What the US Can Learn From Canada’s Experiment With Electoral Reform

by Kit O’Connell, Truthout | News Analysis –

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Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected, in part, on a promise to change how the next government gets elected.

Although Canada’s electoral reform is very much a work in progress, activists and politicians alike are working to eliminate a majority-rule system in favor of a different, still-to-be-determined, but hopefully more representational form of voting.

“We want proportional representation,” said Kelly Carmichael, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, in an interview with Truthout, referring to one type of alternate voting system being considered.

“We never want to be stuck in a situation again where one person can take over the governance of our country,” she added, referring to Stephen Harper, Trudeau’s predecessor.

Although the US and Canada use very different systems, we can learn a great deal from this historic moment, particularly at a time when US voter turnout is plummeting and dissatisfaction with the available choices on the ballot is on the rise.

A Crash Course in Canadian Democracy

Canada’s Parliament still reflects the country’s origins as a Dominion of the UK. Although the queen technically rules over Canada, she’s delegated her powers to the Canadian Governor General, a largely symbolic role appointed on the recommendation of the elected prime minister.

Canada has a bicameral Parliament, but the Canadian Senate is also mostly symbolic. Senators are appointed by the governor general and review the actions of the House, occasionally vetoing a bill or sending it back to the House for review.

There’s been talk of reforming or abolishing the Canadian Senate (even as, in the US, some elements within the GOP support ending popular election of senators and allowing state legislatures to appoint them). But in Canada, the House of Commons holds most of the power and is the focus of current electoral reform efforts.

The House’s members of Parliament (MPs) vote on laws and, although they can influence the direction of bills through debate, in general most vote along party lines to a far greater extent than their US equivalents. Members of Parliament support government transparency by participating in committees that review federal spending and activities, and guide party policy in caucuses.

Every four years (usually), Canadians select a member of Parliament to represent their “riding,” or local, electoral district. Voters select from candidates representing one of several registered parties, with the winner determined by a simple majority-rule, or “first-past-the-post” system.

“You have a voter voting on a bunch of candidates, but only one winner,” said Carmichael.

The party that wins the most ridings forms the government, which means that the party’s leader becomes prime minister. The prime minister then appoints important cabinet positions and guides key debates in Parliament.

If one party holds a majority, or at least 170 out of the 338 seats in the House of Commons, they have virtually limitless power to pass legislation and set government policy, regardless of popular opinion.

In another parallel with the US, gerrymandering (redistricting ridings in order to help one party at the expense of others) helped usher in a succession of conservative governments that put Harper in power from 2006 until 2015. Voters are often forced to vote “strategically” — for the lesser of all evils — rather than in their own best interests. Because of Canada’s multiparty system, it’s commonplace for prime ministers to come to power despite their party receiving less than 50 percent of the popular vote.

Such was the case with Stephen Harper. In 2008, the Conservative Party re-elected Harper after receiving about 36 percent of the popular vote, but lacked a majority in Parliament. After Parliament dissolved early after a vote of no confidence in 2011, Harper returned to power in the subsequent election with a majority government.

The conservative Parliament and the Harper government intensified austerity measures and made major concessions to the oil industry. Arms exports increased by 89 percent, with Canada becoming the second largest arms exporter to the Middle East.

“It became so perverse that Stephen Harper ruled autocratically over his own party, where he was the man in charge of Canada,” recalled Carmichael. “His goal was to remake Canada … and he worked in tandem with multinationals and corporations.”

The Harper government was so destructive to the Canadian way of life that a strong movement rose up to oppose it, advocating for the replacement of the Conservative Party with a government that would reform how Canadians choose their representatives.

“We Will Make Every Vote Count”

Carmichael became executive director at Fair Vote Canada to help organize its campaign for electoral reform in the 2015 election. The organization combined outreach via traditional and social media and helped create Every Vote Counts, a diverse coalition, from labor organizers to environmental and immigration activists.

Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party took power with a majority government, taking 184 seats, a huge increase from the 36 seats the party held under the previous government. The Conservative Party lost 60 seats, dropping to second place with 99 seats in the House of Commons, with the remaining seats shared among the New Democratic Party, or NDP (44 seats), Bloc Québécois (four seats) and the Green Party (one seat).

For Carmichael, the influence of Every Vote Counts’ campaign on the election was clear from the start: “Justin Trudeau launched his electoral campaign with our tagline which says ‘We will make every vote count.'”

The electoral reform committee formed by the Trudeau government met for the first time on June 21, with meetings expected to continue throughout the summer. While the Liberal Party initially planned to hold a majority of the committee’s 12 seats, under pressure from other parties, it reduced its presence to just five seats, with three seats going to the Conservative Party, two seats to the NDP, and one each to Bloc Québécois and the Greens.

For Carmichael, the change to the committee’s makeup is a sign that Trudeau’s government is more responsive to the public and other parties’ leadership than the Harper administration. “We’re pushing really hard and feel they are much more open to listening to citizens and embrace the spirit of democracy.”

The committee will conduct outreach to everyday Canadians and political experts to determine the best system, which would then become law by passing through Parliament.

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout