More on Representation and Electoral Systems

Prompted by a comment on a previous post regarding how voter representation would be different if Canada had a proportional representation system, I decided to do some reading on the Fair Vote website and stumbled upon some interesting facts. The first is an illuminating quote regarding the difference between decision-making (rule) and representation by somebody named Ernest Haville:

 “In a democratic government, the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all.”

As we noted in class earlier today, many of the votes cast in our elections are wasted as a result of our first-past-the-post system. Below is a screenshot from the website wastedvotes.ca, which shows that in the 2008 federal election in Gatineau, QC, fully 70% of the voters were not represented. This is because the Bloc Quebecois candidate, Richard Nadeau, won a tight four-way battle, garnering a plurality of the vote at 29.2%.

This is just the most egregious example of wasted votes (and, thereby, of non-representation), but every Canadian election and electoral district sees wasted votes. Indeed, the folks at wastedvote.ca have calculated that of the more than 14 million votes cast during Canada’s last federal election (2011) only slightly more than half (50.4%) were effective, while 49.6% were wasted.

Why is this bad for democracy? Well, here is another excerpt from fairvote.ca:

Does Canada actually have representative democracy? In the 2008 federal election:

  • 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs.
  • In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats.
  • Similar to the last election, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal.
  • New Democrats: The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats, the NDP 37.

What about majority rule? Canadians are usually ruled by majority governments that the majority voted against. In some provincial elections, parties coming in second in the popular vote have won majority control of the legislature.

In class, we noted the irony of the part above that is in bold font! The 1988 federal election was fought primarily on the basis of a pending free trade agreement amongst Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In Canada, the Progressive Conservatives (led by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney) were in favour of (what would become) NAFTA, while the NDP and the Liberal Party were against. In the end, a majority of Canadians voted for parties that were against NAFTA, yet the PCs won a majority of seats in parliament, enabling them to push through the necessary legislation.

Current UN Peacekeeping Operations

In POLI 1140, we spent part of last session watching major portions of the documentary, The  Peacekeepers, which explored the role of the UN is setting up and escalating a peacekeeping mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The documentary used a behind-the-scenes approach to analyze the issues faced by the world’s foremost IGO in implementing its mandate to “protect international peace and security”. The focus of the documentary was on the Ituri region in the eastern DRC province of East Kivu.

As the above map notes, the UN, though the auspices of its Department of Peacekeeping Operations, currently has 16 active peacekeeping missions worldwide. The former DRC mission, known as MONUC, has been transformed, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1925, into MONUSCO.

As of the start of this year, this is the strength of the peacekeeping force in the DRC:

  • 19,070 total uniformed personnel
    • 16,975 military personnel
    • 723 military observers
    • 1,372 police (including formed units)
  • 976 international civilian personnel*
  • 2,868 local civilian staff*
  • 588 United Nations Volunteers

Currently, in 16 DPKO-led peacekeeping operations, there are almost 120,000 personnel (uniformed and civilian) serving from 115 different countries, while approved resources for the 2012 fiscal year are almost $8 billion US.

Mind you, this is only one aspect of the world’s greatest IGO–the United Nations. Remember also that the UN is only as strong and as capable as its members states make it. Thus, when you hear somebody say “the UN did this,” or “the UN didn’t do that”, what you should remind these people is that they should be saying “the member states, which comprise the UN, did (or did not do) this, or that…”

 

Why do Young Canadians Vote Less than Others?

In POLI 1100 today, we looked at a table (from Dyck–Studying Politics) that demonstrated low (relative to other age groups) levels of political interest and politics are amongst young Canadians. We explored (that is, I asked students to conjecture about) some of the potential reasons for this in class.

A recent report by Marion Menard of the Social Affairs Division of the Canadian Library of Parliament explores a few potential causes of low voter turnout amongst Canadian youth. She lists four:

1 No Issues of Interest to Young People?

The explanation most often provided is that the issues that are important to young people are not part of the political parties’ election platforms. However, this hypothesis is challenged by political scientists who conducted a study for Elections Canada following the federal election in 2004. According to Elizabeth Gidengil and her fellow researchers, for instance, health was cited as a key issue for all survey respondents, regardless of age:

Issues that concern many young people are on the political agenda, and the political parties are taking positions on these issues. The problem seems to be that too often these messages are just not registering with a significant proportion of younger Canadians

2 Lack of Political Knowledge?

The authors of the Gidengil study asserted that there were “striking” gaps in young Canadians’ knowledge of politics.6 There is also consensus in the academic community that a significant number of young voters go to the polls without the necessary tools to make an informed decision.7 According to researchers, young people know little or nothing about the politicians and have no idea how the political institutions that run the country function. In a study conducted for the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IPRP), Henry Milner established a cause and effect relationship between the level of political knowledge and youth electoral participation.

