Reality Check – Does the Conservative Party Really Rely Less on Subsidies Than Other Parties? (Answer: No)

Dear Democratic Reform Supporters:

We apologize in advance for a somewhat longer article than usual.  If you’re short on time, check out the executive summary and the graphs below:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY – Reality Check Shows PM’s Claims Are Incorrect

The Prime Minister recently argued that the reason he called for a longer campaign was because the other parties are already campaigning on the public dime, implying that the Conservatives weren’t (at least, not to the same extent), stating that he thinks the parties should operate on their own resources and not rely on the taxpayer.  

However, Fair Voting BC’s analysis shows that the Conservatives receive a greater public subsidy than any other party ($55-75M in the past year, vs ~$35M for the Liberals and $25M for the NDP), raise a greater fraction of their total budget from public sources than the other parties (88-91%, vs 86-87% for the Liberals and NDP), and are expected to receive a much greater public subsidy per expected vote than the other parties ($12-17, vs $9 for the Liberals and $5 for the NDP).  

Our verdict:  the Conservative Party is securing more public support in both absolute and relative terms than the other major federal parties.  Read on for the details.

Update: some of the sources we consulted to write this article did not list the numbers for the Green Party.  We have therefore not been able to come up with as reliable an estimate for their subsidies as for the other parties, but have added those figures we have been able to ascertain. 

FAIR VOTING BC REALITY CHECK

PM Says Parties Should Operate Without Subsidies: When Prime Minister Harper called the election this past Sunday, “[h]e was quickly peppered with media questions about why he was subjecting Canadians to a campaign that promises to be the longest in more than a century and the costliest in the country’s political history.  Simple, Harper replied: Conservative rivals are already campaigning, and they’re doing it on the public dime.”

He went on to explain: “If we’re going to begin our campaigns and run our campaigns, that those campaigns need to be conducted under the rules of the law, that the money come from the parties themselves, not from the government resources, parliamentary resources or taxpayer resources.  What we do by calling this campaign is making sure we are all operating within the rules and not using taxpayers’ money directly.”

So, is the Prime Minister right to imply that the Conservative Party is much less reliant on public subsidies than the other parties, given that the Conservative Party has phased out the per-vote subsidy and expanded the spending limits for campaigns lasting longer than 37 days?  Fair Voting BC is pleased to present a reality check [CBC asks a similar question].

Forms of Public Subsidy:  Federal parties have historically received three forms of subsidies:  (1) the per-vote subsidy, (2) tax credits to donors, and (3) reimbursement of 50-60% of campaign expenses (expenses incurred during a writ period).  In addition, the government benefits from control over government advertising resources.

1. Per-Vote Subsidy:  The Conservative Party has benefitted more than the other parties from the per-vote subsidy, receiving close to $100M from this source since 2004 (when it was implemented to compensate parties for losing access to corporate and union donations), while the Liberal Party has received about $75M, the NDP about $55M, and the Green Party about $12M.  While the last per-vote subsidy payment was issued in spring 2015, these payments have certainly contributed significantly to the ‘war-chests’ of the various parties that they will be drawing on in this election campaign.

2. Tax Credits to Donors:  When taxpayers give political parties $1.00, they are reimbursed up to $0.75, which can make the net cost to the taxpayer as little as $0.25.  On average, parties receive $2 from the public purse for every $1 in net contributions from individual donors.  In 2009, this subsidy totalled $30M for all parties [Wikipedia].  In 2014, the top three parties reported raising $20M (CP), $15M (LP) and $9.5M (NDP), so the corresponding public subsidies were on the order of $13M (CP), $10M (LP) and $6M (NDP).

3. Reimbursement of Campaign Expenses:  The third main way in which the public subsidizes parties is by reimbursing over 50% of their campaign expenses.

Treasure ChestEstimating War-Chest Size:  We have not been able to find current estimates of the size of each campaign’s ‘war-chest’, but the federal parties certainly accumulate significant resources between elections.  It was recently reported that the parties ended 2013 with accumulated assets of $16.3M (CP), $9.4M (LP) and $5.9M (NDP) at the national level, with the CP holding another $15.8M at the local level and $4M held on behalf of the local associations.  The LP and NDP had $8.1M and $4M, respectively, at the local level.  In addition, the parties raised considerable sums throughout 2014 ($20M/$15M/$9.5M, respectively, and $3M for the Green Party) and have recently reported the results of their fundraising through the first two quarters of 2015 ($13.7M/$8.1M/$7.8M/$1.5M) [see Elections Canada files].  They therefore have about $70M, $40M and $27M available to the largest three parties (we have insufficient data to estimate the amount available to the GP), less any expenditures they have made over the past 18 months.

Extended Campaign Limit Changes Only Affect Conservative Party:  Under the current regulations, each party running a full slate of candidates is entitled to spend a maximum of about $25 million for a five-week campaign and each candidate about $100,000, or ~$34M in total for the 338 ridings (though parties will generally concentrate their local spending in the much smaller number of swing ridings to save on overall expenses).

Under the recently passed Fair Elections Act, the government allowed the spending limits to increase for longer campaigns.  Had the campaign been the standard five weeks in length, it is likely that only the Conservative Party would have been constrained in its spending.  However, Prime Minister Harper’s decision to call an extended 11-week campaign means that the expenditure limits will roughly double, to about $52M per party and $210k per candidate ($71M total), effectively removing the constraint on spending the CP would otherwise have faced.  Since no other party would likely have been restrained by the regular campaign limits, they will not gain any benefit from the increased limits and will simply have to spend their existing funds over a longer period.

Subsidies:  Since 50-60% of a party’s campaign expenditures are reimbursed, the Conservative Party therefore stands to recoup a larger amount of money than they would have with a shorter campaign period.  We estimate that the three main parties will likely receive approximately $35M, $20M and $13M for the CP, LP and NDP, respectively, in expense reimbursement at the end of this year’s campaign (at $68M, this would be a considerable increase from the $48M these parties received following the 2008 election [Wikipedia]).  The GP received $1.7M in reimbursement in 2008.

4. Use of Government Advertising Budgets:  Although not normally considered to be a part of the election financing system, the governing party has access to a significant advertising budget while in office.  Government advertising costs run to approximately $100M per year, with some of the largest contracts in 2012-13 being the Economic Action Plan campaign at $15M (for a program that had ended two years previously), Responsible Resource Development at $8M, and a campaign promoting tax cuts at $7M.  The government recently spent $7.5M in May touting the success of the Economic Action Plan and an additional $13.5M to advertise its pre-election budget.  At least some significant portion of this funding could reasonably be considered to be subsidized partisan advertising, especially when government representatives are not scrupulous in separating their partisan and official responsibilities, as Minister Poilievre was recently accused of when he wore a Tory golf shirt when announcing the government’s $3B child benefit payment program.  In recognition of the potential for conflict of interest, the Ontario government requires the Auditor-General to approve all government advertising to ensure it is not partisan.

Summary of Subsidies:

1. Subsidy by Party:  The graph below shows the total subsidies by party for the three largest federal parties – it includes an estimate for the 2014 per-vote and donor subsidies, as well as an estimate for the 2015 campaign expense reimbursement subsidy, and assumes that $20M of the government’s annual advertising budget can be considered to be support for the governing party.  From this graph, it is clear that the Conservative Party receives on the order of $75M in public subsidies in an election year ($55M if the government advertising subsidy is excluded), compared with about $35M for the Liberal Party and $25M for the NDP.  We estimate the Green Party would have received under $5M in subsidies.

2015 Party Subsidies

2. Ratio of Private Donations to Public Subsidy:  The next graph shows the ratio of the net donor contributions to the total amount of money spent by a party in an election year – this ranges from a low of 9% for the Conservative Party if the government’s advertising is included (12% without) to a high of 14% for the Liberal Party (and 13% for the NDP).  The Conservative Party therefore relies more on public subsidies as a fraction of their overall expenditures than the two other largest parties.

