The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System
Review By Harold Jansen
November 4, 2013
BC Studies no. 162 Summer 2009 | p. 205-6
The audience for The Politics of Voting is likely an informed public that is grappling with the arguments for and against electoral reform in Canada. In this book, Dennis Pilon has two goals, each of which reaches a different potential audience. His first goal is to present the case for proportional representation (PR) in Canadian elections. He has very little patience for Canada’s existing single member plurality (SMP) system, dismissing it as “essentially a medieval voting mechanism” (48) that does not serve democracy. In Chapter 3, Pilon outlines the failings of the SMP system, including its tendency to waste votes and to distort the representation of political parties as well as its failure to represent the diversity of Canada’s population in the House of Commons. He also demonstrates that SMP often generates majority governments that do not in fact have the support of a majority of the voters and that it does not automatically guarantee an alteration of parties in power. In Chapter 4, Pilon lays out PR as an alternative, showing how it performs better in achieving democratic outcomes than does the existing smp system.
Pilon makes an accessible and well-argued case for electoral reform. He does not get dragged down by the detailed mechanics of various electoral systems; indeed, these are discussed only very briefly in a few pages in Chapter 2. For example, readers searching for a detailed explanation of how the single transferable vote (STV) – the system at issue in the referenda in British Columbia – works will need to look elsewhere. Instead, Pilon’s focus is on the implications of a system of representation that accurately translates vote shares into seat shares. He marshalls an impressive range of evidence, from federal elections to provincial politics to the experiences of other countries, to make his case. One of the book’s strengths is that it is well grounded in the research into electoral systems but is still accessible to someone not interested in the intricacies of some of these debates. One of the more interesting aspects of Pilon’s case comes in Chapter 7, where he discusses the relative merits of STV and the mixed member proportional (MMP) systems, the two leading alternatives to the SMP system among electoral reform advocates. He argues that the differences between the two systems are relatively minor and that they are often overstated by their defenders. In this chapter, he clearly has in mind the BC example, where potential allies for the cause of electoral reform have been less than enthusiastic in their support because they preferred the MMP system over the STV system. Pilon attempts to make the case that either system is a significant improvement over smp.
The second goal of the book is reflected in its title, through which Pilon implores his readers to bring politics back to the debate over electoral systems. Although the arguments for PR, which constitute the first goal of the book, might be well-trodden territory for those already versed in those debates, the discussion of the politics of electoral reform may not be so familiar and hence of more interest. Pilon is critical of the attempt to reduce the debate over electoral systems to a choice between competing values, arguing that we need to look at the actual political implications of different systems. In looking at the history of voting reform in Chapter 5, for example, Pilon argues that electoral reform does not occur because of commitment to values but, rather, because someone can benefit from the change and organizes to see it implemented. Electoral reform, he argues, is about politics, not values. This argument is expressed most clearly in his critique of the process of the British Columbia Citizens Assembly and its recommendation of STV. While commending the assembly members for their engagement and hard work, he argues that the exclusion of political considerations in the way the debate was framed and the exclusion of political parties and politicians from the process led the assembly to choose STV over MMP, which, he argues, might have enjoyed the organizational support of the New Democratic Party, the Green Party, and other actors in civil society.
This very interesting part of the book raises some questions that are not completely answered. Pilon’s description of why electoral reform has become an issue in so many Canadian provinces at the same time (90–92) is a little thin, perhaps because of the wide range of topics he addresses. He does not outline the politics behind this development as clearly as he could, other than by noting the way that governments have handcuffed the process by requiring super-majorities in referenda. I was also not completely convinced by the implication that a referendum on MMP might have been more successful in British Columbia than a referendum on STV simply because it might have mobilized those who stood to benefit from it. Although it is clear that Pilon is sceptical about populism, the fact is that it is a feature of Canadian political culture and public opinion. This means that an MMP option might have been criticized for strengthening party control over candidates, a feature that might have lost an mmp option as many votes as it might have gained from those unhappy with STV.
Despite these minor weaknesses, this is a welcome addition to the literature on electoral reform in Canada and is recommended to both general informed readers and to those who follow such debates more closely.