Submission to the Select Special Ethics and Accountability Committee
On pressing issues related to the laws and policies governing elections in the province of Alberta
Prepared by Janet Keeping, Leader, Green Party of Alberta, firstname.lastname@example.org
Submitted March 3, 2016
On behalf of the Green Party of Alberta, I am pleased to bring the following recommendations and considerations to the attention of the Select Special Ethics and Accountability Committee.
Alberta needs to reform its electoral system and Proportional Representation is the best alternative to the current First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system.
FPTP is grossly unfair.
People from all over Alberta and indeed all over Canada have for years been discussing why FPTP should be replaced and how best to reform our electoral systems. In our view the fundamental problem with FPTP is that it is unfair and denies many voters their right to the equal benefit and protection of our electoral laws. With citizen engagement in the democratic process at a worrying low, it is urgent that FPTP be replaced with an electoral system that takes into account every, or nearly every, vote cast.
The principle of equality which lies at the heart of all truly democratic systems of government is that each person should count for as much as any other in public life, that is, in the eyes of government and the law. With our current winner-take-all (FPTP) system, the vote of everyone who does not cast their ballot for the candidate who receives the most votes in their riding (and that is often the majority of voters) simply disappears – drops off into the electoral abyss never to be seen again. It is truly difficult to understand how retaining this method of voting can be justified when there are demonstrably fairer ways of running elections. Indeed the overwhelming majority of the most successful countries in the world – for example, the countries of northern Europe – do not use FPTP.
This unfairness is worse for smaller parties but in fact hurts all Alberta voters, regardless of their political leanings, at one time or another.
We acknowledge that the unfairness of FPTP tends to hit smaller parties, such as Green parties, harder than the larger and longer established parties. This is because, although many people might vote for the Greens, in no Alberta riding so far, and in very few in the rest of Canada, has the Green candidate come in first (first past the post) and thus been elected.
The most egregious example from the Green point of view occurred in 2008 when the federal Greens got 6.78% of the vote – well above any reasonable minimum threshold imposed elsewhere (the need for a minimum threshold is discussed below) – nearly 940,000 Canadians voted Green in that election – but elected not one single MP. Contrast the Green result in that election with that of the Bloc Quebecois. The Bloc garnered about 10% of the vote but got a whopping 49 seats because its separatist vote was concentrated in Quebec.
Similarly unfair results are seen at the provincial level. In the 2008 provincial election – before the then Green Party imploded due to internal strife – the Greens received 4.5% of the overall vote, which exceeds the minimum threshold under many PR electoral systems globally. However, like the federal Greens in 2008, it too elected no one because the Green vote was dispersed across the province and not concentrated heavily enough to elect any MLAs. That percentage of the vote (4.5%) should have given the Greens at least 3 MLAs but instead all those people who voted Green were left after the election with no representation in the Legislature.
A fairer system would encourage greater participation in the electoral and political process.
We do not claim that electoral reform is a panacea for all that ails our political system. But it is clear that electoral reform is necessary for greater fairness and would cure some of the system’s problems.
FPTP leads to false majorities: true, but this is not the most important problem.
It is often noted that FPTP leads to false majorities. For example, in the 2015 provincial election the NDs received less than a majority of the votes cast (they received 40.6 %) but elected way more than 50% of the 87 seats (they won 54 seats which is 62.1 %.) So it’s true that FPTP leads to false majorities, but in our view, concentrating on this aspect of the problem tends to mask the most important dimension of it. As noted above, as we see it, the biggest problem is the underlying unfairness of an electoral system where so very many votes are “lost” and as a result so many people feel themselves unrepresented in government. False majorities are an inevitable consequence of the unfairness of disappearing votes – they are the obvious symptom, not the essential problem.
All – or as many as possible – votes should count towards the election of representatives to the Legislature.
As has been said – famously – before, we hold the above truth to be self-evident in a modern democracy.
Any system which exacerbates the unfairness and lack of representation problem, for example, a preferential ballot system, is worse than the status quo.
The best way to elaborate on this point is to use the example of the federal Liberal Party’s recent win and the impact adoption of the Liberals’ favoured electoral reform, the preferential ballot, would have. An article by Eric Grenier is useful in this context. First, the actual results: “The Liberals took 39.5 per cent of the vote on Oct. 19, but won 54.4 per cent of the seats on offer.” The seat breakdown was: Liberals – 184; Conservatives – 99; NDs – 44; Bloc – 10; Greens – 1. As Grenier points out, the Liberals 2015 exaggerated majority is “the norm in Canada — only two of the last 10 majority governments elected had more than 50 per cent of the vote.”