2015 Subsidy Percentages

3. Public Subsidy Per Vote, By Party:  Finally, we calculate the estimated amount of the public subsidy per expected vote in the upcoming election (using CBC’s PollTracker data from Aug 4 to estimate what fraction of the vote each party will win and assuming 15M voters).  The final graph shows that Conservative Party is expected to receive a public subsidy of approximately $12-17 per expected vote (depending on whether or not government ad expenditures are included), while the Liberals will receive about $9/vote and the NDP about $5/vote.

2015 Subsidy Per Vote

Verdict:  So, to address Prime Minister Harper’s claim that campaign money should “come from the parties themselves [and] not from … taxpayer resources”, it is clear that all federal parties are heavily subsidized by the taxpayers, and the Conservative Party much more so than the others.

Note:  Arguable That Entire System is Publicly Funded:  One significant use of party funds is to generate the donor funds that are so important to a party’s overall budget – $1 of net voter contribution gets multiplied three times due to the donor tax credit program and another two times by the campaign expenditure reimbursement program, for a total of $5 of public subsidy for every $1 of private contribution.  Interestingly, the fundraising costs needed to generate these contributions are, on average, just about equal to the amounts raised [Wikipedia].  For example, in 2009, the Conservatives spent over $6M to raise about $5M in private funding, while the Liberals spent about $2M to raise $2.5M.  Without the public six-fold multiplier, the federal parties would be unable to raise any significant amount of money directly from the public because the cost of their fundraising campaigns would consume the entire amount of the donations.  In effect, since the cost of fundraising effectively cancels out the net amounts received, essentially all the funds that parties use to conduct their campaigns come from the publicly-provided pool.  The only functional purpose of the fundraising system is to provide indirect guidance on how much the public wishes each political party to receive.  Some have argued that it would be more efficient to use more direct approaches such as an annual check-off box on tax returns – this would be a useful thing for a future government to consider [Institute for Research on Public PolicyFlanagan and Coletto – U of Calgary].

As the election campaign unfolds, we will be sending out more frequent updates discussing issues particularly relevant to the campaign.  Stay tuned!

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Campaign 2015 Kickoff – Where do the Federal Parties Stand?

As the federal election campaign seems about to kick off, we thought it would be helpful to review the stances of the various federal parties on voting reform.  For those of us who will be voting in BC, here are our current recommendations of who to consider voting for:

Both the NDP and the Green Party have clearly committed themselves to ending our current unfair Single Member Plurality (SMP) voting system, so Fair Voting BC gives them a green light:

NDP:

greenlightThe NDP announced earlier this year that “an NDP government would introduce proportional representation by the next election.”  The NDP also introduced a bill in Parliament last December that read:  “(a) the next federal election should be the last conducted under the current first-past-the-post electoral system which has repeatedly delivered a majority of seats to parties supported by a minority of voters, or under any other winner-take-all electoral system; and (b) a form of mixed-member proportional representation would be the best electoral system for Canada.”  Although this bill did not pass, MPs from 5 of the 6 parties (all except the Conservatives) voted in support of it.

Green Party: 

greenlightThe Green Party’s platform states that they intend to: “Legislate the end of first-past-the-post voting; establish immediately an all-party Democratic Voting Commission to review past research and conduct a public consultation on the style of proportional representation best suited to Canada. We will instruct it to make recommendations to Parliament for the necessary democratic voting reform, including draft legislation, within 12 months”. [full policy resolution here]

 

Liberal Party:

yellowlightThe Liberal Party is not committed to implementing proportional representation, but has promised to review a variety of electoral reforms including PR.  Their policy states that  “immediately after the next election, an all-Party process [will] be instituted, involving expert assistance and citizen participation, to report to Parliament within 12 months with recommendations for electoral reforms including, without limitation, a preferential ballot and/or a form of proportional representation, to represent Canadians more fairly and serve Canada better.” [full policy resolution here]

Although Justin Trudeau has explicitly stated both his opposition to PR and his preference for the non-proportional Alternative Voting system (i.e., using a preferential ballot to elect MPs in single-member districts), a number of individual Liberal MPs and candidates do support proportional representation.  Most notably, BC MP Joyce Murray made PR a central plank in her bid for the Liberal Party leadership a couple of years ago, and both she and BC’s other Liberal MP, Hedy Fry (along with a bare majority of Liberal MPs across the country), supported last December’s motion by the NDP to implement MMP.  Fair Voting BC has been working with Fair Vote Canada to collect commitments from individual Liberal Party candidates regarding electoral reform (Trudeau is allowing them to make up their own minds on this issue) and will publish this list shortly;  we recommend that you only vote for Liberal party candidates who explicitly support PR, not just the process of review that is their party policy.

Conservative Party:

redlightThe Conservative Party announced last week that they would “commit to legislation that would ban any government from changing our voting system without holding a referendum to secure the approval of Canadians first”, and that they would make no changes to first-past-the-post, saying “Changing the way Canadians elect their government is not a priority.”  Given this clear signal that the party leadership thinks no change is necessary, and that no BC candidate has spoken out against this policy, Fair Voting BC cannot at this time recommend voting for anyone from the Conservative Party.

In the coming weeks, we will be sending out more frequent updates discussing issues particularly relevant to the election campaign.  Stay tuned!

Join Us! 10th Anniversary Celebration of BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform!

Dear Democratic Reform Supporters:
BC Citizens' Assembly
Invitation:  
We are delighted to invite you to join us in celebrating the 10th anniversary of BC’s remarkable Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform at a dinner in Vancouver on Wednesday, December 10th [get your tickets here – only $40 in advance (includes a 3-course meal, plus a great group of speakers)].
The Assembly:  A Brief History:  
Ten years ago, the BC government broke new ground in consulting citizens by establishing the Assembly.  This was an independent non-partisan group of citizens drawn from across the province – one man and one woman from each of BC’s then-79 electoral districts, plus two Aboriginal representatives.  The members were selected by lot from a list of citizens that reflected the gender, age and geographical make-up of British Columbians.
The Assembly spent nearly a year meeting and examining in detail how the province’s current electoral system (Single Member Plurality, more commonly known as First Past the Post) worked and how it failed to support our citizens’ core democratic values.  In the end, they recommended that BC adopt a new, more proportional way of voting known as the Single Transferable Vote that they felt would better support these values.  As most of you know, STV was endorsed by nearly 58% of voters in 2005, but the government of the day had established a bar of 60% for adoption, so STV was not implemented.
Despite the fact that their recommendation has not yet been adopted, the Assembly itself has proven to be very influential.  Its design inspired the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly, and it has been cited as a model for a number of related citizen-focused consultation processes that have happened since, including Oregon’s Citizen Initiative Review, the move in California for a standing Citizens’ Assembly, the Dutch Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, Iceland’s Constitutional Assembly, and last year’s Irish Convention on the Constitution.
The Celebration on Wednesday, December 10th:
Please join us for dinner and discussion on December 10th as we reflect on the BC Citizens’ Assembly and its influence on deliberative dialogue and citizen engagement around the world.
We have a wonderful lineup of speakers for you, including:
  • Former Attorney General Geoff Plant
  • Assembly Designer Gordon Gibson
  • Assembly Chair Jack Blaney
  • Assembly Academic Director Prof. Ken Carty
  • Assembly Members Wendy Bergerud, Craig Henschel and Shoni Field

Joining us with video messages will be:

