear cases, it gets complicated. One might argue that certain decisions—including those that significantly alter the rules of the game for politicians, as is the case with electoral reform—ought to be subject to the will of citizens. Referenda are unparalleled among democratic processes in their ability to bestow or withhold legitimacy on a particular decision.

At the same time, they ought to be approached with caution for a number of reasons, many of which were on display both in the recent Brexit campaign in the UK, and again in Colombia’s referendum on the country’s peace treaty with the FARC rebel group. Referenda are blunt force majoritarian exercises. They cannot easily accommodate either nuanced opinions, or the preferences of the minority. They reduce complex issues to a deceptively simple choice in which even the wording of the question and set of alternatives presented can influence the outcome.

Advocates for one side or another of a referendum may make arguments in the hopes of securing narrow, short-term partisan or personal advantage, rather than out of consideration of the long term interests of the country. Some may even see profit in publicly arguing against what they privately believe. The debate may end up focusing on superficialities, inaccuracies, and digressions at the expense of good faith arguments for or against.

Citizens, meanwhile, have many demands on them, and not all will invest the time necessary to separate good arguments from weak ones, or even participate at all. Many—with some justification—simply do not see much personal benefit from such a costly investment. The information requirements are higher in a referendum than in a typical election given that the voters must build an opinion from scratch, without a reservoir of experience on which to draw in adjudicating the issue. Voters cast ballots for diverse reasons; some for instance may be more interested in registering a vote of general protest than in helping to decide the question at hand.

Further—and this in my view is an issue that receives insufficient attention—there is a finality associated with referenda at odds with the transient nature of public opinion and the shifting requirements of politics. Referenda tend to freeze results in a way that even elections do not. Politics evolves, and politicians can work out new compromises when the situation requires it. As the experiences of the UK and Colombia show, this is much harder to do in the face of the “voice of the people” expressed in a single instant, in perpetuity, even if the result is decided is by the narrowest of margins. All sides must live with the result, no matter how many subsequently change their minds in light of new information or additional reflection. Unexpected results can place issues in political limbo, with no clear understanding of what voters are approving of or objecting to, and no easy way to move forward.

Accordingly, referenda ought to be treated with caution. They provide legitimacy, but are not a panacea. I encourage the committee to consider the other major option by which to generate more rigorous citizen input—namely a representative Citizens’ Assembly adapted from the BC model.

Assemblies possess a number of important advantages. They bring together citizens in a small enough number to allow for vigorous and informed discussions, while remaining sufficiently large to constitute a “mini-public” that, by design, reflects the country’s diversity. The result is a level of engagement and sophistication of discussion not possible for the Canadian populace as a whole. Importantly, assemblies also ensure a degree of partisan detachment among participants not found in Parliament. Participants can consider the value of various options unencumbered by party interests; they can also think beyond the interests of politicians and political party as a group.

My own preference would be to see the committee refer the issue to a well designed and funded non-partisan citizens’ assembly charged with proposing a single most effective alternative to the present system, with the final decision on the assembly’s recommendation resting with Parliament. That said, while I would argue against the idea of a referendum, if most Canadians feel one is required in order to confirm the legitimacy of any changes, there ought to be one to confirm the result. We shall simply have to live with the consequences, however unexpected.

Such a process undoubtedly would take longer than the current timeline allows. However, I would argue that that is an additional feature, and not a bug. Electoral reform is a complex issue, and one better done right than quickly. Canadians need time to become familiar with it, and to form their own conclusions. Ultimately, a legitimate outcome is a result worth waiting for.

Summary: In this brief I have advanced a “micro-level” argument that majoritarian political systems suffer limitations in their ability to keep Canadians living in non-competitive ridings engaged in political discourse. I then argue against a move to either electronic or online voting, instead recommending the use of other means to improve accessibility and engagement. Finally, I argue the committee should refer the question of electoral system reform to a representative Citizens’ Assembly.

About the author: I am a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, and a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia’s political science program. I am also co-author of Samara Canada’s recent electoral reform primer, “What we Talk About when we Talk about Electoral Reform.” Portions of this text have previously appeared in op-eds in the Ottawa Citizen. I write this submission in my personal capacity as a citizen.

photo credit: samikki golden retriever via photopin (license)

UK Brexit, Lib Dem Reentry?

Brits everywhere continue to grope for a response to last Thursday’s Brexit vote. Both Labour and Tories seem hamstrung responding to this in a decisive ways. The Tories are badly divided between go-it-alone types and supporters of continued engagement in Europe in order to advance the UK’s security and economic interests. Labour likewise struggles to reconcile skeptics of globalization with left-leaning international cosmopolitans. Given how badly the referendum went for both leaders, it’s quite possible Labour will be looking for a successor to leader Jeremy Corbyn before the Conservatives have found one for David Cameron.

