Voting Reform as a Civil Rights Issue
(the following text is from our August 27th newsletter)
All of the recent news about the assault on voting rights in the US have got us here at Fair Voting BC increasingly thinking about dealing with voting reform as a civil rights issue. We all believe deeply in democracy – that is, that legitimate power must flow from citizens to our representatives and that citizens should be treated equally in this process.
But perhaps we’ve been too timid. We keep trying to persuade the public and the political powers that our democracy would be better if we had a fairer, more democratic voting system. But women would never have received the vote if they had simply tried to persuade men that society would be better if men would allow them to vote. Rather, the suffrage movement won enfranchisement for women precisely because they wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. Not that change came quickly – the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association was formed in 1883 and it took 33 years, until 1916, for women to win the right to vote in provincial elections in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta (followed by BC in 1917 and Canada in 1918), and (embarrassingly) not until 1940 for women to finally be able to vote in Quebec.
So, is our demand for a new way of voting in any way similar to women’s suffrage? We believe there are strong parallels. With our current Single Member Plurality voting system, only half the voters are represented. Women’s enfranchisement doubled representation from 25% to 50% – adopting proportional representation will double it again, taking us to close to 100%.
We also have a potent new legal weapon at our disposal. When women won the vote, Canada was still governed by the British North America Act, but since 1982, as last year’s 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms reminded us, we now have a charter that grants us fundamental democratic rights – specifically, Section 3, which asserts our right to vote.
We don’t have space here to go into a legal argument in any great detail, but it’s very encouraging to consider that the Supreme Court of Canada stated in 1991 that “the purpose of the right to vote enshrined in s. 3 of the Charter is … the right to ‘effective representation’.”
While the focus in the 1991 case was whether or not it was permissible to have ridings with wildly varying populations, the crucial point for voting reformers is that the highest court in the land both determined that the highest goal of our voting system is that of “effective representation” and recognized that our right to vote has been evolving to enhance the meaning of that phrase. More specifically, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin explicitly stated that “inequities in our voting system are [not] to be accepted merely because they have historical precedent. … Departures from the Canadian ideal of effective representation may exist. Where they do, they will be found to violate s. 3 of the Charter.”
The idea that our current voting system systematically violates the “Canadian ideal of effective representation” has not yet been tested in court, so we plan to explore (with the help of legal scholars and advisors) whether we could possibly successfully make this case. Stay tuned as we learn more.