  • Former Premier Gordon Campbell
  • Political Science Professor Fred Cutler
We will also have some ‘participatory activities’ including an STV vote to determine what dinner is served (at the Pink Pearl Chinese restaurant in Vancouver) – this vote really matters!
This will be a wonderful evening of good food and interesting conversation – don’t miss it, and invite your friends!  Tickets available by clicking the image above or here.  Invite others to buy tickets at tinyurl.com/BCCA10thAnniversaryTix.
Hope to see you in a few weeks!
Yours for a stronger democracy,
Antony Hodgson
President, Fair Voting BC
Photo credits: CA: Participedia, Buy Tickets: Leo Reynolds

Our City – Our Charter Election Update

Dear Democratic Reform Supporters:
In our last couple of newsletters, we told you about our exciting Our City – Our Charter (OCOC) campaign to change Vancouver’s city charter so that we can seriously consider changing our voting system.  Step 1 was to ask the candidates for their commitment to this goal.
What We Asked the Candidates:
 
We asked the mayoral and council candidates if they would, if elected, re-issue the previous calls by Council on the provincial government to:
  1. Change the Charter to give the City greater flexibility in designing an electoral system that best meets the needs and expectations of its citizens,
  2. Work with Vancouver to design a system of restrictions on campaign contributions and spending for municipal elections, and institute a program of tax credits (Berger’s recommendations 18-20), and
  3. Change the Charter to allow the City to publish detailed, anonymized ballot data (as unanimously requested by Council in 2012).
What They Said (No-One Turned Us Down!):
Vision, the NPA and the Green Party all responded on behalf of all their candidates that they agreed to reissue this call.  Meena Wong (COPE mayoral candidate), as well as COPE Council candidates Wilson Munoz, Lisa Barrett, Tim Louis and Jennifer O’Keeffe, also agreed (no response was received from the other COPE Council candidates).
Independent candidates Lena Ling, Mike Hansen, Grant Fraser and Rick Orser also agreed.  No response was received by any other candidates.
Fair Voting BC recommends that you take the commitments above into account as you vote this week – we are delighted to have received near-unanimous support for Charter change!
Two Simple Ways to Build the Pressure (<1 min each):
 
Getting the candidates’ commitments was Step 1 in our campaign.  To build the pressure for change, we need to show that all of Vancouver is behind this, so here are two simple things you can do (<1 min each) to give our campaign a big boost:
  1. Visit the Our City – Our Charter website and put yourself on our map of supporters (there’s also an email signup link there if you want to volunteer to help us reach out)

  2. Help us find non-profit organizations in Vancouver who might consider endorsing OCOC – just visit our Google Form and give us contact info for an organization you’re involved with (or invite them yourself).  These could be political, cultural, social, charitable, faith-based or almost anything else – as long as you’re involved with them and think they might support a push for better, fairer elections.
We’ll keep you updated as the election gets closer if any other candidates join the ones listed above in supporting Our City – Our Charter.
Yours for a stronger democracy,
Antony Hodgson
President, Fair Voting BC

Two Easy Ways to Help the “Our City – Our Charter” Campaign

In our last newsletter, we told you about our exciting Our City – Our Charter (OCOC) campaign to change Vancouver’s city charter so that we can seriously consider changing our voting system.  We’re delighted to tell you that the OCOC website has just launched and we’re busy looking for endorsements.
Two Simple Ways to Help:
 
There are two simple things you can do (<1 min each) to give our campaign a big boost:
  1. Visit the Our City – Our Charter website and put yourself on our map of supporters (there’s also an email signup link there if you want to volunteer to help us reach out)

  2. Help us find non-profit organizations in Vancouver who might consider endorsing OCOC – just visit our Google Form and give us contact info for an organization you’re involved with (or invite them yourself).  These could be political, cultural, social, faith-based or almost anything else – as long as you’re involved with them and think they might support better, fairer elections.
We’ll keep you updated as the election gets closer about who is supporting Our City – Our Charter.
Yours for a stronger democracy,
Antony Hodgson
President, Fair Voting BC

Sep 2014 Newsletter – Fall Volunteer Opportunities

We hope you’ve all had a wonderful summer. Despite most people being on vacation, there’s actually been a lot to pay attention to, and two particularly exciting things coming up this fall that we invite you to join in on.

Fall Preview – 2 Great Events, 2 Great Volunteer Opportunities!

Fair Voting BC is planning two big events this fall – (1) the Our City – Our Charter campaign in conjunction with the fall municipal elections in November and (2) a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the BC Citizens’ Assembly in December.

Sneak Preview: Our City – Our Charter

The biggest impediment to voting reform at the municipal level in BC is the current Local Government Elections Act (City Charter in Vancouver) that mandates use of First Past the Post or At-Large Bloc Voting. Ten years ago, Justice Tom Berger recommended that Vancouver ask Victoria to change the city charter. Vancouver has asked for this change several times, but Victoria hasn’t yet responded, so this fall we want to turn up the heat by building public support for the city’s request. Check out our draft OC-OC website, and sign up using the email signup button there to volunteer to help us reach out to the public and NGOs (please note that the map signup is in test mode at the moment – you can add a marker if you want, but it will be reset when the site goes live in a few weeks).

Celebration of 10th Anniversary of BC Citizens’ Assembly (Dec 10th)

Ten years ago, BC broke new ground in citizen consultation by running the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. This group of 160 citizens (one man and one woman from each riding around the province) spent the better part of a year listening to British Columbians about how we wanted our government to work and learning how voting systems can make government more responsive to voters. They came to a nearly unanimous recommendation for STV (the Single Transferable Vote), and voters endorsed it with 58% support in the 2005 referendum. Though the government of the day chose not to implement BC-STV, the Citizens’ Assembly was a remarkable and widely-respected consultative process that deserves to be celebrated and reflected upon, so Fair Voting BC will be hosting a celebration event on December 10th to remind the public about the Assembly. We’ve got a great lineup of speakers arranged, including former Attorney General Geoff Plant, the Citizens’ Assembly designer Gordon Gibson, Academic Director Ken Carty, political scientist Fred Cutler, assembly members Wendy Bergerud and Craig Henschel, and several others.

We also have some extra surprises in store. To give this event the public impact we are hoping for, we need your help to put it all together. If you like networking, event organizing and publicity, please volunteer to help us make this an evening to remember by dropping us a note.

Summer Recap:

While it’s a lot of fun to look forward, there were a few notable events in the summer that are also worth reflecting on. Here’s our lineup:

Bill C23 – (Un)Fair Elections Act Revised Under Pressure

The summer started (if you consider April summer!) with public protests about the so-called ‘Fair Elections Act’ passed by the federal Conservatives. Widely opposed by academics, most major newspapers, several former Elections Officers, many NGOs (including some in the US), and the opposition parties, as well as ostensible friends of the government such as Preston Manning and many of the government’s own Senators, the Conservatives finally amended the act to remove the most criticized provisions, but the act that was ultimately passed in May still complicates administrative processes in a way that is expected to deter voting and fails to give Elections Canada the powers the Chief Electoral Officer had requested to investigate electoral fraud.

Conservative Staffer Michael Sona Convicted for Robocalls

Two weeks ago, Conservative Party staffer Michael Sona was convicted of organizing fraudulent robocalls in Guelph aimed at voter suppression by misdirecting non-Conservative supporters to incorrect polling stations. While top-level party officials deny any involvement, the judge found that Sona was probably not acting alone. Ironically, there will likely be no further investigation because Elections Canada does not have sufficiently strong investigative powers, as they have been requesting since 2011. Sona will be sentenced in the fall.

In a related case heard last year that was brought by the Council of Canadians, the judge found that widespread fraud had occurred in the 2011 election (there were reports of such calls in about 200 ridings) and that the most likely source of the information used to make the calls was the Conservative Party’s Constituent Information Management System.

