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The Public Outlook on Electoral Reform and Democratic Renewal

WHAT DOES THE CITIZENRY WANT?

By Frank Graves

This article was published in the November-December 2016 issue of Policy Magazine.

[Ottawa – November 1, 2016] The issue of electoral reform is of great importance to citizens. The issue does not produce the same visceral immediacy as debates about health care, climate change, and economic stagnation. It does, however, find its roots in deep historical shifts in the relationships between citizens and their governments.

We are going to try and distil the public preferences for moving forward on these issues. There is no overall consensus and there are those who would be quite content with the status quo. Despite these cleavages, there is a clear overall lean that there is a problem and that it needs fixing. Most citizens agree that the status quo is flawed and change is required. Changes will inevitably leave some unhappy but there will be even more discontent if nothing were to change.

In this discussion, we are sharing the increasingly reflected views of a representative sample of Canadians. Some of the key questions have been asked repeatedly over the years so we can judge the trajectory of concerns and preferences. It is notable that while there is a desire to change the electoral system, the very act of rigourous citizen engagement is seen as one of the most promising ways of renewing trust in government. Consider this research as an example of just that and imagine that informed, reflected, and representative engagement became part of routine governance.

We are going to organize the rest of this discussion around five central questions:

  1. What is the current state of health of Canadian democracy?
  2. How are the public seeing the issue of electoral reform?
  3. What should be the next steps? Should we move forward or delay?
  4. Should we be broadening the horizon of reforms to consider things other than alternatives to the first past the post system?
  5. What would a citizen-built system of democratic reforms look like?

A Check-up on Democratic Health

The question of whether or not we need to make changes is rooted in the question of whether the current system is performing adequately or needs to be improved. We know that Canada, like virtually all advanced Western Democracies, has experienced a precipitous decline in trust in government over the past several decades. The incidence of those who say they can trust the government in Ottawa to do the right thing is less than half what it was in the sixties. On the other hand, we have seen an impressive rise in this indicator since the change in government last year. However, we suspect that this improvement is not sufficient to deal with the depths of the problems and our respondents also tell us that.

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While the bounce is impressive, it has flattened and may well decline again. It is notable how closely Canada and the United States have been following the same trajectory.

Looking at another barometer of democratic health, we have tracked political cynicism for the past 15 years. Once again, we see a significant uptick in outlook on this indicator but it is still the case that, by a margin of 50 to 33, the public agree that the government doesn’t care much about what I think. While that is better than the rather shocking 74 to 16 lean we saw in the final stages of the last government’s tenure, it is still troubling to thing that roughly half of the citizenry think their government doesn’t care about them.

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Against this rather bleak outlook, we submit our twenty plus years tracking of whether or not Canada has the best system of government in the world. This rather lofty yardstick is satisfied for slightly over half of all Canadians. This represents a slight uptick from the modest down tick that occurred from 2004 to 2015. Like Churchill’s wry note that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others, Canadians exhibit lots of skepticism about our system of government but ultimately think it is world class.

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Herein lies a significant challenge. Canadians believe our system is flawed and needs repairs but they don’t think it is a wreck. It is more about how it can be better, fairer, and more responsive in the future. Canadians want to rethink – not reinvent – their democracy.

When asking if my vote makes a difference we see some more positive results. Nearly two-thirds agree it does but one in five think it makes no difference. This sizable minority believe they have no real political efficacy and this sense is stronger for those parties more disadvantaged by the first-past-the-post system (e.g. Green Party supporters).

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The chart above shows that this view is strongly linked to partisanship and this is a pervasive connection throughout our research. On subsequent questions of whether we should be moving forward on electoral reform, the outlook of Conservative supporters is very different from the other (over 70 per cent). Basically, most Conservative supporters are comfortable with the status quo. One interesting fault line is that younger Canada is much less impressed with our system of democracy and more amenable to change.

A more measured view on democratic health emerges from the question of whether one’s MP does a good job of representing their constituency. A plurality of 43 per cent agrees, but this is faint praise. The marks are much better in Atlantic Canada and much worse in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The issue of democratic renewal should consider how to reform the role of MPs to make them more responsive to their constituencies.

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Electoral Reform? Necessary or not and which Reforms?

Canadians are telling us that their democracy has sound foundations but there are some important and growing flaws. Most don’t trust the government to do the right thing, there is only tepid satisfaction with the role of MPs and many feel that their voice doesn’t matter. While we have seen some modest improvements the overall picture is one which suggests there are serious problems to be confronted. Here we turn to what Canadians think of one critical ingredient of our democracy; the first-past-the-post system of electing MPS and governments.

We will look at both preferences and the sense of appropriate pace for making changes. First, we thought it might be helpful to examine what should be the ultimate principles which should underpin any electoral system.

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There is no single principle which adequately captures the essence of an ideal electoral system. There are, however, three clear dominant principles which are basically tied as the most important: legitimacy, good government, and equality. The electoral system should be fair and enjoy legitimacy. The system should generate good government (which best reflects the overall public interest). The third part of this ternary system of ultimate principles is equality – all votes should be of equal value. Some feel it should be all about turnout but that is clearly not of the same salience and may be seen more as instrumental rather than an ultimate principle.

Recognizing the importance of equality and basic fairness, the next indicator gets to the essential problem with the status quo. In a nutshell, the public think that a party’s success in terms of seats should reflect its share of popular vote.

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Despite a bump up in trust since the last election a clear and growing majority think that the majorities achieved in 2011 and last October violate this basic canon of equality and fairness. The public separate their satisfaction with any given election from their conviction that in an ideal world half the seats should require half the vote.