Had a PR system been in force that reflects Canadians’ votes more accurately, the results would have been very different: as Grenier notes, “Compared with the results of the 2015 election, proportional representation would have penalized the Liberals to the benefit of the other parties. The Liberals would have been awarded 50 fewer seats, with the NDP gaining 23, the Greens 11, the Conservatives 10, and the Bloc six.”
But if preferential ballot had been in force, the results would have been even more unfair: Grenier again, “Based on this analysis, the Liberals would have seen their seat total balloon from 184 to 224 seats, a gain of 40 seats over their actual performance.”
The point of electoral reform is not to put in place a system that after enough rounds of voting eventually gets to the point where the voter’s 4th, 5th or 6th choice wins. The point is to put in place a system that has more (nearly all) Canadians represented in the Legislature.
Only PR will give us a Legislature the composition of which more fairly reflects the diversity of Albertans’ political views.
With apologies to the legacies of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, all we are saying is give fairness a chance.
The Committee should give very careful consideration to how the rest of the developed, democratic world votes, including countries which inherited the same British system of government as did Canada.
Very few countries use FPTP and the vast majority of countries use some form of PR. But more importantly for comparative purposes, the best run countries in the world – those with the highest levels of human development and well-being, for example, in northern Europe – use PR.
Canada was once a British colony along with dozens of other countries. All but the US, UK and India (and Canada) have abandoned FPTP in favour of other systems. This includes Australia and New Zealand with which Canada shares a great deal in common.
Mixed Member PR, or MMP
New Zealand is of special interest as it has adopted a Mixed Member form of PR (MMP), as has the new Scottish parliament. Many Canadians believe MMP should be adopted; many experts, including most Canadian political scientists, agree. See for example the 2004 report of the Law Commission entitled “Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada.” http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/J31-61-2004E.pdf
We know that the Committee will receive submissions that detail the advantages and disadvantages of various electoral systems, for example, the submission made by Mark Hambridge, leader of Fair Vote Calgary. But a few words further on MMP may be in order here as it is the form of PR Greens typically advocate. Under MMP voters have two votes: one for the particular person they favour in their riding, which is the same as we have now with FPTP, and with the second the voter chooses the party they support. According to the Law Commission report cited above, “A Scottish-inspired mixed-member proportional system would do a much better job of being fair and making every vote count than our current system.”
We want to emphasize that electoral reform in Canada need not lead to adoption of the same new system throughout the country. It is conceivable – we take no position on this – that different systems might be appropriate in different jurisdictions. It is also important to reiterate that there is no need to wait for the changes that may come at the federal level.
One of the more misleading objections to PR claims that it necessarily leads to political chaos, as we see from time to time in places such as Israel and Italy. There are three main responses to this. First, as noted above, some of the very best run governments enabling some of the most humane societies – such as those of northern Europe and the Netherlands – use some form of PR. It is pure nonsense to object to PR on this basis. Second, most of Italy’s and Israel’s political confusion is due to their inherently fractious political cultures and, in Israel’s case, a tricky existential situation, not to PR. But, third, it is true that a pure system of PR – without the imposition of minimum vote thresholds – can lead to what is often seen, in particular in Israel, where minor parties holding extreme views can hold parties representing much larger numbers of people to ransom.
Accordingly we support the imposition of a minimum threshold of somewhere between 3 and 5 %. If a party does not reach the minimum, then it does not elect any representatives, except in mixed member systems where its candidates can still win in the ridings where votes are cast for individual candidates regardless of the party’s overall percentage result in the election. This is where MMP looks a lot like what we currently have in FPTP and why it is called “mixed.”
Process for adoption of change
The appropriate process for adoption of a new electoral system will depend somewhat on the exact circumstances. When a party runs on an explicit promise to move to a new system, as did the federal Liberals in the 2015 general election, it would seem legitimate to launch the reform process as the Liberals have without going to the voters first on a referendum.
Alberta’s now governing New Democrats have advocated for adoption of PR in the past. We are not sure where the party sits on the issue at this point.
The Green Party of Alberta has adopted a two-referendum process for adoption of a new electoral system:
First, a referendum would be held to ask Albertans if they are in favour of changing the province’s current electoral system – FPTP. If over 50% of Albertans vote “yes”, indicating their desire for change, a second referendum would be held to give Albertans a chance to accept or reject the alternative system proposed by a Citizens’ Assembly.
The Green Party of Alberta would strike a Citizens’ Assembly to research, consult, advise and educate Albertans on alternative voting systems and to propose such a voting system.
Conclusion regarding adoption of PR
Conclusion: with the caveat discussed above on the need for a minimum percentage of the vote cut-off, the reform of our electoral system should be driven first and foremost by the goal of increasing fairness.
Other changes to our voting system
- Lower the voting age to 16.