BC-FIPA Case Against ‘Gag Law’ Suffers Setback

We were deeply disappointed to learn in April that the FIPA (Freedom of Information and Privacy Association) case challenging the BC Liberal Party’s election law as unconstitutional for requiring individuals and other small entities to register before publishing a political opinion during an election was rejected by the BC Supreme Court [PDF]. The court did find that the law violates our Section 3 Right to Vote, but also ruled that the infringement was justified by the government’s objective of seeking to “increase transparency, openness and public accountability”. In our view, the government failed to make its case that small expenditures (say, below the $500 limit that exists at the federal level) can allow individuals to exert disproportionate influence over public political discourse. We were therefore heartened to learn that FIPA has filed an appeal in this case, and look forward to supporting FIPA if their appeal moves ahead. [read full judgement here]

Ontario Election Yields False Majority, But May Lead to Better Civic Voting

Ontario’s June election resulted in yet another example of a party winning undeserved majority powers – with only 39% of the popular vote, the Liberals took 54% of the seats, while the second place Conservatives, with 31% of the vote, took only 26% of the seats. On the positive side, Premier Wynne made a clear commitment to “give municipalities the option of using ranked ballots as an alternative to first-past-the-post in their own elections.” If they follow through, this could open the doors to similar changes here in BC – in particular, it could really help our Our City – Our Charter campaign.

So, some mixed news, but also two great opportunities to make a difference this fall. Please consider volunteering either for the Our City – Our Charter campaign or for the Citizens’ Assembly Celebration – we really need your help to pull these off!

Jan 2014 Newsletter – Democratic Reform News Roundup

We hope you’ve been enjoying a wonderful holiday season.  As the New Year starts, we want to take this opportunity to review some of the significant democracy-related events of 2013.  While the Senate finances scandal has been in the news all year, there have been many other stories worth paying attention to.  Here’s our rundown:
With various court rulings coming out this spring, the municipal elections in the fall and planning for making voting reform a major issue in the 2015 federal election all underway, we expect 2014 to be an exciting year for democratic reformers and we look forward to playing a significant role in driving reform efforts forward in the coming year.
Yours for a stronger democracy,
Antony Hodgson
President, Fair Voting BC

Aug 2013 Newsletter – Voting Reform as a Civil Rights Issue

We hope you’re all having a wonderful summer.  I started writing this newsletter in Ashland, Oregon, where we’ve been staying at a lovely B&B and having many interesting conversations with people from all across the US about politics and democracy in our two countries.
Voting Rights Challenges in the USA
One of the things that has most struck me is the level of despair and cynicism many Americans feel towards their voting system.  Currently, the big news in the US about voting is linked to the recent US Supreme Court decision striking down an important provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was widely credited with dramatically increasing African-Americans’ access to voting by providing federal oversight of new voting laws in states with a history of disenfranchising minority voters.  Since 2006 alone, the US Department of Justice has struck down 31 attempts to change voting laws, almost all in the US south, but with the recent 5-4 decision, these states are now free to implement discriminatory laws aimed at suppressing minority voters without fear of being overruled at the federal level.
Indeed, North Carolina has very recently passed the first of the post-decision laws that will soon require voters to produce acceptable state-issued photo ID in order to vote.  While seemingly benign (who doesn’t have photo ID these days?), there is considerable evidence that this kind of law will have disproportionate effects on the poor, people of colour and women.  Among the reasons are that poorer people are much less likely to have a valid driver’s license and women are more likely to change their names through marriage or divorce, thereby rendering their previous ID invalid.  In fact, the prestigious Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law has reported that fully a third of US women of voting age do not currently have acceptable ID that would allow them to vote.  The Brennan Centre study also found that over 11% of Americans don’t have acceptable photo ID, 18% of seniors, 25% of African Americans, 18% of young people (18-24) and 15% of low-income people, and a North Carolina study shows a strong partisan bias (nearly 70:30 against registered Democratic Party supporters).
These kinds of voter ID laws are part of an overall voter suppression effort in the US that includes other administrative measures (typically executed by party-affiliated elections officials) such as purging the electoral rolls of voters of colour (done without notification, which leaves voters without recourse on voting day), redrawing electoral boundaries to eliminate office-holders of colour, and moving polling places to make it harder for targeted groups to vote.  While proponents claim that the purpose of the law is to prevent “rampant and undetected” voter fraud, a study by Arizona State University found that there have been only ten cases of in-person voter fraud in the USA since 2000 (for an entertaining account of voter suppression activities in the USA, we recommend “Billionaires and Ballot Bandits” by BBC investigative journalist Greg Palast).  The North Carolina law also contained measures eliminating pre-registration of high school students and voting day registration (which means that if an irregularity is found on voting day, the voter is out of luck as they will have no mechanism to correct the problem).
Fortunately, there has been some pushback.  Former Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has issued a harsh rebuke to the Court.  The American Civil Liberties Union (and possibly the NAACP) plan to launch lawsuits.  And the US Department of Justice has just filed suit against Texas [also see this article in The Atlantic], so we have some hope that some sanity may eventually prevail down south.
Voting Reform as a Civil Rights Issue Here in Canada
All of this 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.
Election News From Around the World
 
In other news, the Irish Constitutional Convention (very similar in some ways to our own BC Citizens’ Assembly – made up of 66 randomly selected citizens, 33 parliamentarians and a chair) overwhelmingly reaffirmed their commitment to STV and recommended a new citizen initiative process.
A UK study on election spending [PDF] put out by the Electoral Reform Society showed that there were huge disparities in how much political parties spent in different ridings – varying by over 20 times from the least to the most contested ridings.  This is a graphic illustration of how irrelevant voting is in the many safe ridings in elections under our current Single Member Plurality voting system and why we need to change to a system where all votes (and voters!) are equally valued.
Finally, we strongly recommend that you read political scientist Adam Kingsmith’s eloquent defense of the proposition that we aren’t apathetic, just sick of the political status quo, and his call to action.
Sorry about the longer-than-usual long newsletter, but we’ve gotten well-rested over the summer and have lots to share with you.  We hope you find it interesting as you turn your thoughts to the beginning of the new working and school year.
Yours for a stronger democracy,
Antony Hodgson
President, Fair Voting BC

May 2013 Newsletter – Election Aftermath: Building the Case for Voting Reform

Dear Democratic Reform Supporters:

Election Aftermath – Building the Case for Voting Reform

bc election 2013The results in the recent election took most of us by surprise – at least, those of us who were relying on publicly-released media polls. While there will be ongoing discussion and debate about this polling failure (we particularly recommend the honest, in-depth analysis of Eric Grenier), this election again confirmed some of the worst aspects of our current Single Member Plurality voting system:

