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.
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- Laurin Liu (NDP MP): How MPs can fix Parliament
- We don’t need politicians in charge. With technology, it’s time to put citizens first
- Ignatieff: Too much executive power is harming democracy
- Do MPs talk about your priorities in Parliament? Turns out, they do
- Wildrose or PQ Senators? Welcome to an elected red chamber
- Reinventing Parliament: What’s the one thing you would change?
President, Fair Voting BC
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.
More Details from FIPA:
The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has filed a Charter challenge in B.C. Supreme Court in response to the provincial government’s refusal to fix unconstitutional third-party advertising provisions in its Election Act.
As it stands, the Act states that during an election period, any communication with the public that’s in any way related to an election issue or candidate counts as “election advertising”. This means that before you do something as small as putting a handwritten sign in your window, you must first register with Elections BC. If you don’t, you risk a $10,000 fine and/or a year in jail.
While many jurisdictions across the country have their own third-party advertising regulations, designed to stop big corporate and union donations from unfairly influencing elections, British Columbia is alone in its refusal to implement a lower limit for registration. During federal elections, the government doesn’t require registration unless you spend over $500 on your election “advertising”. In Alberta, the cutoff is even higher, set at $1000.
This is a balanced approach that keeps large election spending accountable and transparent while not interfering with the political speech of individuals and small groups. Unfortunately, B.C.’s provincial government has gone out of its way to avoid adopting this standard.
FIPA has been pressing the government on this issue for years, starting even before the last election. In 2010 they co-published a report with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives outlining how this bottomless definition of election advertising chills political speech among civil society organizations. FIPA was also an intervenor (with Fair Vote BC and others) when the government’s 2012 amendments to the Act were referred to the B.C. Court of Appeal (those amendments, for the record, didn’t fix the missing spending floor). Finally, in early January, when FIPA’s legal council asked the government for a justification of their refusal to address this problem, their lawyers claimed that the Act was valid and insisted that if there was a problem FIPA should take them to court -so they did.
And as if the delays and the stubbornness weren’t enough, it’s worth remembering that a few months ago, Attorney General Shirley Bond promised to bring forward legislation to establish provincial elections to fill Senate vacancies. Elections BC even received a million dollars to prepare for them. It would appear that the government is so deeply committed to democracy that they’re willing to drop $1 million into the possibility of Senate elections, yet won’t fix their truly unconstitutional Election Act, even with a provincial election looming.
If the government has the time to deal with a theoretical Senate election, it should have the time to fix an actual Charter breach that compromises the free speech rights of British Columbians. And they should do it before the next election.
In preparation for our AGM on October 27th, 2012, please find attached below copies of the minutes from the 2011 AGM and the 2012 Treasurer’s Report.
Hearings Process: The Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission recently held hearings around BC. The primary purpose of these hearings is to receive feedback on the EBC’s proposed riding boundaries, but Fair Voting BC appeared in order to make the case that the primary difficulties with the boundary-setting process arise from the way our voting system works.
Voter Equality Requires Proportional Representation: The EBC is supposed to be respecting the principle of voter equality, but they focus on a very limited definition of equality – ensuring that each electoral district is roughly equivalent in population. They do not pay any attention to the fact that fewer than half the voters end up with an MP they have voted for, which means that over half of voters are denied any representation of their choosing in the House of Commons. Any of a number of forms of proportional representation could easily boost this to well over 90% of voters.
True ‘Rep by Pop’ Would Simplify Boundary-Setting: We also discussed the idea that the EBC is also constrained by the assumption that ‘One MP = One Vote’ and suggested that if we take seriously the idea that ‘One Voter = One Vote’ in the House of Commons, then we could be much more tolerant of variations in riding populations where it makes sense to allow them to vary. For example, if population in a region has risen by 10% since the last boundary-setting process, we could keep the boundaries in place and simply give the MP 10% more voting weight in the House of Commons. We refer to this as true ‘rep by pop’ (representation by population).
Nova Scotia EBC Made Voting System Recommendations: We were encouraged to see that the Nova Scotia provincial EBC very recently incorporated very similar recommendations in their report to government (click to download PDF). You can also click here to download our submission to the EBC.