3 Lack of Trust in the System?

According to Brenda O’Neill of the University of Manitoba, beyond limited knowledge about the political system, voters both young and old show a lack of interest in public affairs. She says that many voters doubt that voting every four years can truly influencethe decision-making process, and as a result, people stay away from the polls, which can lead to distrust and even cynicism over time

4 Media Influence?

When the issue of cynicism is raised, the media are often singled out as the culprits. Television is mentioned in particular since it tends to focus on the conflicts in politics.10

Yet media use reportedly has a positive impact overall on the acquisition of political knowledge, although its efficacy depends on the medium used. Reading newspapers and news websites has a strong positive impact on the electoral participation of young Canadians, while watching television and listening to the radio do not have as marked an effect.

Which of these do you think is the most important? If so, what is a potential remedy (assuming you share the view that youth political participation should be increased)?

The History of the Recall in BC Provincial Politics

As we noted in POLI 1100 earlier today, the recall mechanism is one of the tools of direct democracy that citizens can use to influence the political process. A student asked whether any provincial politician (in BC) had ever been recalled. The answer is that since the passage of The Recall and Initiative Act (1996), of 24 attempts at recall, not a single one of them proved successful. (Of course, we witnessed the successful recall effort last year of the HST legislation brought in by the Campbell government.) In 23 of these efforts not enough valid signatures were collected, while in one effort the MLA–Paul Reitsma (Lib–Parskville-Qualicum)–resigned prior to the process reaching its conclusion.

Here is an overview of the recall process, from Elections BC:

Recall is a process that allows registered voters to petition for the removal of a Member of the Legislative Assembly between elections.

Any registered voter can apply to have a petition issued for the recall of their MLA (the elected Member representing their electoral district in the Legislative Assembly). A registered voter who wants to start a recall petition must obtain an application form from the Chief Electoral Officer. The completed application form must be submitted to the Chief Electoral Officer with a non-refundable processing fee of $50 and include a statement of 200 words or less of why, in the opinion of the applicant, the Member should be recalled. A Member cannot be recalled during the first 18 months after their election.

If the application is complete and meets the requirements of the Recall and Initiative Act, a petition is issued to the applicant (called a “proponent”) within seven days. The proponent then has 60 days to collect signatures from more than 40% of the voters who were registered to vote in the Member’s electoral district in the last election, and who are currently registered as voters in B.C. The proponent may be helped by volunteers when canvassing for signatures.

When all the signed petition sheets are submitted, the Chief Electoral Officer has 42 days to verify that enough eligible individuals have signed the petition. If enough valid signatures are on the petition, and the financing rules have been met by the proponent, the Member ceases to hold office and a by-election must be called within 90 days. A recalled Member can run as a candidate in the by-election.

 

 

Reporters without Borders is an important international NGO

We read about the importance of international NGOs in Chapter 7 of Mingst and Arreguin-Toft this past week. Prompted by this blog post of a student of mine in POLI 1140, I have decided to highlight the work of Reporters without Borders. If you are interested in learning more about the challenges that journalists and “netizens” (after all, with the advent of the Internet we are all potential budding citizen-journalists), their website can be accessed here.

Below is a screen-shot of the front page where we see that as of this point in 2012, 11 journalists have been killed, an additional 153 journalists have been imprisoned, while 120 netizens have also been imprisoned. Clicking on the links to the graphic on their website will take you to more detailed information regarding the individuals behind these numbers. Of the 120 netizens who have been imprisoned, 68 are from China, 20 from Iran, and 18 from Vietnam.

Here’s an interesting blog post from a student of mine regarding the death of journalist Marie Colvin in the embattled Syrian city of Homs.

langarapolisciblog1

Marie Colvin a well-known war reporter who has sported an eye patch since she was wounded in 2001 while reporting in Sri Lanka, was killed the other day during the siege of Homs. Bashar al-Assad a dictator in Syria has been struggling to put down a revolt that has been ongoing for some time. The government is currently not allowing reporters into Syria; this is most likely a ploy to cover up war crimes. Currently the UN is not involved in the Syrian conflict due to China and Russia both voting no against intervention in Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s regime was believed to have targeted the building where Marie Colvin was staying to disrupt or kill journalists who use satellite phones to communicate with their news affiliates. The regime was believed to have tracked the use of satellite phones to try and pinpoint journalists. Citizens are looking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and the…

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Proportional Representation versus First-Past-the-Post

As we learned in POLI 1100 today, Canada is one of small number of countries that continues to have a first-past-the-post system for national elections. What this means is that we divide the country up into 308 single-member districts (divided principally on the basis of the “representation by population” principle), from each of which exactly one individual is elected to represent that district in the House of Commons in Ottawa. In our case, a winner only has to have a plurality of the vote in that district to be elected the winner. What this does is it tends to give larger parties overrepresentation in parliament based on their actual electoral strength. It also gives regionally-concentrated parties (like the Bloc Quebecois) overrepresentation in parliament vis-a-vis parties whose electoral support is more diffuse geographically.