  • Half Of Us Are Orphaned Voters: As is typical, 49% of voters are now ‘represented’ by someone they did not vote for. There is no excuse for disenfranchising so many people when almost all other advanced democracies vote in ways that guarantee that nearly all voters help elect a candidate they support. If we were using the Single Transferable Vote recommended by the BC Citizens’ Assembly, we estimate that close to 90% of all voters would now have a representative they’d voted for.
  • No Majority From Voters: As always, seat results bear scant relation to the popular vote results. In this election, the BC Liberals won 59% of the seats on 44% of the vote – a seat bonus of over 33%. Despite the voters not giving the Liberals majority support, the party will now control a solid majority of the seats and will have the power to do as they wish for the next four years instead of being in the position they actually earned – i.e., the senior partner in a government that would have to consult beyond its own party boundaries to win sufficient support to pass legislation.
  • Over-Influence From Swing Ridings: Somewhat lost in the post-election discussion is that the outcomes in three quarters of the ridings in the province were never really in doubt. In Rafe Mair’s memorable phrase, a “fencepost with hair” could win in certain ridings if the right party label were attached. The election was really decided in about a dozen ridings, largely in the Lower Mainland and central BC. If 3000 voters in the 10 closest ridings in the province had voted for the NDP instead of the Liberals, we would now have an NDP majority government. In other words, a shift of under 0.2% in the popular vote in the ‘swing ridings’ could have moved 10% of the seats to the NDP. This pathological hypersensitivity of our voting system makes a mockery of most of our votes – regardless of which party or candidate we support, if we live in the safest 70 of the province’s 85 ridings, there was relatively little point in voting.
  • Regionalization: BC_Election_2013 riding mapJust like on the national stage, where the Bloc Quebecois dominated Quebec for years, the Reform, Alliance and Conservative Parties dominated the Prairies and the Liberals once dominated Ontario, here in BC our voting system means that Liberal party supporters have no representation throughout most of Vancouver Island and the North Coast, NDP supporters have no representation in central BC and the Fraser Valley, and Conservative and Green supporters have no representation anywhere outside of Oak Bay. A more proportional voting system would have given supporters of the two major parties representation in every region of the province and increased the chances that Conservative and Green voters would be represented at least in their areas of greatest strength.
  • Poor Representation: The key idea behind proportional representation (PR) is that each voter is equally entitled to a representative of their own choosing. While party affiliation is the most common way to assess this, sociocultural aspects of representation are equally important. Our current voting system tends to encourage the election of middle-aged or older white men – roughly 30 of the 50 Liberals and half of the NDP are (arguably) in this category, even though middle-aged+ white men only make up about a quarter of BC’s population. South and East Asians make up nearly a quarter of the population, but only 12% of the MLAs, and no aboriginal MLAs were elected, despite aboriginals comprising 5% of the population (see census data). There was a bit of good news in terms of gender balance, though – the BC legislature broke 33% representation by women for the first time, but there’s still a ways to go to achieve parity. More proportional voting systems that encourage parties to put forward more diverse slates (in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and other factors) are needed to make more progress here.
  • Voter Turnout: Although news reports seem to be saying that turnout went up slightly over 2009, we calculate that it possibly dropped to under 50% for the first time ever. The reason for the discrepancy is that the reported figure for 2013 (52%) appears to be the percentage of registered voters, while the figure for 2009 (51%) is the percentage of eligible voters (i.e., registered + unregistered). About 5-10% of eligible voters usually don’t get registered, so the turnout figure for eligible voters is typically 2.5-5% lower than for registered voters. While not as large a drop as from 2005 to 2009 (58% to 51%), it still indicates that, even in a close election, a decreasing number of us find it worthwhile to vote.

All of these results are absolutely typical of our current voting system. Interestingly, Premier Clark understands this perfectly. Just before the 2009 election, she argued strongly that voters should support STV. We recently issued a press release asking: Now that the Premier has the power to make the necessary changes, does she have the courage of her convictions?

What Now? Attend the Fair Vote Canada AGM in Vancouver, June 7-8

2013 fvc agmIf last week’s election has you fired up to change our voting system, come on down to Fair Vote Canada’s AGM being held this year in Vancouver starting Friday evening, June 7, and running through until Saturday afternoon. There’s an exciting multi-partisan program planned featuring recent Liberal leadership candidate Joyce Murray talking about cross-party cooperation for federal reform, NDP MP Kennedy Stewart describing his online petition initiative and John Carpay (former head of the Alberta office of the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, and now with the Canada Constitution Foundation) discussing conservative efforts to promote proportional representation. There will also be workshops by Idle No More on improving aboriginal representation and by FVBC director Stuart Parker on civic voting reform. Come on out, hear inspiring speakers, meet fellow reform supporters, realize you’re not alone in thinking things are crazy the way they are, and learn how you can contribute to change. [Register]

Help Build the Reform Movement – Share This Newsletter!

2013 i votedWhile you’re waiting for the FVC AGM, one of the simplest things you can do to help us build public support for changing how we vote is to introduce someone you know to Fair Voting BC. If you’ve spoken to someone in the last few days about how unfair our recent election was, please send them this newsletter as a follow up and invite/encourage/beg/plead with them to sign up for our newsletter by visiting our website and clicking on the ‘Subscribe to our Monthly Newsletter‘ button. Then you can feel as virtuous as you did when you slapped on an “I Voted” sticker last week!

In Other News

While the BC election certainly captured our attention in recent weeks, there’s lots happening around the country. A few quick highlights: Vancouver last week announced the 16 top recommendations of its Engaged City Task Force [download report – PDF], the Federal Court hearing the Council of Canadians’ case against the Conservative Party’s robocall shenanigans found that serious fraud had occurred (though the judge shied away from annulling the election results) [see stories in Rabble, National Post and Globe & Mail], the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s challenge of the government’s gag law has been delayed, and the BC Internet Voting Panel is about to hold the first of its final set of three meetings over the summer, with an interim report scheduled for release in August – we’ll update you on all of these stories as we learn more.

Yours for a stronger democracy,

Antony Hodgson
President, Fair Voting BC

February 2013 Newsletter: No Love from Minister Bennett, Gag Law Challenge, Boundary Commission & More

No Love for Democracy on Valentine’s Day from Minister Bennett
 

Three times now, Vancouver City Council has unanimously voted to ask the province to approve Justice Thomas Berger’s 2004 recommendation that it allow Vancouver to choose its own voting system, but it has yet to receive a reply.  In 2010, the province appointed the Local Government Elections Task Force to make recommendations relating to municipal elections, but they specifically excluded voting reforms.  Since the Task Force’s recommended measures are supposed to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session, Fair Voting BC met with Premier Christy Clark to solicit support for Vancouver’s thrice-issued request for increased autonomy.  The Premier sounded favourably inclined, but referred us to the minister responsible – Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Bill Bennett.  We were therefore very disappointed to get a note from the minister recently telling us that the government won’t be considering any voting-related reforms for the foreseeable future.  As the May election approaches, we urge reform supporters to pressure your candidates to finally grant Vancouver’s longstanding request.

Update:  The government very recently announced that they won’t be able to implement any of the Task Force’s recommendations at all in the current legislative session.  NDP leader Adrian Dix pledged to make implementing these recommendations a priority if he is elected.
FIPA Launches Charter Challenge to BC ‘Gag Law’
Fair Voting BC was an intervenor last fall when the BC government lost yet another bid to have the Court accept their gag law.  However, the Court’s ruling didn’t address our most significant concerns – namely, that the current law imposes unconstitutional restrictions on small entities.  The way the Act reads now, any communication with the public during an election period that is in any way related to an election issue or candidate counts as “election advertising”, so you must register with Elections BC – even if you didn’t spend a penny.  As the Chief Electoral Officer said in his 2010 report, this means that if you so much as put a handwritten sign in your window without registering with Elections BC, you risk a $10,000 fine and/or a year in jail.  This is an obvious and serious affront to free speech in BC.  We are therefore delighted to let you know that our co-intervenor, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, has filed a Charter challenge in BC’s Supreme Court seeking to have the law struck down if the government fails to make amendments that respect citizens’ rights to free speech. Full information on the case can be found through FIPA’s website.
Boundaries Commission Blows Chance to Show How PR Could Solve Redistribution Issues
The BC team of the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC) released their federal ridings redistribution report on January 28th.  In October, Fair Voting BC had asked them to follow the Nova Scotia Provincial EBC’s lead in recommending that the legislature consider how adopting proportional representation could substantially simplify and reduce the need for future changes to electoral boundaries.  Unfortunately, the BC EBC did not take our advice, although they briefly noted that “there were recommendations about changing the present first-past-the-post electoral system to provide for some form of proportional representation” without specifying the linkage between these recommendations and the implications for boundary-setting processes.
Son of Robocall Scandal
As if one robocall scandal weren’t enough, the Conservatives last week denied, then admitted, that they were behind robocalls in Saskatchewan aimed at interferring with the non-partisan Electoral Reform Commission’s proposals for redistributing seats in Saskatchewan.  Despite the fact the calls purported to come from an independent research company and did not alert those called that the Conservative Party had designed the ‘poll’ and was funding the calls, in contravention of CRTC regulations, the Prime Minister asserted that his party had followed the rules.  Liberal MP Ralph Goodale has asked the CRTC to investigate.
The Conservative Party continues to deny that they had any involvement in the robocalls made in the 2011 federal election that provided misleading information to non-Conservative supporters about supposed changes to their polling booth locations.  At the end of November, Elections Canada revealed that they were expanding their investigation of this into at least five different provinces involving over 50 of the countries 308 ridings.  More recently, court documents show that Elections Canada has obtained phone records for Rogers customers (in addition to Shaw and Videotron customers).
Meanwhile, the court case brought by the Council of Canadians relating to six specific ridings was argued in Federal Court in Ottawa in December.  The plaintiffs argued that the election results should be annulled in these ridings – the judgement is forthcoming.
Canada’s Chief Elections Officer has recommended various legal changes aimed at minimizing or preventing such abuses in the future.  See related story in the Ottawa Citizen.
Meanwhile, Democracy Watch has filed a complaint claiming that Elections Canada has not released its findings on a wide variety of electoral complaints.
Reinventing Parliament – Globe and Mail
The Globe and Mail recently ran a fascinating and thought-provoking series of articles under the heading “Reinventing Parliament”.  We strongly encourage you to check them out:
Vancouver Engaged City Task Force Announced
 
