Sunday, December 04, 2005

Representative? Democracy

A national election has been called here in Canada. To me democracy means that ordinary people are engaged in the decision-making process. To what extent does our system measure up to this ideal?

Our system is a riding-based representative democracy (with various additional peculiarities like an appointed Senate, which are not my focus here). Every so often (but at least every 5 years) we have a national election in which voters in each of 308 local districts ("ridings") select a representative to sit in parliament. Each representative belongs to a political party, and the party with the largest number of elected representatives tries to form a government (perhaps with the conditional support of other parties).

This system has several consequences. First, political engagement by ordinary people tends to be limited. In between elections, we don't generally have much say. A related phenomenon is that at election time, political parties (and candidates) make all kinds of promises about what they'll do if elected. Once in power, things don't always play out this way. That's one reason for the prevailing cynicism about politics and politicians in this country.

Second, because of the riding system, the overall national pattern of votes is somewhat weakly correlated with the number of seats each party wins in parliament. As I have pointed out previously, this makes prediction of election results quite difficult. To me, this kind of uncertainty is regrettable because it heightens the "horse-race" atmosphere around an election, distracting the focus from the real issues. (Unlike in the U.S., the timing of Canadian elections is also unpredictable, adding to the uncertainty.)

The riding system also means that the proportion of seats a party wins can be very different from the popular vote at the national level. For example, take a look at the results of the last election. The Bloc Québécois got 12.4% of the national vote. Their proportional share of the 308 seats in parliament would have been 38, but in fact they got 54 seats. The Green Party got 4.3% of the national vote, but 0 seats! If seats had been assigned in proportion to their share of the national vote, they would have received 13 seats. Clearly, viewpoints that are spread relatively thinly across the country are under-represented in parliament -- or even totally excluded.

A related phenomenon is so-called "strategic voting", in which you vote not for the party you'd like to win, but for the part most likely to defeat the party you don't want to win. Another side of this is "vote splitting". For example two parties with similar views may be defeated by a third party, even though their combined share of the votes is larger. Of course strategic voting and vote splitting can happen in any multi-party system, but the winner-takes-it-all riding system magnifies the problem. And it is a problem. A supporter of the New Democratic Party (NDP, left) may vote Liberal (middle) to keep a Conservative (right) from winning their riding. This is made more complex by the virtues of particular candidates in a riding. (Incidentally, I'm reminded of an election in Louisiana a few years back where the choice was between a former KKK member and a notoriously corrupt candidate. The slogan was "Better a lizard than a wizard!") In the riding where I live, the Liberals have won by a wide margin in each election since 1935, when the riding was formed. I think the only chance to beat them this time would be for everyone on the left to vote Conservative! This seems perverse.

Naturally, political-party strategists are well aware of these aspects of our system. They realize that elections are often decided by what happens in "key ridings", where a few votes can make the difference between winning and losing a seat. Don't expect any of the parties to invest much effort in my riding, where the Liberals have it in the bag. Where do the party leaders visit? Where is political polling the most intense? Where are pre-election funding announcements made? Just where you'd expect. I believe that all this happens at the expense of a genuine focus on the issues and to the detriment of democracy.

Finally, a few links to blogs about the current election campaign: ("I am not a Liberal, a Conservative, a NDPer, or anything else. Rather, I'm just concerned about good governance and graft-free politics in Canada."), (seems to be an NDP supporter), and for fun
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Blogger Dave said...

I agree that a proportional system would more accurately reflect the views of the populace - but how would the actual sitting members be chosen?

11:36 AM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger Raywat Deonandan said...


1:23 PM, December 09, 2005  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

There is an interesting entry in Wikipedia about proportional representation. It lists 4 different classes of methods. For example, one is a "party list system in a multi-member constituency": "The parties each list their candidates according to that party's determination of priorities. In a closed list, voters vote for a list, not a candidate. Each party is allocated seats in proportion to the number of votes, using the ranking order on its list. In an open list, voters indicate their order of preference within the list." I imagine that any system would have its pluses and minuses, and various hybrid systems could be considered.

11:56 AM, December 10, 2005  
Anonymous Joe Dawson said...

I agree that a change would be good and until I see a better system then the one you propose it sounds good to me. However like everyone else I do have some concerns about how such a system would really work.

