One man, two votes

Ontario’s recent general election offered voters an interesting experience, namely the chance to vote for two things at once.

The first vote was on a referendum question: “Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature?” The two choices — and for many people, it should be noted, having only two choices felt unnecessarily limiting — were (a) the existing first-past-the-post system, or (b) the proposed Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system.

Now, from what I could tell, MMP had a substantial amount of money and airtime backing it. I can’t count the number of times radio ads bombarded me with the cheerful news that I’d be relieved of the terrible dilemma of voting for a good party with a bad local candidate, or for a good local candidate working for a bad party. You can have it all, the ads implied. By contrast, I can’t remember seeing or hearing a single ad supporting the existing system. Imperfect old first-past-the-post was apparently heading for the knacker’s yard.

And yet the existing system won, by 63% to MMP’s 37%. This, for me, was a happy result, unexpected though it was. Although the critique most commonly aimed at systems of proportional representation is that they generally result in minority governments and the associated need for coalition building, this doesn’t drive much of my thinking. I’m not terribly worried about minority governments, although I’ll admit the politicking that comes with coalition building does have a certain anti-democratic flavour to it.

Rather, my concern is more of a bottom-up and philosophical one. Our democracy evolved as a system in which each locality sends its representative to a central parliament. This is the original tie that connects a people to its central government, and along which legitimacy is transmitted. Parties are an ideological and functional overlay on this basic system. Their existence makes it easier to raise funds, coordinate campaigns, and maintain a solid base of parliamentary support for the term of a single government. They are a useful and permanent part of the machinery. But they are not fundamental to the system in the way that the principle of local representation is.

So proportional representation (mixed or unmixed) has always seemed to me to be a system that seeks to fix a set of modest problems — the fact that seats do not get allocated according to the parties’ proportion of the aggregate vote, the fact that a citizen cannot vote for parties and local candidates separately (and I’m not even sure that this is a “problem” more than a perceived inconvenience in an age of consumer choice) — at the cost of seriously weakening the foundation of our democratic system itself. Representative democracy was not invented to be easy, convenient, or even particularly “fair”. It was invented (though that’s too cut-and-dried a word) to give the people a voice in the running of the government through the specific representatives that each locality sends on its own behalf. And it’s this very specificity, this tangible connection between place and parliamentary seat, that keeps our democratic government rooted, legitimate, and accountable.

Having now displayed my Burkean conservative side, in my next post I’ll tell you why I voted Green.

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,–these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.

– Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3 Nov. 1774

6 thoughts on “One man, two votes

  1. It is interesting to speculate what Edmund Burke would have to say today about proportional representation. Clearly he felt that an MP’s loyalty was to the greater good, not to his immediate constituents.

    Burke lived before the modern political party had evolved into a machine for electing people. Since the early 1900’s, it has been almost impossible to get elected without the support of a political party organization.

    Today, political power is exercised by political parties. It is parties that decide who will be able to run as candidates for election. It is parties that form governments.

    Our first-past-the-post system does not allow us to vote for a party or a leader. Proportional voting systems were invented a century ago so that voters could hold political parties accountable.

  2. P.S. What, exactly, is undemocratic about coalition building? Democracy, so far as I know, is about negotiating compromises so that everyone can get what they need. It is our current, single-party monopoly, phony majority governments that are arrogant, corrupt and undemocratic.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Wayne. I’m glad you raised the point about Burke’s possible thoughts on PR, since I thought that his Bristol speech did indeed offer a thought-provoking counterpoint to some of the ideas I used in my post. But I think that while Burke certainly didn’t believe that representatives should be beholden to the views of their constituents, this doesn’t lead to the conclusion that he would have supported a system that disconnected a parliamentarian from a specific locality and its voters.

    Earlier in the same speech, Burke said “Certainly, Gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a Representative, to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and, above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.”

    That’s a pretty close connection, wouldn’t you say?

    With regard to your general points about the role of parties, I don’t disagree at all — they are indeed essential to the workings of contemporary democracy (“a useful and permanent part of the machinery”, as I wrote in my post). But I think you see parties as being the primary fact of political life, and thus call for PR as a way for us to elect parties more directly and fairly. In contrast, I see parties as one fact among several; the primary fact, as I wrote, being the principle of local representation.

    Modern democracy is a multi-layered system, and it cannot produce results that are satisfactory for every layer simultaneously. At the level of local representation, it works quite well. At the level of parties, less so.

    The old house could use a few repairs, agreed. But let’s not blow up the foundation in order to re-model the first floor.

  4. It seems you agree that both parties (especially governing parties) and local representatives should be accountable to voters. PR holds parties accountable. “Personalized PR” (as the Germans themselves call MMP) attempts to hold both accountable. It not only maintains local accountability, but enhances it. When the local MPP can stand up to the Premier and say “everyone in my riding knows I got 5% more votes than the party did” it won’t only be Bill Murdoch who can make the leader reverse course. Wouldn’t Burke approve?

    But, you say, we need a tangible connection between locality and parliamentary seat, to keep our democratic government rooted, legitimate, and accountable. German MMP does this by practice — almost all MPs ran locally, and the average riding has two MPs, one “directly elected,” the other “elected on the list” — but not by law. The only German province that guarantees this is Baden-Wurttemberg, where the “list” is nothing more than the local candidates were were not elected, ranked in order of vote strength, so that the list MPPs are the “near-winners” in (using the OCA’s numbers) 43% of the ridings. This means some ridings have more MPs than others, but at least they’re all rooted. Is that better or worse?

  5. That’s a pretty interesting system, Wilf. It certainly sounds more rooted than the Ontario MMP proposal. So “better”? Yes.🙂

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