As we can see from the 2008 federal election results, the Green Party received almost 7% of the total national vote, yet because the vote was dispersed across the whole of the country, did not receive a single mandate in the House of Commons. The Bloc Quebecois, meanwhile, gained 50 seats in parliament with a slightly larger percentage of the vote than the Greens! Why? Because the BQ’s votes were geographically concentrated within a minority of ridings in the province of Quebec.

Turning now to the 2011 federal election, in which Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won a majority in the House of Commons with 166 seats (and 39.6% of the vote). See the results below.

What if, on the other hand, Canada had a proportional representation system in which each province was its own electoral district and seats for the House of Commons were apportioned on the basis of the relative proportion of votes won by each party in each province? What would the results look like? With the help of my students, we were able to calculate the hypothesized makeup of the House of Commons were Canada to have such an electoral system.

Notice that the total number of MPs for the Conservative Party has dropped considerably such that the party no longer has a majority in the House of Commons. In fact, no single party has a majority! In order to form a relatively stable government, the Conservatives would have to find willing coalition partners. Unfortunately for them, however, other than the BQ, there is no immediately suitable coalition partner, given the respective ideological stances of the parties in parliament. Even with the BQ, the Conservatives could not get a governing majority, coming up 15 seats short. An NDP/Liberal?Green coalition, on the other hand, would work both ideologically and in terms of numbers (166 seats, exactly the same number as the Conservatives have today).

Note also how much a proportional representation system would help the Green Party–from only 1 seat in the House to 11 seats!

Which system would you prefer? Do you think that we should maintain the status quo? Should we change to PR? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Writing to your MP in Support of a Bill in the House of Commons

In POLI 1100, we have been discussing the concept and structure of legislatures. Near the end of Chapter 8 we looked at the path a bill has to traverse in Parliament before it becomes law (see Figure 8.2 of the Dyck textbook, p. 235). We viewed a video clip of MP Ruby Dhalla introducing a bill to amend the residency provisions of the OAS act. (If you don’t know what OAS stands for, watch the short video.)

We have learned in the past couple of weeks that most of the contact that you, as a Canadian citizen, have with the government is via the political executive, whether at the provincial or federal level. Apart from voting for your MP (MLA), there is very little contact between you and the legislative branch of our government. This week’s blog assignment can help change that. As I’ve noted on Blackboard, for this week’s blog assignment you can choose to write on anything to do with “legislatures”. You may, however, choose to write a letter to your MP (or any MP) in support (or opposition to) any bill that is currently in middle of the legislative process in Parliament. Here are the steps:

1. Go to http://www.parl.gc.ca (and select your language of choice):

2. Click on “Bills before Parliament” on the left (see the screenshot below). (“Projets de loi a l’etude au Parliament”, en francais)

3. On the next page, you will see, amongst other things, a list of the “All Bills for the Current Session (41st Parliament, 1st Session). The Bills can be sorted by number (as seen below), or by “Latest Activity Date”.

4. Find a Bill that interests you, and write a letter to the MP who is sponsoring the bill. Here’s an example of a letter I wrote below:

Mr. Jean Rousseau, M.P. House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

Cher Monsieur Rousseau:

I am writing to you in support of Bill C-312, The Democratic Representation Act, which is currently at the Second Reading state of the legislative process in the House of Commons. As I understand it, the bill is meant to assuage the concerns of the Quebecois regarding the province of Quebec’s decreasing population, as a share of Canadian population as a whole. Bill C-312, should it be adopted into law, would maintain proportional representation of Quebec’s delegation in the House of Commons at 2006 levels, regardless of the relative proportion of Quebec’s population in the future.

While some might see this as anti-democratic in that this law would mandate a divergence from the idea that every citizen’s vote should be counted equally, I believe that the the violation of this core principle is justified in this case. (Indeed, in many areas of politics and public policy, debates centre around clashes of competing (and contradictory), fundamentally legitimate–morally and politically–principles.) In this case, the competing principle is the protection of a strong Quebec, and Quebecois society, which I believe is of inestimable value to Canadian society as a whole.

In the view of this Canadian citizen, who since immigrating to this wonderful country as an infant, has lived in the western province of British Columbia (when not living outside the country), Canada’s French heritage is an indispensable part of our country’s unique heritage and is part of the basis for the creation of what is today (though we know it hasn’t always been) a tolerant multicultural society, which is the envy of many around the world.

Sincerely,
Josip (Joseph) Dasovic
Dept of History, Latin, and Political Science
Langara College
Vancouver, BC

Do you agree with my position? Should we violate the principle of “one-person, one-vote” in the way intended by Bill C-312?