Fair Voting BC appeared in September as intervenors in the BC Court of Appeal reference case regarding the so-called ‘Gag Law’, in which the provincial government sought a ruling that their extension of third party advertising limits into a ‘pre-campaign’ period was constitutional.
In the original case, which was brought by the BC Teachers’ Federation, the primary concern was whether or not the government had the right to impose restrictions prior to the official campaign period. A number of organizations, most notably the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in co-operation with the BC Civil Liberties Association, (see their Election Chill Effect report) argued that the law requiring anyone (even an individual) to register as an election advertising sponsor before communicating with the public about anything political made it impossible for many organizations to engage in public political debate during (and before) an election. The government lost the BCTF challenge in 2008 and a subsequent appeal in 2011, and then introduced slightly modified legislation in 2012, but referred the updated legislation to the Court of Appeal (Reference Case) for a ruling on its constitutionality prior to enacting it.
Fair Voting BC applied for and received permission to appear as an intervenor in the Reference Case and we sought to represent the concerns of small entities: individuals, charities, and issue-focused non-profit, non-partisan organizations. We argued that, though the legislation is ostensibly aimed at curbing the influence of the wealthy, the provisions have not been tailored so as to exempt or exclude ordinary citizens and legitimate small third parties whose Charter rights to freedom of political expression ought not to be infringed according to the aim of the legislation. In particular, we argued that the definition of election advertising is so overbroad that it captures even individuals wishing to post a handwritten sign in their own window (an example provided by the BC Chief Elections Officer), that it imposes onerous registration and labeling requirements on small entities and that it fails to exempt charities and voluntary contributions of labour, neither of which are targetted by or intended to be captured by this legislation.
We proposed that the legislation could be readily altered to address these unjustifiable infringements on the Charter rights of small entities by redefining election advertising to exempt pure issue advocacy, exempting charities, defining the concept of a non-wealthy (small) entity and exempting them from the registration and labeling requirements, and explicitly exempting volunteer labour. You can view our entire submission here.
Unfortunately, the Court ruled last week primarily on the constitutionality of the government’s requested extension of the limits into the pre-campaign period (which they did find to be unconstitutional) and did not substantially engage with our (and others’) arguments that the existing provisions are unconstitutional (see story by Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughan Palmer), so the chill provisions will remain in force during the upcoming 2013 election campaign. We will be considering how to respond to this continuing threat to our free speech rights in the coming year.
- 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?”),
- 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
- 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.
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.
As people watched the Academy Awards last Sunday, we wonder how many realized that the nominees were chosen by preferential voting – in particular, a variant of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). The Academy Award organization actually uses slightly different rules for their various awards, so we can’t describe just one system, but most nominees in most categories are chosen using the following method:
- Most award categories accept five finalists.
- Academy members who are eligible to nominate movies in a particular category receive a ballot on which they can indicate their top five preferences (using numbers from 1 to 5).
- Any movies that don’t receive at least one first-place choice from a voter are eliminated.
- All ballots with the same first choice are grouped together.
- Any nominee with more than 1/6th of the total number of votes will become a finalist.
- If there are fewer than five finalists, the remaining nominee with the fewest number of votes will be eliminated and the ballots transferred to the next choice on each ballot.
- Step 6 repeats until there are five finalists.
In effect, this is a multi-seat version of Instant Runoff Voting, in which the lowest ranked candidates are sequentially eliminated. It has the effect of choosing a broad set of widely supported nominees.
This year, the Academy introduced a slightly different procedure for selecting the Best Picture nominees. The new process is a little closer in spirit to the Single Transferable Voting method recommended by BC’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in that extra votes (votes beyond the 1/6th of the ballots needed to win a finalist position) are redistributed in part to the second choice on each ballot after an initial round of elimination and transfers from the least popular nominees. This extra step is intended to ensure that ‘passion rules’ – i.e., that movies need both to have a loyal following and some broad support.
Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the way we elected our legislatures?