In more local news, Vancouver announced the 22 members of its Engaged City Task Force last month.  Although the members of this task force have impressive pedigrees in citizen engagement, there was a lack of transparency in the selection process.  Some significant unanswered questions:  Who applied but was not chosen (eg, there are no members with an explicit focus on changing the electoral system to improve representation)?  Are there significant unrepresented groups?  (The Georgia Straight reported that indigenous activist Scott Clark was concerned that there are no aboriginal representatives).  And will the Task Force carry out any of its deliberations in public, invite input from the public or publish its preliminary recommendations for public comment prior to issuing its final report in June?  In the Straight article, Reimer is quoted as saying that “during the task force’s first informal meeting, members expressed an interest in incorporating the perspectives of groups not represented on the committee.”  This is promising, but Fair Voting BC urges the city to take this opportunity to be as inclusive and open as possible in its deliberations.
New FVC Chapter – Vancouver
 
Finally, we are delighted to announce that there is a new Vancouver chapter of our sister organization, Fair Vote Canada.  FVBC board member Stuart Parker is the chapter president and they have several exciting initiatives getting underway, including a new study of options for electoral reform in the city of Vancouver that won’t require changes to the city charter.  Anyone interested in getting involved with FVC-Vancouver is invited to contact Stuart.
Yours for a stronger democracy,
Antony Hodgson
President, Fair Voting BC

July 2012 Newsletter – FVBC Granted Intervenor Status, Electoral Cooperation, Robocalls (Again), & More

Dear Democratic Reform Supporters:
We hope you’re all enjoying a wonderful summer, whether you’re at work or on vacation.  Despite it being summer, there’s still a lot of democracy-related news to share with you:
Fair Voting BC Granted Intervenor Status in BC Supreme Court Case on Third Party Election Advertising
We are very excited to announce that we have been granted intervenor status in the upcoming BC Supreme Court reference case on third-party advertising.  Back in 2004, Stephen Harper (then executive director with the National Citizens Coalition) challenged the third party election advertising spending limits introduced by Prime Minister Jean Chretien as an unconstitutional limitation on free speech rights for organizations.  The Supreme Court denied the NCC’s claim and affirmed the constitutionality of such limits as being reasonable given the government’s intent to limit the extent to which wealthy entities could control an election campaign.  Here in BC, the BC Teachers Federation launched a challenge against a related rule (the so-called ‘gag law’) introduced by the BC Liberal government in 2008, successfully arguing that the extension of the limitations into a two-month ‘pre-campaign’ period (when the legislature could still be sitting) overly constrained fair political commentary, not just election advertising.  The BC government has recently amended their law to ensure that the restrictions will not apply while the legislature is sitting (and for three weeks afterwards), but, prior to enacting the law, has also asked the Supreme Court for an opinion as to its constitutionality.
Fair Voting BC applied for and was granted intervenor access;  our primary concern is the effect on NGOs and individuals, as the revised law retains three features that create a ‘chill’ effect:  (1) it defines ‘election advertising’ as a message to the public that takes a position on an issue with which a political party or candidate is associated (i.e., almost anything that any citizen would be concerned about), (2) it requires that anyone who spends even a dollar on election advertising formally register as a sponsor, and (3) it can be construed as counting volunteer labour as a contribution.  This discourages ordinary concerned citizens from speaking out during an election, so we will be proposing ways that the government could write a more appropriate law;  we’ll share our submission with you next month.
Pending Ruling in Ontario May Trigger By-Election
This summer in Ontario, a heated debate about electoral fairness rages on.  The Supreme Court of Canada will soon rule on whether to uphold a by-election ordered in Etobicoke Centre, where an exceedingly close result in last year’s federal election has been called into question amidst evidence of procedural irregularities caused by Elections Canada itself.  The winning MP won only 26 more votes than the would-be incumbent, but 79 ballots were ruled invalid, thereby casting serious doubt on the validity of both the voting process and the outcome.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May, is proposing not to run a Green candidate in a by-election, and she is encouraging the NDP to do the same.  May’s argument here is that voters should have a clear choice between the two front-runners in this by-election so that their wishes can be clearly determined.  But is this democratic?  At the heart of the problem is that our current voting system does not enable us to vote honestly and win representation that reflects how voters vote.
Regardless of the pending decision, the complications in Etobicoke have no doubt diminished many voters’ faith in our present electoral system. The result of the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling could set the stage for a more in-depth electoral critique as it raises unsettling questions about both process and outcome, while simultaneously highlighting the need for us all to re-assess what we want an election to do.
Robocall Scandal:  Council of Canadians’ Challenge to Proceed
The Council of Canadians has filed a lawsuit on behalf of voters in seven ridings affected by fraudulent ‘robocalls’ in the 2011 election.  The Conservative Party has challenged the CoC’s right to bring this case, but on July 19th, a ruling was issued rejecting the Conservatives’ motions and allowing the case to proceed;  in her ruling, the judge stated:  “Far from being frivolous or vexatious, or an obvious abuse, the applications [by the CoC] raise serious issues about the integrity of the democratic process in Canada and identify practices that if proven, point to a campaign of activities that would seek to deny eligible voters their right to vote and/or manipulate or interfere with that right being exercised freely – all of which permitted to escape even the prospect of judicial scrutiny, could shake public confidence and trust in the electoral process and in those who in good faith stand for public office.”  Elections Canada is expected to issue a report next spring recommending new regulations for robocalls.
New Call for Electoral Reform for BC
Former BC Liberal Party leader Gordon Gibson recently argued in a Globe and Mail column that the Liberal Party might consider implementing electoral reform prior to next year’s election (as you might recall, 94% of respondents to our poll a couple of months ago would be supportive of this idea) and argued that such a change could technically be implemented through a simple vote in the legislature.
News From Our Friends
Integrity BC – Petition to Ban Corporate and Union Donations
A BC donor who was recently found to have made a prohibited political donation justified it by saying “It’s a cost-effective, time-effective way to interact with the people in the government. That’s the way the system works…This is really how the world works.”  IntegrityBC would like to end this form of privileged access.  If you agree, please consider signing their online petition.
Fair Vote Canada – Ongoing Petition Challenge for Proportional Representation
A reminder that our good friends at Fair Vote Canada are holding a petition drive this summer and are asking for volunteers to help collect signatures in favour of proportional representation so that they can deliver petitions to as many MPs as possible in a co-ordinated Day of Action later in the summer.  If you think you could get at least 25 people to sign this petition, please consider making this part of your summer festivities.  Click here to download a petition page or for more information.
Democracy Watch – Complaint Against Commissioner of Canada Elections
Democracy Watch says the Commissioner of Canada Elections failed to investigate a complaint about foreign interference in the 2011 federal election, in which a US-based election strategies advisor, Matthew Parker, is said to have assisted with two Ontario campaigns (Rick Dykstra and Julian Fantino), contrary to Section 331 of the Canada Elections Act.  Democracy Watch criticizes the Commissioner for opting not to investigate this complaint based on the faulty contention that there was no evidence that Parker succeeded in changing any voter’s mind.  Democracy Watch contends (rightly, in our view) that the inducement itself constituted a violation of the Act and therefore merited investigation, so Fair Voting BC supports Democracy Watch’s call for an inquiry into the Commissioner’s enforcement standards and practices.
Historica-Dominion Institute – Canadian Citizenship Challenge
Do you know a high school student (grade 7-12)?  If so, please pass on HDI’s challenge to them:
Do you believe all Canadians should be ready to answer the same questions about their country as new Canadians? We do. The Canadian Citizenship Challenge is asking students to put their national knowledge to the test, by studying for and taking a mock citizenship exam.  The top two winners are declared “Student Citizens of the Year” and awarded all-expense paid trips to Ottawa! The top classroom gets a Citizenship Celebration at their school! Hundreds of other great Canadian prizes are also up for grabs!  Students can register online and teachers can use our interactive Learning Tools before their class takes the quiz.
That’s it for now, but there are lots of things in the works, such as our upcoming AGM in the fall (to be announced shortly).  Enjoy the summer, and if you have a chance to corner an MP or MLA at a summer BBQ, ask them where they stand on electoral reform (and let us know what they say!).
Yours for a stronger democracy,
Antony Hodgson
President, Fair Voting BC