That leaves the Liberal Democrats. The current third party—which not very long ago held the balance of power in the UK—has entered the fray with an unequivocal pro-EU position, committing to ignore the referendum result and keep the UK in the EU should they win the next election (assuming that option is still available at that point). Continue reading

Ships in the night: The state of the debate on electoral reform

(Full disclosure: I tend to lean towards supporting PR, though am not particularly zealous about it. Even so, if my support for PR changes the way you expect to respond to what you’re about to read, you may find that this response reinforces my point below.)

The debate over electoral reform has barely begun in earnest, and it is in already in trouble. I see two significant problems related to different aspects of process, each of which in my view threatens the legitimacy of the debate and decision around this crucial issue.

The first problem concerns the substance and style of argumentation around the different electoral options available to Canadians. The second, which I’ll deal with in a subsequent post, concerns the problems with politicizing the process by which we try and change the “rules of the game.”

With regard to argumentation, we are beginning to see a lack of common non-partisan ground on which to even weigh different electoral options, let alone reach conclusions. Even at the levels of academia and informed political commentary, the discussion seems to have become, if not partisan, extremely polarized. We lack agreement over how to discuss the various systems, and how to characterize the various advantages and disadvantages that follow from the status quo or any particular change. On the one side, Continue reading

Trump: Rise of the Carnival Candidate

One of the problems with a party which never stops is that all the things which only seem like a good idea at parties continue to seem like good ideas.

–Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything

Donald Trump is ascendant. Leading in national polls and in the delegate count, he is projected to carry most states in today’s Super Tuesday slate of primaries, and has a clear path open to the Republican nomination for President. Dismissed for months by nearly everyone with a keyboard, markets suggest he’s got the race nearly sewn up, giving him an 80% chance at securing the nomination. Opposition to his candidacy is now finally beginning to coalesce in the party, but it may already be too little, too late. Trump’s campaign seems to have, as the saying goes, the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why?

Some good explanations have already emerged. Many focus on the importance of style over substance. The recent and rightly lauded Trump profile by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone likens Trump’s campaign appearances to a “variety show.” That focus on the performance over substance is an important element of the candidate’s appeal. I would argue the larger effect is almost, for lack of a better word, atmospheric.

Trump constitutes a particular kind of candidate, one with few recent antecedents. The closest in recent years might be former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Let’s call them “Carnival candidates.” Continue reading

Fourth Estate: the Fifth Business of Canadian Democracy

Note: I’m back! Sort of! After taking some time off blogging to finish and (successfully!) defend my dissertation, then pick up and move from Vancouver to Ottawa, I finally have a bit of time to write about things other than conflict-mitigating political institutions in rural Bolivia. I’m not totally sure what I’ll use this space for going forward, but I am going to try and fill it more regularly. Likely it’ll be some combination of Canadian and international politics, including more foreign policy now that I’m back at Carleton University’s NPSIA, and more general responses to contemporary debates. Suggestions are welcome. Anyhow, on with the content.

In his column yesterday, Andrew Coyne used the Alberta NDP’s short-lived barring of The Rebel Media’s correspondent from legislature briefings to a more general issue of state-media relationships, pivoting from a (basically justified) excoriation of the Alberta government for barring a very partisan journalist to a larger debate about the role of the state in media, including whether the state should be funding a broadcaster such as the CBC.

Coyne puts forward a number of arguments, but I want to focus on two issues: one empirical, and one more an issue of fundamental values regarding whether the media is in fact a public good. Continue reading

Guest Post: Democracy Should Be for Election Losers as well as Winners

Hi all. Posting has been sporadic, to put it mildly, as I wrap up my dissertation. In the meantime, I’m happy to present this thought-provoking overview of the health of Canada’s democracy by UBC alumnus Chris Tenove. Chris is now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics and Munk School of Global Affairs. He lives in Vancouver.

By Chris Tenove

Whatever happens in Monday’s election, many Canadians will wake up disappointed on Tuesday. The local representative we voted for will have lost, or our preferred party will not form government. It’s therefore worth remembering why democracy is the best political system for those who are on the losing side of elections, and not just for the winners.

Three features make losing more palatable and less dangerous in democracies – the legitimacy of elections, checks and balances on executive power, and a democratic culture of inclusion. Unfortunately, the Conservative government has undermined all three.

First, in functioning democracies, elections produce a government that is legitimate. We may be disappointed but we do not feel cheated, since each person had an equal opportunity to vote and each vote counted (more or less) equally.

However, with the misnamed Fair Elections Act, the Conservative government undermined fair and equal participation. The Act reduces Elections Canada’s programs to encourage voting, and takes away vouching or Voter Information Cards as sufficient proof of identification at polling stations. These changes are expected to make voting more difficult for thousands of people, with a greater impact on people less likely to vote Conservative, including student, indigenous and poor voters. The Act also reduces Elections Canada’s role in policing electoral laws.