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Based on the results of Fair Voting BC’s democratic reform survey, Vancouver voters can be reasonably confident that the next city council will petition Victoria a third time to change the city’s charter to allow Vancouverites to choose their own voting system. They can also expect more deliberative dialogue processes similar to the West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee and continued interest in online voting, coupled with some scepticism about whether online voting can be acceptably secure. Depending on who gets elected, there will also be more or less openness to considering new ways to vote that might more accurately reflect voters’ true preferences.
On October 30, 2011, Fair Voting BC sent a survey on civic democratic reform issues to all mayoral and council candidates in the city of Vancouver. This page presents their detailed responses. We also invite you to check out the press release we issued on November 11, 2011, as well as a list of responses summarized by question.
As we did in 2008, Fair Voting BC is again asking candidates for civic office to take a stand on the need for democratic reforms at the municipal level. This year’s questions include the following:
- Do you commit yourself, if elected, to renewing in the first year of your term the city’s long-standing request for Victoria to grant local governments the power to choose our own voting system?
- If elected, will you endorse expanded use of deliberative dialogue approaches (similar to the Mayor’s Advisory Council in Vancouver) to generate future policy options?
- Which of the following best describes your view of the benefits of online (internet) voting?
- Online voting is proven to substantially improve democratic engagement
- Online voting has good potential to improve democratic engagement
- Online voting is unlikely to significantly change democratic engagement
- Which of the following best describes your attitude towards the security issues related to online voting?
- Online voting is now sufficiently robust and secure to be used in civic elections
- Online voting is relatively secure and may be valuable for consulting citizens, but is probably too insecure to be relied on for civic elections
Online voting is currently too vulnerable to undetectable fraud to be used in a civic election
Please comment on what democracy-related issues most concern you (e.g., voting, campaign financing, citizen engagement, etc.).
- If you are a current council member, please highlight any democracy-related initiatives you or your party has undertaken in the past term.
- If elected, what do you personally commit yourself to doing during the coming council term to promote democratic reform?
We will be collecting responses until the end of the first week in November, at which point we will be distributing candidates’ responses to our supporters and to the media via a press release. At the moment, we are specifically inviting candidates in Vancouver to respond to this survey, but we encourage our supporters to volunteer to solicit responses from candidates in their own towns and cities around BC. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to help us in this effort – we can easily set up a custom SurveyMonkey survey for you and give you a link to distribute to your local candidates which will allow you to collect their responses automatically.
Voters Consistently Ignored With Single Member Plurality
A slew of recent provincial election results under the current Single Member Plurality voting system shows just how common it is for voters’ expressed intentions to be largely ignored in the makeup of the resulting legislature, and therefore how large swaths of the population end up not being represented the way they wish and deserve to be.
SMP Delivers Overwhelming Majority of Seats Even When Half the Voters Don’t Vote for Leading Party
PEI went to the polls in early October. The Liberals went into this election with a large lead – polls at the end of August were giving them a lead over the Conservatives of 59% to 31% (with the Greens and NDP splitting the last 10%) and, had this support held up, they certainly would have deserved to win a majority government. But would they have been entitled to win every last seat in the PEI legislature? That’s what seat projections were showing. Over the campaign, the race had tightened quite a bit: in the final days of the campaign, the Liberals lead had dropped to 53% and the Conservatives had risen to 34%. How would this shift in fortunes been rewarded by our voting system? The day before the election, the well-respected political predictor, Eric Grenier, at threehundredeight.com used polling data to estimate that the Conservatives would win a single measly seat. When the vote was counted, the race was even closer than the polls were showing – the Liberals had dropped a further 2% to 51% and the Conservatives had gained a remarkable 7% to end at 40%. However, the Conservatives were not rewarded for their valiant campaigning, ending up with a mere 5 seats to the Liberals’ 22 – i.e., with 51% of the vote, the Liberals took 82% of the seats. Perhaps more importantly, the Conservatives were essentially shut out of the more urban parts of the province – only their Stratford-Kinlock seat is close to the capital.