June 2012 Newsletter – Online Voting Findings, a New Voting System for BC?, Court Result, Crowdsourcing a Constitution, & More

Dear Democratic Reform Supporters:
Although many of us are looking forward to a nice vacation, the past month has been full of activities that will interest democratic reformers.  I hope you’ll bear with our slightly longer-than-usual monthly newsletter (and if you’d like to skip to our Electoral Humour section at the end, we won’t blame you).
 E-volving Democracy Dialogue on Internet Voting a Great Success;  New Poll
We were thrilled with the response to our first ‘E-volving Democracy’ dialogue event held in Vancouver on May 26th.  Over thirty passionate voters, including computer security specialists, lawyers, social activists, business owners and many others, spent a gorgeous sunny Saturday inside, hearing from our panelists and working out what it would take to convince them personally to accept online voting as a legitimate and safe way to hold online elections.  We’re working to put out a report on this event, but the three main messages were clear:
  1. very few people thought that the absence of online voting was a major cause of decreasing voter turnout (one person asked, “what is the question for which online voting is the answer?”),
  2. virtually everyone thought that any new election process should retain the key feature of our present process that creates widespread trust in the results – namely, that ordinary people can act as scrutineers for all candidates, which ensures that even the losing candidates can accept the results, and
  3. participants were most excited about the possibility of using online processes to increase democratic engagement between elections (e.g., to formulate public policy).  Check out yesterday’s New York Times story on this.
Since current expert opinion seems to be that online voting can’t be made acceptably secure in the foreseeable future, Fair Voting BC will likely seek an endorsement from our members at our upcoming Annual General Meeting in the fall to adopt an explicit position on internet voting cautioning against use in public elections and calling for governments to pilot new internet-enabled public engagement processes.  In the meantime, please take our latest poll to tell us what you’re currently thinking about online voting.
94% of FVBC Supporters Endorse Change to Voting System Prior to 2013 Election
 
Last month, we asked you if you would support the BC Liberals if they opted to implement a new voting system in time for the 2013 provincial election.  Over a hundred of you registered your opinion, and we were intrigued to see that 94% of you would be in favour of such a move, even if the Liberals might win more seats under a more proportional voting system than they are currently predicted to win.  This near-unanimous support is particularly impressive because, since FVBC’s supporters come from across the political spectrum, a substantial number of non-Liberal supporters amongst our poll’s respondents must feel that a result that is less favourable to their own preferred party is nonetheless fairer than what our Single Member Plurality voting system is predicted to produce.  We strongly commend such a principled stance on the part of our supporters.
Disappointing Result From Quebec Court Challenge to Single Member Plurality Voting
Many of you will recall that the Association Advancing Democratic Rights in Quebec has been challenging the constitutionality of the Single Member Plurality voting system over the past few years.  We were disappointed to learn recently that the AADR’s application to appeal last year’s Court of Appeal decision to the Supreme Court of Canada was denied.  Though we feel strongly that the courts have failed to engage in the arguments put forth by the plaintiffs, this case has now reached the end of the line, so the only way to proceed with a legal challenge is to initiate a new court case elsewhere.  Fair Voting BC is considering preparing a white paper exploring this option.  If any of you are interested in working on this or if you know a lawyer with constitutional expertise who might be interested in assisting us with this, please let us know by emailing us at info@fairvotingbc.com.
Crowd-Sourcing a Constitution?
 
No, not Canada’s.  Iceland’s.  In the wake of Iceland’s economic meltdown four years ago, its citizens have reasserted control over their key democratic institutions.  In late 2010, a group of 25 Icelandic citizens were elected to a Constitutional Assembly (using STV!) and, last summer, following an extensive public engagement process involving considerable use of online tools, they submitted a new proposed constitution that emphasizes three major themes: distribution of power, transparency and responsibility.  Among numerous democratic innovations, the proposed constitution calls for measures that will increase consultation between groups represented in parliament, public rights to initiate legislation (by petition of 2% of voters) and hold referenda (by petition of 10% of voters), and a novel electoral proposal that allows voters to select individual candidates across constituency and national lists.  The new constitution was originally due to be voted on in a referendum this week (June 30th), but the vote has since been delayed to the fall.
Two Swords’ Length Apart No Longer?  Improving Decorum in the Commons
If former NDP (now independent) MP Bruce Hyer has his private member’s bill approved, MPs will stop sitting by party in the House of Commons, but will instead be randomly intermixed with MPs from other parties and regions of Canada.  According to the CBC, Hyer, “who is now free to speak and vote as he wishes, thinks the move would end the “mindless solidarity and tribalism” he sees around him and improve cooperation and decorum.”  75% of respondents to a CBC poll thought that Hyer’s proposal was worth a try.  “”It’s very hard to heckle someone or be rude to them when you’re sitting next to them,” Hyer suggested.”
A National Post article said “Mr. Hyer said the partisanship over the omnibus budget bill reached new lows. “The mindless tribalism has always bothered me, but never more so than [Thursday] night. Most of those on the other side have never read C-38 or the opposition amendments. It’s difficult to believe that of the 800 or so amendments, not one deserved consideration.””
Since stepping down from the NDP earlier in the year after voting with the government on the long gun registry, Mr. Hyer has been on a campaign to enhance the independence of MPs.  Yesterday, a Winnipeg Free Press article entitled “An MP Who Can Think for Himself” noted that he was the only MP to take Elizabeth May’s challenge of a quiz on Bill C38 and, with a perfect score, proved that he had actually read the whole bill.  Image attribution: Rrius at en.wikipedia
A Rare and Raw Look at How Party Discipline Actually Works
Last month, BC Conservative MP David Wilks (Kootenay-Columbia) gave Canadians a rare, raw and candid glimpse into how modern party machines work.  Wilks told his constituents he had serious concerns about C-38, the recently-passed omnibus budget-implementation bill.  According to a Winnipeg Free Press story, Wilks “noted he doesn’t get to see the budget until the public does. The prime minister and cabinet go into a room and make all the decisions, and the rest of the caucus gets told how to vote.  Wilks was frank about the fact there are [whipped votes]” and the insignificance of the role of the backbencher MP.  Although in principle there are occasions “when caucus members can vote however they want, … that … kind of vote is a mystery to him.  “I haven’t seen one in a year, yet,” he said.  Since being sworn in as an MP in May 2011, Wilks has never been told by his party whip he can vote on his own.”
As Andrew Coyne reported, Wilks said that “if a dozen other Tories could be persuaded to vote against it, he would do likewise. “I will stand up and say the Harper government should get rid of Bill C-38.”  [But] within hours of the video’s appearance, Wilks had recanted.”  Coyne goes on to discuss what this episode teaches us about how the role of MPs has changed in the past couple of decades, while Dan Leger laments Wilks’ loss of courage: “The tragedy is that Wilks denied himself the chance to actually be somebody through the simple act of representing his constituents.”
We’re #51!  (International Hall of Shame)
 