In an ideal world I would like to vote NDP. I like what they stand for better then the other options I could vote for. On the other hand I really don’t like the current version of the Conservative party. In the area where I live there is really no chance that the NDP will win but it is a very tight race between the Liberal and Conservative parties. So do I vote for the NDP and split the vote and run the risk of a Conservative win, or do I vote Liberal because they are closer to the option I would like to see in power?

I will be voting Liberal in the next election. (Sigh)

So I do think for people like me the solution of a Representative Democracy sounds really good. I could vote for the party I like and feel that my vote is not wasted. What a wonderful concept.

Ok that is the positive aspect of it…

In a Representative Democracy who am I really voting for?

You can’t say that I am voting for the member in my area. Because a win in any one district will not ensure that your member is elected. So you’re really voting for your party right?

In our current political system, if you have a problem with what the government is doing after they are elected. You go to your member and you state your problem. In a Representative Democracy the person in your district may not be the person who the majority of people in that district voted for. So this person may not be in tune with the feelings of that district and people may not feel as comfortable bringing issues to someone who may have been third in a three horse race. Plus this individual who is representing an area may know that very few people voted for him. So how can he truly say he speaks for the people in his area or that they stand behind him?

In a Representative Democracy you almost need a system where by any member can be selected by a citizen to represent them on a concern they may have. That way an individual who is Conservative could speak to the Conservative member who they feel would best understand their issue and attempt to address it. Sounds good right? Wrong….Everyone who is a NDP, Liberal or Conservative will request that the best person in their parties represent them. Making a few people very busy and a majority of them do nothing.

So while I like the idea of a Representative Democracy at first glance I also hold a healthy level of skepticism as to how successful it would really be. So I conducted a quick search on the internet to see what other countries implement such a system and I only found the Dominican Republic. Not a country know for its political stability or one I would want to model Canada’s future base upon.

So while I am not always happy with the existing system and while I do think the concept of a Representative Democracy sounds nice. I think we have to remember we live in one of the safest and most tolerant countries in the world. We also are the only country in the G8 who has had a constant surplus economy and we are making great progress. All of this is things that we should be very proud of as a Country.

So maybe changing the political system to some unproven method that could create unknown instabilities and create unknown problems is not a great idea. Maybe our current very flawed system is about as good a system as can exist when you elect politicians who are often more motivated to get reelected then doing the right thing. This is an unfortunate fact that would still exist in a Representative Democracy.

All the best,


11:20 AM, December 11, 2005  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Hi Joe and thanks for your comments.

I think your search was flawed because you used the wrong term: "Representative Democracy". The right term is "Proportional Representation". In the Wikipedia entry I referenced, they list Israel, the Netherlands, elections to the European Parliament in the U.K., Finland, Germany, New Zealand, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, Italy, Australia, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Malta.

As for how well our current system is working, voter turnout in recent years suggests that there is widespread disaffection in the Canadian electorate.

2:51 PM, December 11, 2005  
Anonymous Joe Dawson said...

Ah thanks Nick,

Another search and more results based on Proportional Representation.

My list found the following had some use of Proportional Representation within their election proccess:
Antigua and Barbuda
Bosnia and Herzegovina
European Union
Faroe Islands
Korea, South
New Zealand
South Africa
Sri Lanka

So you can take the good with the bad…

You have some great examples of successful countries where people have a high quality of life and Proportional Representation has worked very well. And you have an equal or greater list of some really awful places in the world where Proportional Representation governments are paralyzed and unable to move forward. So maybe it is not the system that matters…

Maybe it is something more complex. Why is Proportional Representation working in Greenland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland? Why is it failing so bad in Italy, Israel, Spain and Sri Lanka?

By their design Proportional Representation governments have a minority government where a number of parties band togeather to form a Government. Based on the past few years of history in Canada and the current political environment it is difficult to imagine a minority government system in Canada that would be able to get any work done. The last few years in Canada have only been about one group dancing around while the other groups threaten to bring down the government.

I am not saying such a system wouldn’t work in Canada… I am just finding it hard to imagine based on the past few years. And based on the use of the system around the world I would need to better understand why it is successful in some places and why it has not worked in others.


P.S. Don't talk to me about Wikipedia I just spent the last hour fixing error after error on that site. I am at the point now of just assuming that 50% of the information on that site is wrong.

3:50 PM, December 11, 2005  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

On Wikipedia I just correct mistakes or vandalism as I find them (if it's not too much trouble). And it sounds like you've contributed significantly. Maybe only 49% of the information is wrong now? :-)

4:13 PM, December 11, 2005  

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