Such results are drearily typical of Single Member Plurality voting. Newfoundland had a similar outcome – the Conservatives won 56% of the vote and took a large surplus of seats: 37 of 48 (77% of the total). The Liberals retained the title of Official Opposition by winning 6 seats on 19% of the vote, while the NDP came in third with 5 seats on only 25% of the vote – well behind the Liberals. Huh? Only in the wacky world of SMP voting is 25% less than 19%!
Close Contests Are Really No Contest
In PEI and Newfoundland, SMP delivered an overwhelming landslide to the leading party. In both Manitoba and Ontario, the two leading parties had virtually the same level of popular support, but in both cases one party ended up with many more seats than their near-rival – on the order of 1.5-2X as many. Such distortions greatly exaggerate the actual closeness of the race, and, as in PEI and Newfoundland, tend to produce highly regionalized results (see maps below).
In Manitoba, the NDP won 46% of the vote to the Conservative’s 43% – quite a close contest. However, due to the vagaries of SMP, the NDP won 36 of 57 seats – 63% of the total. The Conservatives had to settle for 20 of the remaining seats, while the Liberals, who took 8% of the vote, had to settle for a single seat. As with PEI, there was a strong regional (rural/urban) divide with the Conservatives winning virtually all rural seats in the south of the province and on the southwestern edge of Winnipeg, while the NDP won almost all the other seats in Winnipeg and the northern half of the province.
It is somewhat ironic that the Conservatives had, at some points, been predicted to win a higher share of the popular vote than the NDP, but even if this had happened, the seat results would have remained unchanged. Conservative leader Hugh McFadyen resigned following the election, saying that the outcome was “far short of we had hoped for.” Despite virtually matching the NDP in the popular vote, McFadyen said “The reality is this in politics … you have to deliver bottom-line results if you want to carry on as leader of the party.” The irony is that this is not the reality in most countries around the world – maybe it’s time for the Manitoba Conservative Party to endorse a more proportional voting system so that their supporters can get the representation they deserve.
The Ontario election in October produced a similar result – the day before the election, ThreeHundredEight.com was predicting that the popular vote was a solid three-way contest with the Liberals slightly ahead of the Conservatives (36.6% to 33.3%), but this small difference was expected to deliver twice as many seats to the Liberals than to the Conservatives. The NDP, with 2/3rds the popular support of the leading Liberals, were expected to win barely one third as many seats. In the end, the Liberals ended up at over 37%, the Conservatives about 2% lower at just over 35%, and the NDP down to under 23%; the Liberals won one seat shy of a majority at 53 seats and the Conservatives gained ground to win 37 seats (the NDP took 17). This seat distribution corresponds somewhat more closely to the parties’ vote shares than originally predicted, but the Liberals still gained a significantly disproportional advantage from how the votes were distributed. As in Manitoba, the results reflected a strong regional divide, with the Conservatives sweeping several rural regions and the Liberals taking a disproportionate number of the seats in the Greater Toronto Area.
Time For Elections To Make Sense?
When I explained these various provincial election results to my children, they were aghast. “How can they let this happen?” they asked me. An excellent question. I’m doing all I can to stop these outrageous outcomes, and I invite all of you to join Fair Voting BC in working for an end to elections that don’t make sense.
Our friends at ARDD (L’Association pour la Revendication des Droits Démocratiques, or the Association for Claiming Democratic Rights) have just informed us that the Quebec Court of Appeals has turned down their motion to have Single Member Plurality voting declared unconstitutional. Although the court did not accept their claim, they also did not explicitly explain the basis for countenancing the self-evident denial of representation to millions of voters and thereby, according to ARDD’s legal team, have left open the way for an appeal to the Supreme Court. We invite you to join us in fundraising to support this appeal – please visit the link on the right to offer your support.
The information we received from ARDD is copied below; please visit their website for more details:
In summary, the Appeal Court accepted what was obvious, the first-past-the-post voting system distorts the popular vote, but declared that this in itself wasn’t sufficient to grant our motion since all voting systems produce distortions.
Well then, what about the scale of the distortions and the manner in which they are produced? We provided expert testimony that demonstrates that the level of distortion is beyond that of the distortions caused by other electoral practices and were subsequently declared unconstitutional and that the manner in which it is done is unclear violation of the equality guarantees of the Charter.