While the testing of electoral reform alternatives can be made quite complex we wanted to keep it simple and link it back to ultimate principles. We experimentally tested two versions of the three main alternatives. In one we gave a very basic description which allows us to track it against earlier surveys. A second version was randomly assigned to half the sample. They got a more detailed description and a basic summary of the key pro and con arguments. The two methods produced similar results with the key difference being the relatively better performance of the first-past-the-post in the informed version.

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Overall, the results are relatively clear but provide no consensus position. In all versions, proportional representation does best. First-past-the-post does worst in the less informed version but the clear advantage of the preferential over the first-past-the-post is more modest in the informed version.

Is the current system broken or sound? The previous seems to suggest it is broken (albeit not structurally).

Stand pat or move forward

So should we move forward? The case seems to lean yes to making major changes but there are some pretty stark divisions.

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A modest majority think we need to make changes while around a third think the current system is sound. This is highly correlated with party support and age. Older Canada and Conservative supporters think we should leave well enough alone. Everyone else – particularly younger Canada – says change please.

A closely related question provides a similar, if somewhat closer result. What is interesting here is the profound gap between the change and status quo positions across generation. Support for major changes is twice as high among younger voters than it is among seniors.

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Next Steps (if any) and a Note on the R-thing

The path forward is relatively clear but the government will need to engage in a cautious approach that satisfies the need for deliberation and consultation. The current government is expected to deliver on this promise (which was loosely supported by the NDP and the Green Party). The public see no need for undue haste, some of which is a desire to see this go away and some of which is a desire for care. There is a clear lean to wanting this solved before the next election but the gap with it could be delayed is not huge.

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So how about that referendum? The views here are pretty evenly split. The perceived need for a referendum is much higher amongst those who don’t want change. As someone who worked on Charlottetown and the last Quebec referendum, I can certify that this is a sensible view for those seeking the status quo. Referenda are expensive, divisive, and rarely achieve success.

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Expanding the Horizons of the Debate

What if changes to the voting system are not the only or even the most compelling methods for improving democratic health? Our evidence suggests that this is clearly possible. Given the potentially thorny path through what would be a nearly certainly futile referendum maybe there are other solutions. Or perhaps electoral reform should be delivered with an ensemble of additional reforms that strike to the heart of the problem.

The public would seem to be equally and perhaps even more receptive to other options.

Let’s begin with mandatory voting. Many argue that voting is such a basic civil obligation that everyone must do so, just as they must pay taxes and complete their census form. Australia has been using this since 1924 with good results. Another 21 countries have joined in this approach. The current focus on get out and keep home your and the opponents vote has led to a fixation on a series of operational approaches which stress turnout rather than policy.

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Apparently, a clear and growing majority of Canadians agree with this approach. Given the inventory of evils associated with the dark ops of the permanent campaign, this might be a more direct routed to democratic renewal. Perhaps it could be tested with a sunset clause to re-evaluate.

Even more obviously, when are we going to get around to an Internet ballot? This could increase turnout and simplify the task of voting. We bank online, buy movies and music online, indeed we do almost everything online now. Why should we trudge to the polling station when we could do the same job on our smart phone? Over half of Canadians say they would be very likely to vote online in the next federal election. The polling station will go the way of the buggy whip and Canadians think it is time to go digital voting.

What about something that isn’t really part of the debate about democratic renewal? Is it possible that there is something totally outside of the electoral system that could have a more beneficial effect than any electoral reforms? The public think so, and so do we.

Imagine that we could go into the living room of all Canadian households to discuss the critical issues of the day. Now further imagine that they are given basic information to allow them to provide informed and reflective advice to decision makers on the key issues of the day. Much as we have done so in this current exercise. Citizens wouldn’t just have a kick at the can every four years; they would have a regular seat at the table on all critical issues – not to direct or control but to provide advice.

Note how appealing this notion is in the tracking below.

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Huge majorities say this would be a good idea and would make them feel better about government. The technology to do this rapidly and scientifically is more than available. Our democratic institutions were invented to deal with farmers, miners, and others who had neither the time nor the information to provide such input. That is no longer the case.

So let’s put all of this in the hopper and see what happens.

Finally, we look at what Canadians believe to be the most effective means of improving democratic health. A few things are readily obvious. First of all, there is no single magic bullet that will restore trust in government. Second, there is a clear hierarchy of reforms that would make things better. The list is surprisingly topped by citizen engagement, not electoral reform. Proportional representation, online voting, and mandatory voting are all popular ingredients of a citizen-built recipe for democratic health.

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In closing, there is a will and a mandate to move forward. The status quo is anachronistic and the public want reforms which will enhance legitimacy, equality and good government, There is no need for recklessness or speed but there is a need to move forward to the next level.

Methodology

This survey was conducted using EKOS’ unique, hybrid online/telephone research panel, Probit. Our panel offers exhaustive coverage of the Canadian population (i.e., Internet, phone, cell phone), random recruitment (in other words, participants are recruited randomly, they do not opt themselves into our panel), and equal probability sampling. All respondents to our panel are recruited by telephone using random digit dialling and are confirmed by live interviewers. Unlike opt-in online panels, Probit supports margin of error estimates. We believe this to be the only probability-based online panel in Canada

While panellists are randomly recruited, this survey was conducted online only, meaning that it excludes the roughly one in six Canadians who either can not or will not respond to surveys online. Results should therefore be considered representative of Canada’s online population. The field dates for this survey are October 12-18, 2016. In total, a random sample of 1,622 Canadian adults aged 18 and over responded to the survey. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/- 2.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Please note that the margin of error increases when the results are sub-divided (i.e., error margins for sub-groups such as region, sex, age, education). All the data have been statistically weighted by age, gender, region, and educational attainment to ensure the sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of Canada according to Census data.

Please click here for a copy of the questionnaire used to conduct this survey.

Please click here for the data tables for this survey.

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