According to a recent Canadian Press story, “As the 30th anniversary of the federal Access to Information Act approaches, Canada finds itself tied for 51st in the world on a list of freedom-of-information rankings, languishing behind Angola, Colombia and Niger.”
The news gets worse – we’ve dropped 11 places on the scale since last September!
The index was co-developed by two international human rights organizations – the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy and the Madrid-based Access Info Europe.  They comment “As a country that was once among the world’s leaders in government openness, it is unfortunate that Canada has dropped so far down the list*.  Partly, this is the result of global progress, with which Canada has failed to keep pace.  Canada’s Access to Information Act, while cutting edge in 1983, has not been significantly updated since then, and reflects many outdated norms.  Canada’s lax timelines, imposition of access fees, lack of a proper public interest override, and blanket exemptions for certain political offices all contravene international standards for the right of access.  Canada’s antiquated approach to access to information is also the result of a lack of political will to improve the situation.”
Canada Day Petition Challenge
Our good friends at Fair Vote Canada are co-ordinating a Canada Day petition drive and are asking for volunteers to help collect as many signatures as possible in favour of proportional representation so that they can deliver petitions to as many MPs as possible in a co-ordinated Day of Action later in the summer.  If you think you could get at least 25 people to sign this petition, please consider making this part of your Canada Day festivities.  Click here to download a petition page and to get more information.
Yours for a stronger democracy,
Antony Hodgson
President, Fair Voting BC
PS:  Election Humour – Chocolate Wins ‘Best Flavour of Ice-Cream’ Election
Check out this great press release from OpaVote, creators of open-source online voting software for use by organizations:
Just in time for the start of the summer season, OpaVote has determined that Chocolate is the universe’s favorite ice cream flavor.
 
After a hotly contested race and four rounds of counting, Chocolate scooped the victory by soundly defeating the runner up, Chocolate Chip. Other flavors that melted under pressure were Vanilla, Strawberry, and Cookies and Cream. Click here for complete results.
 
Chocolate declared victory at 11:32 pm on the summer solstice, thanking his opponents for a tasteful campaign and promising to provide a summer of chockingly great ice cream.
 
Chocolate Chip conceded victory and commended the use of ranked-choice voting as representing the will of the people. “Although I did not win, it is clear that the majority of the people preferred Chocolate and she should be the winner,” said Chocolate Chip. “The use of ranked-choice voting prevents fringe candidates, like Strawberry, from acting as spoilers and undermining the will of the people.”
 
Vanilla complained bitterly. “Special interests bought this election,” said Vanilla. “We need meaningful campaign finance reform to prevent the cocoa industry from using their campaign war chests to get their puppet candidates in office to increase their own profits at the expense of democracy.” Hershey and Cadbury declined to comment.
 
To run your own election or poll, click OpaVote.  You can run an election with up to one million voters where each voter is sent a secret voting link. You can also run a poll and embed a poll widget in your own website.
Photo thanks to Alessio Damato

May 2012 Newsletter – Registration Open for First E-volving Democracy Dialogue on Online Voting

Dear Democratic Reform Supporters:
Registration Now Open for First E-volving Democracy Dialogue Event:  Online Voting (The Hive, Downtown Vancouver, May 26th, 2-5 pm)
Later this month, PartyX and Fair Voting BC will be jointly hosting an interactive dialogue session on online voting.  Participants will look at the risks associated with online voting – and how trust might potentially be built into such a system.
The session will include a panel discussion featuring Andrew MacLeod (legislative reporter, The Tyee); Steve Wolfman (Computer Science, SFU) and Fathima Cadre (UBC Law and open media advocate).
The afternoon will also feature small group discussions in which participants will identify and prioritize conditions they believe a proposed online voting system would have to satisfy before it could be used in good conscience in a public election.  We will use the resulting recommendations to inform our public policy positions on this issue.
“Online voting is an issue of increasing importance for the progressive democracy movement, particularly with its potential to engage larger and more diverse demographics – especially younger generations – in the political process,” says John Richardson, founder of PartyX. “But with this potential also comes risk surrounding fraud, security, privacy and so on. Any system we use has to be trustworthy. But what this looks like means different things to different people.”
“Online voting is increasingly being proposed, planned and used at all levels of government as a possible way to re-engage voters in our political processes,” said Antony Hodgson, President of Fair Voting BC. “But for online voting to play this role, voters have to be able to trust the process and results. Technical failures or scandals arising from premature adoption could destroy public faith in elections, so we need to think through carefully how we as ordinary citizens could know that a proposed online voting process was trustworthy.”
Details are as follows:
Saturday, May 26, 2012, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
@ The Hive, 128 West Hastings Street #210
By donation ($10 suggested to cover costs) – Space may be limited, so RSVP Requested.
This dialogue will be the first in a series, all highlighting issues related to technology, democracy, and the theory and practice of collective decision-making. This event is designed for anyone with an interest in social change.
More information is available here: http://partyx.com/engage/dialogue-online-voting/.  Space may be limited, so please click here to reserve your spot.

We hope you can make it and really appreciate anything you can do to help spread the word!  In particular, please pass on this announcement to any individuals or groups you think might be interested.

Fair Vote Canada Annual General Meeting (May 25th and 26th): Available by Webcast
Our good friends at Fair Vote Canada will be holding their Annual General Meeting in Toronto during the last weekend in May, and will be webcasting parts of their event.  For details, please visit their event page.  Here’s what they say about it:
“May 25 and 26, 2012 in Toronto, we’ll be bringing together supporters and activists from across the country for a dynamic lineup of speakers and workshops, and to launch the Fair Vote Canada Action Network. You won’t want to miss it!”
 
“Engage with Craig Scott, MP  (NDP) , Stephane Dion, MP  (Liberal), and Elizabeth May, MP (Green) (Live from Saanich-Gulf Islands) on how they plan to bring proportional representation to the top of the agenda in their own parties and make it a major election issue in 2015.  Learn the method and power behind building a massive online and on-the-ground movement from Jamie Biggar , Executive Director of Leadnow.ca, Canada’s fastest growing online citizen’s campaign.” 
And lots more – hope you can join them.  A couple of our Vancouver supporters have proposed having a breakfast party on Saturday, May 26th at 7 am (10 am Toronto time).  If you’re interested in joining them, or in hosting your own event elsewhere in the province, please let us know by dropping us a note at info@fairvotingbc.com.
Yours for a stronger democracy,
Antony Hodgson
President, Fair Voting BC