Electoral reform: If you're not confused yet, you will be

  • National Newswatch

Popular belief is our voting system is broken and in desperate need of fixing. But there's a bigger challenge; the possible solutions are more difficult to explain than the problem. This creates the perfect conditions for academic arguments and political debates.Many eyes in the audience of the Manning Centre Conference's "First Past its Prime" session were glazed over at times. And, this is an audience that is supposed to understand the subject.They understand certain things. Or, they thought they did.For example, popular belief among Conservatives is that Preferential Ballot (PB, also known as Ranked Ballot) and Proportional Representation (PR) are like kryptonite to their election hopes. Not so, according to Nick Loenen. The a former politician and author of "Citizenship and Democracy, a case for proportional representation" believes that politics is cyclical and that any new system, no matter its potential party-preference, won't keep any party out of power for long.And still it gets more complicated. He doesn't think a single-system solution is the answer, either.Loenen pitched his idea of single-seat PB in rural areas and multi-seat PB in urban areas. He calls it a "Made in Canada solution" that will address our unique representational challenge of too few people in too much geography, too unevenly divided.According to Loenen, Manitoba and Alberta used this mixed system from the 1920s to the 1950s with success. It was ultimately replaced by First Past the Post, our current system, to satisfy party interests (over those of voters).You can see how this can become complicated very quickly. And, I haven't even begun to explain the distinction between single-seat and multi-seat, or share Loenen's arguments on why this Made in Canada mixed voting system makes sense. Imagine trying to take that to a referendum.During his remarks, Queen's University's Associate Professor of Political Studies Jonathan Rose noted that no voting system is a panacea. He reminded the room that electoral reform is more than just a voting system since PB and PR are just as likely to eliminate a deficit and change the way MPs behave in Parliament as First Past the Post. Rose suggests "a referendum if necessary, but not necessarily a referendum."Even before MP Scott Reid took the stage, I thought about Rabbis arguing over the finer details of the Passover story.Reid is the Conservative's Critic for Democratic Institutions and the author of his party's policy statement on electoral reform. He believes a referendum on this issue is necessary.According to Reid, the wording of the Liberal's election promise that 2015 would be the last for First Past the Post allows the Government to initiate a consultation and recommend an option, though falls short of allowing it to impose a new system. The Government would have been in a stronger position if the Liberals had campaigned on the promise to implement a specific new system. That set Reid up to share a few options along with their vulnerabilities.During a chat with some attendees following the session, one suggested to me that First Past the Post is the worst voting system we have, except for all the others. Perhaps that's how most Canadians feel. For them, trying to understand the many nuances and available options will be like trying to make a decision in a Starbucks. When paralyzed with options, they'll go with the familiar.Mark Blevis specializes in reputation and issues management, online advocacy and litigation support.  He is a regular analyst of the role of digital in public affairs and politics for Canadian media organizations including CTV, CBC, the Globe and Mail, Canadian Press and PostMedia.