A political science class at a Montreal university studied electoral reform and proved a reasoned discussion is possible.
This semester, the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montreal offered a special undergraduate course on electoral reform. This class was to take place at the same time that the Special Committee on Electoral Reform was holding hearings on the very same topic. The committee is to submit its report on December 1. We were the teacher (André Blais) and the teaching assistant (Semra Sevi) in that class.
The course had two objectives: that the students acquire a solid understanding about different voting systems and their consequences, and that they form well-informed views about which voting system we should have for Canadian elections. The class was limited to 30 students and took the form of a seminar. The first two weeks consisted of lectures about the voting systems that exist in the world; the following seven sessions were presentations of scientific research on the various consequences of electoral systems; and the final four were devoted to deliberation and decision.
It was made clear at the outset that discussions would focus on the election to the House of Commons, that the total number of seats (338) would remain the same in whichever model they chose, and that we would not consider other potential reforms (for the Senate, for campaign funding, or whether there should be a referendum).
Ultimately, the class considered four options: 1) keeping the existing first-past-the-post system (FPTP); 2) adopting the alternative vote (AV); 3) adopting a proportional representation (PR) system; and 4) adopting a mixed (MIX) system. As there can be great varieties of PR and MIX, the students went on to specify which specific form of PR and MIX they deemed the most appropriate.
In the case of PR, they went with a system that created electoral districts that were roughly four times larger than the present ridings — in Quebec, this would translate into approximately 20 electoral districts, rather than 78. Between three to five MPs would be elected in each district — a relatively small number, indicating the students were willing to accept only a modest degree of proportionality, or link between votes cast and seat shares. (If the districts had been made much larger, there would have been a stronger proportionality). But the students felt that with a smaller district MPs would maintain closer links with their constituents.
Within that particular form of PR system, they opted for the single transferable vote (STV) for electing MPs, where voters rank the candidates in order of preference, and the candidates need to obtain a given level of support in order to be elected. They felt it important that voters express their preferences as precisely as possible (this occurs when it is possible to indicate first, second, and third choices).
In the case of a mixed system, they chose a “compensatory” approach. In this model, the electoral map would be divided into regions and local districts. Two-thirds of MPs would be elected in local constituencies, while one-third would be elected at the regional level. This regional group would be filled with parties that were disadvantaged during voting at the local level, thus ensuring a certain level of proportionality with the overall popular vote.
The students were again keen to allow voters as much freedom as possible on the ballot, so they chose AV for the local vote and open list PR for the regional vote. (In an open-list system, voters can indicate their preference from a list of candidates prepared by each political party). They were also quite optimistic that, after an efficient information campaign, citizens would understand the basic logic of the proposed system, especially as they would be allowed to express only one choice in the local vote and to simply cast a party vote at the regional level, if they wished to.
The group agreed that the three territories should remain single-member districts (this was also part of the PR proposal). And exceptions would, of course, be made for PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador, which would continue to have a total of four and seven seats, respectively.
The final votes were (appropriately) undertaken under different voting systems: FPTP, approval voting, and ranked ballots. MIX emerged as the clear winner under all voting systems, although there was also substantial support for STV and (to a lesser extent) AV. In the very last vote, the students were asked, referendum-style, if they were willing to support the proposition to recommend the mixed regional compensation with an AV ballot system, and 21 out of 25 voted “yes.”
We were impressed by the quality of the students’ work throughout the course. (You can find the full report on their work here.) They read many studies on voting systems, they carefully followed the presentations of their colleagues, and they discussed the various options with a good combination of passion and open-mindedness. This exercise suggests that it is possible to have a reasoned discussion about the merits and limits of different voting systems, through careful consideration of the concrete consequences that are likely to follow if we were to adopt a new system.
Photo: Political science students listen to two members of the Special Committee on Electoral reform.
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