The House of Commons isn’t in its usual situation. The COVID-19 outbreak has constrained the ability of members of Parliament to gather, debate and represent their fellow Canadians. This has led to suggestions, including by Nicole Goodman and Aleksander Essex, that the Commons adopt methods of online voting, providing the option to vote remotely to MPs who are unable to attend sittings in person.
This may be a plausible solution, and may prove useful in the short term. However, while the pandemic certainly will change many aspects of Canadian society, some institutions ought to be left untouched by it. If online voting were to be implemented permanently, it would be detrimental to Parliament and Canadian democracy.
According to Standing Order 29 of the House of Commons, a minimum of 20 MPs (including the Speaker) need to be present to exercise the powers of the Commons. If online voting became normal in the House, 318 MPs would not be required to be physically present in the chamber, or even to be in Ottawa.
This is problematic for the institution of Parliament. Having MPs vote in the House of Commons, participate in committees and discuss issues with their fellow elected representatives is not merely symbolic action. To represent voters, MPs must participate in the day-to-day events of the House to ensure the interests of their constituencies are heard and considered during debates. With the option to vote online, absentee rates of MPs are likely to increase massively. Many MPs must travel great distances to represent their constituents in Ottawa, so online voting would surely reduce the number of voices from across the federation that are heard in the House.
Under party discipline in normal conditions, MPs in majority parliaments (and especially in minority situations) usually vote in accordance with their party whip’s instructions. In these typical contexts, MPs are present in person and are in regular contact with one another. The opportunities for formal and informal exchanges during debate, in committee work and at work-related social activities provide crucial interactions among the members. These interactions allow MPs to be exposed to different ideas and perspectives. Such encounters are a key part of our democratic politics, alongside exchanges with groups outside Parliament such as civil society organizations, the media and lobbyists. A permanent move to online voting could diminish the core deliberative function of Parliament. By reducing parliamentary debate, interaction and exchange to the click of a button, we risk losing what makes democracy work. With the option to vote online, debate in the House could eventually become hollowed out and discarded.
Giving MPs the ability to vote online may also provide them with electoral advantages over candidates who are not MPs. If MPs are able to vote from their riding and spend most of their term there, they would be able to prepare better for the next election by campaigning more frequently. Such a shift could move Canadian federal politics even closer to “permanent campaign” mode, where politicians are always prioritizing election-related activities over parliamentary ones. To compete with MPs who are essentially campaigning full-time, their challengers would have to do the same, so that only people who can afford to take lots of time away from their jobs could run. Limiting the range of candidates could lower the quality of Canadian democracy.
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Having MPs spend more time at events in their riding or speak more frequently with their constituents may sound like an improvement in terms of representation. But when the MPs aren’t present in the House of Commons, they are not properly relaying the voices of these constituencies to Parliament.
In a geographically large country, Parliament is important not only symbolically; it is needed as a gathering place for our 338 representatives from across the federation to discuss and debate ideas. The idea of some form of electronic voting has been kicked around the Hill since at least 1985. It’s not an accident that it has not been taken up by any government since then. At its heart the House is a speaking place, where people’s ability to meet each other, engage each other and work together in the same room at the same time allows the business of democratic politics to proceed.
Implementing online voting in Parliament during the COVID-19 outbreak could provide MPs with a method of voting while practising social distancing. But in the long term, it could also create a harmful precedent that may well diminish our democracy for years to come.
This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.