No matter, this evidence wasn’t given proper consideration. In the lower court decision not a word was devoted to our most compelling evidence in the analysis and the Appeal Court Judges decided that this slight of hand did not constitute a judicial error.
Again, we would accept the decision if it had been demonstrated that we had erred in claiming that the fact that first-past-the-post denied effective representation to as many as a million voters that voted for the Greens in the 2008 federal election was an infringement of their democratic rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But this was not done. They simply dodged this inconvenient fact with dismissive silence concerning how such an electoral anomaly could be countenanced. To date, the contestable prejudice caused to those who have their votes discarded by an electoral system that is unique in that it doesn’t possess a mechanism to aggregate votes or voting preferences has not been addressed and thus gives us grounds for an appeal.
Moreover, Judge Dufresne went on to make two outlandish statements that suggests that he doesn’t believe that fundamental democratic principles apply to the Charter Right to effective representation.
The first was to suggest that the fact that the reversal of the democratic result of the Quebec 1966 and 1998 general elections (the party that won less votes than another went on to form a majority government) and the fact that almost a million voters who voted Green did not gain any representation in the 2008 federal election did not constitute an impairment of effective representation. At the same time, Judge Dufresne uses a statistical outlier, a once-in-a-hundred year electoral result from the 2007 Quebec General Election (the three major parties gained more or less representation proportional to the popular vote) to demonstrate that the distortions inherent to first-past-the-post are not systemic, yet he ignored that two smaller parties that together garnered 7% of the vote in 2007 were denied any representation at all.
He then suggests that the most recent federal election in which the Conservatives form a majority government with only 39% of the popular vote and in Quebec the Bloc is reduced only 4 out of 75 seats despite amassing 25% of the popular vote while the the NDP gains 70% of the seats with only approximately 40% of the vote is evidence to the contrary. In making such a claim, Judge Dufresne again asserts that effective representation does not require that each and every vote carries relative equal weight.
One has to wonder what is the frame of reference being used to apply the concept of effective representation for each and every citizen. Do the egalitarian values inherent to democracy enter the equation? Apparently not in Quebec at this time.
Consequently, we will be filing an appeal to have our case heard at the Supreme Court of Canada.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
In 2009, then-radio-host Christy Clark said “people are sick to death of the way our political system operates. … People tell me … they’re tired of electing politicians who ignore what their constituents want and do what their leaders want them to instead.”
Clark could have chosen no better example of this behaviour than the recent HST fiasco. Regardless of the technical merits of a Value-Added Tax, even the government has acknowledged that opposition to the tax was “in large measure due to our own handling of the introduction of that major policy change”, as Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said. Premier Clark likewise noted that “government understood the way this was brought in well over a year ago wasn’t good enough.”
It is worth considering why the government at the time felt that they could introduce the HST so soon after an election campaign in which they had explicitly denied that they were considering it. According to Fair Voting BC President Antony Hodgson, a significant contributing factor was the disproportionate number of seats our voting system gives to the major parties.
“In 2009, the Liberals won 46% of the popular vote, but our First-Past-the-Post voting system gave them 58% of the seats,” Hodgson said. “Since half the seats effectively gives a party all the power, the government was able to cut off debate on the HST in the legislature and ignore calls to engage in public consultation. Dissent inside the party was squelched. When high-profile Liberal MLA Blair Lekstrom felt heat from his constituents and called for slowing down and engaging the public in conversation, he was forced to resign.”
“The HST referendum results clearly show that BC voters want our government to listen to us,” Hodgson added. “Tools such as citizen initiative rights (imperfect as BC’s current Act is) and reformed ways of voting such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly can play an important role in shifting the balance of power away from the Premier’s office towards more involvement of voters and empowerment of individual MLAs.”
Christy Clark echoed this idea in her impassioned plea in 2009 that voters support STV: “the change it will bring frightens [the backroom boys] – politicians will be forced to listen to their communities first and their leaders and parties second.“
In light of the clear public thirst for meaningful influence over public policy, Fair Voting BC calls on the provincial government to re-open a public dialogue on updating our voting system and initiative rights to better enable us to hold our politicians accountable.