Beginning Tuesday, we need to see how these changes affected the election. If people have faced unequal obstacles to voting, and if any party violated electoral laws as the Conservative party has in the past, we need to root out failings. Whether or not we pursue new voting systems, as the NDP and Liberals have proposed, we need to make sure that Canadian elections are increasingly equal, open and fair.

Second, elected governments face several institutional checks and balances, which help protect vulnerable groups and those on the losing side of elections.

Chief among these is the division of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Stephen Harper’s record here is clear: he has consolidated power in the Prime Minister’s Office to a degree not seen previously in Canadian history. The legislative branch is a ghost of its former self, with honest debate stifled in the House of Commons and Committees, with omnibus bills rammed through without sufficient time for study, and with MPs given little independence or authority.

The judicial branch has been threatened (including public attacks on Chief Justice McLachlin), and its rulings have sometimes been subverted or ignored. For instance, the Federal Court found the Conservative policy limiting health care for refugee claimants to be “cruel and unusual,” and ordered the government to reinstate preexisting coverage until there was a new policy or a successful appeal. Instead, the government simply disregarded the ruling, not only harming this vulnerable group but the rule of law itself.

The Senate, too, is supposed to act as a check and balance. Its ability to represent Canada’s regions and improve policies was compromised before Stephen Harper became prime minister. But as we learned from the Mike Duffy trial, the Prime Minister’s Office put great effort into corrupting the Senate in private, while publicly attacking its credibility and delaying meaningful reform.

The Conservative government has also chipped away at the quality and openness of the public service. We want our public servants to develop policies in a transparent, innovative and evidence-based manner. Instead, we have seen knowledge smothered, facts ignored, and government units re-purposed as advertising agencies for Conservative ministers.

Beginning Tuesday, we will need to reinvigorate these institutions that improve our public programs and restrain an overly powerful executive office.

This takes me to our democracy’s third major defense of those who are on the losing side of elections, one that is even more fundamental than fair elections and democratic institutions. That is a culture of tolerance, curiosity and care among our diverse citizens. Such a culture prompts us to work together with citizens on the goals and problems we share, and to aid those who are attacked or neglected.

This is why electoral tactics of stigmatization and dishonesty by the Conservatives has been so galling. Whether singling out wearers of the niqab as un-Canadian, promoting xenophobia through a “barbaric cultural practice” hot line, or spreading falsehoods to targeted audiences (such as advertising in Chinese and Punjabi media that Liberals plan to sell pot to kids), the Conservative party has shown a willingness to win votes by poisoning our political culture. This, too, must now be restored.

Democracy in Canada remains deeply entrenched. Whoever wins the election on Monday will have done so in a fairly legitimate process, will face laws and institutions that help guard against abuse of power, and will govern a country with admirable trust and concern among its diverse citizens. But whoever takes office on Tuesday should reverse the anti-democratic policies that Conservatives have pursued in recent years, and work to make democracy in Canada stronger.

Photo:B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix walks away from the podium and leaves the stage after conceding defeat in the provincial election in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

What (else) can Canada do to respond to the refugee crisis, and the Syrian war driving it?

I wrote my first blog post for the Perspectives blog over at IRPP’s Policy Options. Here’s the link, and here’s the hook:

The debate in Canada has been consistently framed as a sort of humanitarian-guns-or-charitable-butter choice between fighting ISIS on the one hand, and accepting refugees on the other. It’s time to widen that discussion.

You should poke around a bit over there (after you finish reading my piece, of course). It’s a really solid looking new website, with lots of good material. Looking forward to contributing more regularly there once I get the dissertation submitted later this fall.

Response to David Wells’ Reform Act op-ed

It seems that the Senate’s journey from relatively harmless anachronism to active obstacle of democratic governance continues apace. After weeks of speculation that the red chamber would allow Michael Chong’s Reform Act to die a quiet death at the end of Parliament, this week we heard an argument from one of the Senators opposed, Conservative David Wells, as to why the bill deserves such a fate.

The glimpse into senatorial thinking was… well, disappointing might be the best word. The arguments include inconsistencies and red herrings. Taken together, they give no basis to conclude that unelected Senators are justified in opposing a bill that the elected House of Commons approved overwhelmingly, with 260 yeas and just 17 opposed.

Wells dismisses much of the bill as inconsequential, quickly zeroing in on the provision to allow a party’s caucus to trigger and conduct a leadership review.  In an impressive bit of sophistry, he claims that this privileges “the wishes of a few” over the expressed will of the thousands of convention delegates who chose the leader.  By “the few” he means MPs elected to represent the will of Canadians in Parliament.

This, of course, is exactly backwards.  A central feature of the Westminster system is that voters selected MPs to exercise good judgement on their behalf. They are precisely the people who should be exercising oversight on leaders in Parliament.

