We know we want it; we just don’t know what it is

Trevor makes a case for some form of electoral reform

There are very few issues left in this country that are truly bipartisan — electoral reform is one of them.

In 2015 an opinion poll surveyed nearly 3,000 Canadians on the subject.

It found that Canadians are unhappy with our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, which only 17 per cent of those surveyed said that they were comfortable with.

While that might seem like a strong consensus against our current laws, respondents had much more trouble agreeing on what sort of system they would like to see it replaced with.

In fact, despite the vast majority of Canadians being against FPTP, 43 per cent still selected it as their preferred method of voting when presented with the alternatives of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), Proportional Representation (PR) and ranked ballots.

So why would nearly 50 per cent of Canadians support a system that they are inherently unhappy with?

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I suspect the answer is that, while many are uncomfortable with FPTP, they know even less about MMP or PR — so much so they will choose the status quo over a potentially-better unknown.

Better the devil you know, as they say.

But that’s just problem: FPTP isn’t the devil we know, it’s the one we’ve been conditioned to think we do.

Consider this: B.C.’s most recent reform on the subject wasn’t the first time the issue of electoral reform has been brought to the referendum — far from it.

Since 2005, the issue has been brought up in the form of provincial referendums or plebiscites six different times.

Two of those — a 2005 B.C. referendum on adopting a form of the Single Transferable Vote system and a 2016 PEI plebiscite on adopting a form of mixed-member proportional representation — would pass with a plurality (but not the 60 per cent majority required) of support.

There is also an oh-so-quickly-forgotten promise made by Trudeau on the 2015 campaign trail to eliminate FPTP in exchange for a system where seat distribution is more representative of the popular vote.


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(A parliamentary committee formed by the Liberals in 2016 would announce, in February 2017, that as a result of the committee’s inability to find “a clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus” that it would be reneging on this promise).

Also important to note is that the above results were obtained by a population that was (and, for all-intensive purposes, still is) woefully uninformed about electoral reform.

For example, despite that 2005 B.C. referendum receiving 57.69 per cent support in favor of moving to the proposed Single Transferable Vote system, polls in months leading up to the vote showed a population that was relatively unaware of the referendum.

A February 21, 2005 poll by Ipso-Reid showed two-thirds of respondents claiming to know “very little” to “nothing” about it; Nearly-identical polling by Angus Reid in the final weeks of the campaign found between 64 to 66 per cent of respondents still claimed they knew “nothing” or “very little” about the proposal.

Conversely, other polls showed support for the referendum rising over time despite high levels of undecided voters. Two Ipsos-Reid polls held in the weeks up to the vote found support for the “Yes” side increase from 42 per cent to 47 per cent, with the “No” side decreasing by a similar five per cent over the same period.

In short, these referendums achieved pluralities despite an (I expect concerted) effort to create disinformation — or simply a lack of information — surrounding their campaigns.

With that said, it’s a mischaracterization to pin the lack of change in Canada’s electoral system as a result of complacency or uncertainty on the part of the average voter, or to point to failed referendums as “proof” that Canadians don’t want electoral reform.

Canadians want electoral reform, however decades of misinformation (read: a truly bipartisan effort by the Liberals and Conservatives with NDP opposition to something it’s ostensibly in support of now sprinkled on top) have led to a situation wherein the majority of those wanting changes to the status quo are uneducated about how those very alternatives would work.

As for the future? PEI is holding another plebiscite on mixed-member proportional representation this year (their 2016 one failed with 52 per cent support, 8 per cent shy of the 60 per cent “supermajority” required).

And while I won’t (explicitly) tell you how to vote, here’s hoping the government — through disinformation campaigns or otherwise — doesn’t either.


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