Voting reform won’t happen before 2025

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Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party won a majority of seats in the last election on the promises of reform in several areas and procedures of government. The two of these reforms that will be most noticeable to the electorate are Senate appointments and an alternative to the current first-past-the-post system for electing representatives to the House of Commons.  Canadians have already seen the effects of Senate reform. A majority of Senators are now independent – not affiliated with any political party or regime. The aspirations are for a better, more responsible and more effective chamber of sober second thought. However, some time is needed to determine to what extent this change to the Senate will result in a meaningful body in our democratic process.
The second major reform is the election process itself. Our current system, while simple, has demonstrated significant flaws in returning a truly representative body of members to the House of Commons. The problem can be summed up in two words: Arrow’s paradox.   Named after the American sociologist and economist, Kenneth J. Arrow, the paradox states that when voters have three or more distinct alternatives, no ranked order voting system can convert the preferences of individuals into a community-wide ranking, while also meeting a pre-specified set of criteria.
To come to grips with this problem and to fulfill his promise, Trudeau established a 12 member special committee on electoral reform. All members are sitting members of the House of Commons and all five parties including the Greens and the Bloc are represented.  The committee has held a number of public hearings and received submissions from individuals. It is expected to table a report with recommendations on federal electoral reform by December 1, 2016.
But there are some problems with this approach. The first is timing. Any significant change to the current voting system will require approval by both Houses of Parliament. Then there must be a massive and lengthy education process. Concurrently, Elections Canada and its Chief Electoral Officer must put in place a system that will maintain the rights of a fair, auditable and easily accessed election process. And finally, there may be legal challenges to the new system. (Arrow’s paradox almost guarantees this.)
Of course, we do not know if the committee will come up with just one alternative. There are several different alternatives to the first-past-the-post system that are used for elections by democratic countries. A closer look at some of these alternatives reveals that the details are many and complex.
While a change to the present system is desirable, any new system will take time to develop – more time than is available before the next election. The ability to elect our parliamentary representatives is fundamental to our democratic process. This means having a fair and meaningful voting process. Surely, getting it correct is more important than getting it quick.  The prime minister’s promise that Canadians have had their last first-past-the-post election fails to recognize the complexity of ensuring fair elections. Realistically, we should look for a revised election system somewhere in the period 2025 to 2028 at the earliest.