It is the role of Parliament to exercise a check on the Prime Minister and cabinet; likewise, it is in part the role of caucus to exercise oversight on its leader. Those are separate elements of review, and both are important. Wells is implicitly—and wrongly—conflating the two, arguing that the only way for MPs to challenge their leader ought to be a votes of confidence. Essentially, if MPs in government don’t like their leader, their only choice is to bring down their own Prime Minister and trigger an election. Opposition MPs don’t even have this option; they’re stuck until the next convention leadership review rolls around.

There are good reasons a party caucus might challenge their leaders, and ought to be able to do so without bringing down the government and triggering an election—an act almost certain to spell defeat. A caucus review can be a much smoother process, ensuring continued governance by the party in power, while addressing significant issues that come up between elections and conventions. As likely as not, such a review would rarely be used—simply knowing that caucus could turf them out, leaders would be more likely to listen to caucus, forced to listen to the people’s representatives in their party, and not just the unelected staff that surrounds the PM and opposition leaders, wielding power without responsibility to all but the leader.

To justify his argument, Wells invokes the “private club” status of political parties. Effectively, he says, they’re just like any other club. Parliament has no more right to legislate their inner workings than they do your local curling club. If a political party wants to prevent MPs from reviewing their caucus leadership, if it wants to render leaders immune to challenge outside of conventions and indirectly through elections, then they can do just that.

This, of course, is nonsense on stilts. Your typical curling club dreams of ruling over the upcoming bonspiel or, failing that, winning the commanding heights offered by the seats near the TV at the bar. Political parties play a crucial organizing role in our politics. In order to carry out that function effectively, we have granted them certain rights under legislation, access to funds, broadcast time, information, and so on. Parliament has every right, and indeed the duty to place on them responsibilities as well to ensure the continued good governance of the dominion.

Having picked up the private club shield, he promptly drops it like a hot poker to make his next point regarding representativeness. Here, he argues that conventions are more representative than caucuses, because parties bring in delegates from all parts of the country. If the Conservative caucus were to challenge Stephen Harper’s leadership, Newfoundland, lacking in Conservative MPs, would get no say. Likewise, Alberta would be left voiceless in a caucus review of Trudeau’s stewardship of the Liberal party.

Again, this is nonsense. Just think of the example of the Bloc Quebecois to see how problematic the argument is. There is nothing in the Canadian political system demanding that we seek to achieve maximal representativeness in the selection of party and caucus leaders. The good people of Newfoundland and Alberta had their say in electing their MP. It is up to the MPs to act on their behalf in Parliament.  Prime Ministers are not presidents; opposition party leaders are not presidential candidates.  Their primary function is to organize government and opposition in Parliament, and to do so they must maintain the support. It is precisely this principle that Michael Chong’s bill, weakened as it was via the House amendment process, still seeks to reinforce.

More charitably, the confusion here perhaps lies in the fact that parties and their leaders have both internal party roles and functions, but also public roles and functions as well. Party leaders are also the heads of caucus, and it is caucus in Parliament, not the party membership across the country, that matters in terms of governance. Caucus, working side by side with the leader on the Hill, are far better position to hold the latter to account. They are far more likely to know when there is a problem, and are in a position to actually act in a timely matter.

In the Westminster system, grounded in representative government, we trust our MPs to act on our behalf.  To privilege parties and their workings over the functioning of Parliament is exactly backwards. It is Parliament and its governance that matters most. Providing caucus with the explicit ability to review its leadership reinforces a crucial layer of government oversight, one that arguably has atrophied in the Canadian version of the Westminster system, unlike many others—Australia being an obvious example.

In reality, a call to protect the primacy of party institutions is to further reinforce the sway of the party leader. Party members get one biennial review during party conventions, and voters get a shot at making their voices heard every four years or so. Outside of that, party leaders rule virtually unchecked by anything but statute. If we bemoan the increasing role of the courts in checking the government, I would suggest that they are doing so in part because so political checks—including caucus oversight of party leaders—no longer operates as it should. Political problems fester until they become legal ones, as there is no one with the political power to effectively challenge established leaders when they make bad decisions.

The Reform Act in its amended form does little enough to stop all this, but it is a start. Beyond its substantive impact, its passage would provide a template for future, more comprehensive attempts at change. It provides evidence that, even in the context of today’s extreme political polarization, parties could work together and change our institutions, however modestly, for the better.

It’s not too late. The bill is at Senate committee right now, after an outpouring of letters imploring the Senate to take it up again. Another avalanche might convince the Senate to actually pass the thing.

If it does die though, the cause of political reform will go on. Next time, the Senate may find itself near the top of the to-do list.

Photo courtesy Mightydrake via wikimedia.

Op-ed: On Canada’s “Progressive Primary”

My latest in the National Post. Click here to read. For archival purposes the full text is below the fold… Continue reading