A productive debate around electoral reform requires more facts, less polemics.

Since it began in earnest a few months ago, the electoral reform debate in Canada has spread like a wildfire, uncontrolled and subject to the force of whichever wind happens to prevail at the moment. The chaos is slowly starting to give way to some order, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil specifics finally about the committee that will be tasked with making a recommendation on a new system. Formal and informal coalitions will take shape, and (some) Canadians will become aware of the debate and some of the substantive material that is up for discussion.

What we have yet to discuss, however, is how the debate should be carried out. The flows of information in civil society and between civil society and government are messy, and in many ways that’s desirable. After all, to whom would one assign the task of organizing and patrolling the crisscross of information? I can’t think of a suitable candidate, and I would be suspicious of anyone who could.

Moreover, the nature of contemporary democratic pluralism is necessarily somewhat chaotic and unpredictable, and the most critical question is not whether there is order within our debates, but whether, somehow, the will of the population over time will generate the right outcomes. Nonetheless, we can do better or worse at self-organizing when we engage in particular debates. When it comes to the issue of electoral reform, so far we’re tilting heavily towards worse.

What would better look like? For one, we ought to first separate reasons from attachments. Reasons are the currency of democratic politics; they consist of a specific, rational, and publicly accessible explanation of why one supports or opposes a particular proposition. Attachments, on the other hand, are emotional; they take the form of “I like this,” or “this is what I know.”

One of the major advances in democratic theory and practice in the last few decades has been the rise of deliberative democracy, premised on, among other things, a commitment to giving reasons when arguing for or against a proposition. The electoral reform debate has already been marked by the advancements of barely-concealed attachments (or worse, plain self-interest) masquerading as reasons. The parties have formally or informally lined up behind the system that (likely) stands to benefit them the most, and social media and comment sections have lit up with proponents of particular electoral system models, convinced that their system is not just “the best,” but that it’s also without drawbacks.

The immediate division into camps has occurred on all sides of the debate; it has reduced what should be a moment of deep engagement and discussion about options, to a battle of attachments (I like this one!) and craven political opportunism (This one is good for me/us).

We ought also to separate, at least in the early days of the debate, facts from arguments. The two are obviously and necessarily intertwined, but given the extent to which many are uninformed, under-informed, or misinformed on the facts about first-past-the-post, alternative vote, proportional representation, and so forth, it is essential that we pursue a learning phase so that we can all work off of the same, or at least broadly similar, facts.

The electoral reform debate is certainly a values debate since it’s about the kinds of goods we collectively care about and want an electoral system to produce at election time (i.e. fair outcomes, stability, accountability, a more gender-balanced House of Commons, etc.). The debate ought to be premised on shared information, since we have access to many facts relevant to the issue.

There are right and wrong answers. There are specific systems that can be properly described (or mischaracterized). There are better or worse case studies that can be used to imagine what reform would look like in Canada. There is data from other countries that can inform us about their experience with various systems, which can be more or less accurately communicated. We should take our time and make sure this learning phase is done well; values debates often require a robust commitment to understanding the facts that surround them, lest they become exclusively about the aforementioned attachments and interests.

Perhaps as important as any other consideration, as individuals, we must also self-patrol our tone and our disposition when engaging with someone who disagrees with us. I’ve been guilty of falling short on this, especially given the polemic nature of so many interventions to date.

Each of us who engages in this debate ought to remember that it’s a national debate on electoral reform; this debate belongs to the country, and not to policy wonks or activists or politicians or pundits alone. While acid-tongued polemics may be perfectly normal among these groups they do not serve the public well in this case.

If we can unite a critical mass committed to the broad ethical principles I have discussed here, not only might we have a more productive and engaging debate about electoral reform, we will also provide a value-added service for Canadians who are trying to navigate uncertain and potentially treacherous waters without weighing in themselves. This requires that many of us holster our egos and work against muscle memory (our quick draw impulses) when we discuss electoral reform. The matter is sufficiently important to the country that it’s worth a very serious and sustained effort.

Photo: ValeStock / Shutterstock.com

This article is part of the Electoral Reform special feature.


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