The Green Party of Alberta advocates lowering the voting age in provincial, municipal and school board elections to 16. It is unnecessary to withhold the right to vote until age 18: 16 and 17 year-olds are deemed responsible enough to drive cars (potentially lethal weapons) and often hold down jobs. Significantly, they are more likely to vote in an election while they are still in school (because teachers would encourage voting and polling stations could be set up in schools) and then, the evidence shows, once started voting they are likely to continue to vote in the future.
- The Green Party of Alberta does not support mandatory voting at this point.
Greens agree that low voter turnouts present a serious threat to the strength of our democracy and the legitimacy of governments elected by a small fraction of eligible voters. However, in our view there are significant steps that should be taken before mandatory voting is entertained. For example, adoption of a fairer electoral system – we advocate PR – will certainly stimulate voting. Lowering the voting age to 16 will also contribute to higher voter turnouts. These non-coercive reforms should be tried before we resort to forcing people to vote.
We are aware there are Albertans who are urging adoption of mandatory voting. For example: http://daveberta.ca/2016/02/10-ways-to-renew-democracy-in-alberta/ In our view, it would only be where other measures had been tried and voter rates were still low that mandatory voting should be considered.
- Add a “None of the above” option?
The Green Party of Alberta does not have policy on this idea, but it is interesting one and would become more compelling if other more systemic changes, such as PR, are not adopted.
Blogger Daveberta recommends going in this direction: “Include a None of the Above option on the ballot in provincial elections. This would allow voters to express valid feelings of displeasure with the candidates listed on the ballot through a None of the Above option. If None of the Above receives the most votes, then a by-election will be held with a new group of candidates.” http://daveberta.ca/2016/02/10-ways-to-renew-democracy-in-alberta/
Reform of campaign finance laws
- Set serious limits on campaign donations
As many have acknowledged over the years and Ian Urquhart has done recently, Alberta’s electoral financing system “privileges money and moneyed interests.” The fundamental tenet of modern democracies is that each person counts for as much as another, and not more, in the face of government and the law. According to section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination ….” Allowing wealthy people to dominate our electoral system flies in the face of this guarantee of equality and is deeply wrong.
Alberta Greens support an approach in which individual contributions would be limited to a maximum amount to be determined on the basis of further research. Although to date we have not done that research, we can see the wisdom of imposing the same limit as is currently in place federally. That limit is currently set at $1525 per year, an amount that is corrected for inflation. As Ian Urquhart puts it, “Alberta could do a lot worse than to follow the example set by Canada’s federal political financing regime.” The federal numbers seem reasonable and having the provincial rules align with the federal would make the whole system more transparent and comprehensible for Albertans.
- Reform tax credits for political donations
The Green Party of Alberta recommends adoption of the federal government’s donation framework with a 75% credit available for donations up to and including $400, 50% for the next $350, and 33.3% for the following $525 to a total credit limit of $650 for donations up to and including $1275. Having the provincial and federal schedules in synch will simplify donation credits and increasing the credit at the lower end will provide a larger incentive for smaller donations.
- Limit the amount that parties can spend during election campaigns
Both Ian Urquhart and blogger Daveberta urge adoption of such spending limits and argue adoption of the same limits as are in use at the federal level. The Green Party of Alberta does not yet have policy on this point but what Urquhart and Daveberta advocate is consistent with Green values and principles.
- Pay an annual amount per vote
The Green Party of Alberta supports the public funding of political parties by means of an annual payment of $2 to each registered party for each vote cast for it in the most recent general election.
Tighten up all rules around municipal and school board elections.
The Green Party of Alberta has not adopted a complete set of policies on municipal and school board elections but we believe rules should be applied to these elections that are equally rigorous to those applied to provincial elections. Daveberta’s ideas in this area are consistent with Green values and principles:
“Ban corporate and union donations in municipal elections by amending the Local Authorities Elections Act. Motions supporting this idea have been endorsed by Edmonton City Council, Edmonton Public School Board and Fort Saskatchewan City Council.
Give Elections Alberta the authority and resources to investigate violations of the Local Authorities Elections Act. Some municipalities are currently unwilling or do not have the resources to investigate violations of this law.” http://daveberta.ca/2016/02/10-ways-to-renew-democracy-in-alberta/
We wish the Committee well in its deliberations on how best to reform Alberta’s laws on elections and election financing.
 We discuss the need for a vote percentage cut-off or threshold below.
 See Mark Hambridge’s submission to the Committee “A New Electoral System for Alberta?,” February 24, 2016.
 See again Mark Hambridge’s submission to the Committee “A New Electoral System for Alberta?”
 “A New Electoral System for Alberta?”
 See pages 99-100.
 Ian Urquhart “Let’s finish the job of renewing democracy in Alberta,” Calgary Herald, February 20, 2016.