Andrew Coyne: Referendum on electoral reform clearly can’t be a simple yes-no ballot

In hindsight it was inevitable we would end up with a referendum on electoral reform. If the parties were unlikely ever to agree on a single model of reform, they could at least agree on a .

With the NDP’s decision this week to accept Conservative demands for a referendum — a concession that may one day be seen as historic — there is now a decent chance of at least four of the five parties on the parliamentary electoral reform committee, that is to say a majority, signing off on the same report.

This was the outcome the Liberals dreaded. They had thought to control the committee like any other, until the NDP outfoxed them with the suggestion, irresistible in its logic, that the committee appointed to come up with a replacement for first past the post could not itself be constructed on first past the post lines, but should instead be divided among the parties in proportion to their shares of the popular vote.

Hence the Liberals’ last-ditch attempt to derail the committee by means of a parallel public consultation process, involving mass mailouts and online questionnaires, whose transparent purpose is to discover what the Democratic Institutions minister has already found: that there is, as she informed the committee Thursday, “no consensus” among Canadians on which type of reform to pursue.

Well, no. You’re hardly likely to find a consensus on reform in advance of anyone proposing any. I rather thought that was the politicians’ job: to forge consensus, to point the way forward and rally the public behind them. Or, failing that, to put the matter before the public and let it decide.

The latter course seems more likely now that the NDP has dropped its objections, though not before it was provided with evidence that reform might pass such a test, via the recent plebiscite in Prince Edward Island. Voters there were asked to choose among five different electoral , using a ranked ballot; the winner, a form of proportional representation, was declared after four rounds of counting, with 52.4 per cent of the vote.

This seems a useful starting point in designing a federal referendum. It can’t be a yes-no ballot: if there were a consensus on a single reform model there would be no need for a referendum, and in any event there is no reason the current system should be the default option. There’s a strong argument for leaving it off the ballot altogether — the Liberals having been elected on the promise that 2015 should be “the last election” to use it — but if it is to be on the ballot it should just be one option among the others.

There are all sorts of alternative voting systems, and it will be the committee’s job to whittle these down to some manageable number, probably three or four. For a system to be proportional, however, it must involve some form of multi-member districts — either the relatively small ridings, with perhaps five members each, that are typical of single transferable vote (STV) systems, or the larger regional districts from which members would be elected, supplementing the traditional single-member constituencies, in a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system.

A variable is the method used to mark and count the ballots. There are versions of MMP, for example, that use , rather than a simple x. Likewise, it is possible to elect members from multi-member ridings without using — voters could instead mark an x beside as many names as they liked, a method known as approval voting — or to count by other methods besides the familiar “transferring” of choices from the last-place candidate in each round.

The question of what sort of voting system to use indeed applies to the referendum itself. If it is to be a multiple- ballot, it follows that it cannot be decided by a simple plurality: in a five-way race, the winner might theoretically have the support of as little as 20 per cent plus one of the voters. A ranked ballot, P.E.I.-style, would be better.

By the same token, a multiple-choice ballot would preclude any requirement for regional majorities, in addition to a majority of the national vote. For unlike yes-no votes there is no default option: there must be a winner, and only one. A ranked ballot can that one option emerges with a majority of the vote, but it cannot it is the same one in each region.

(What about requiring a super-majority? I don’t see why we should. The choice is not an irreversible one, like breaking up the country. If the point of the exercise is to “make every vote count” equally, that’s hard to square with giving a minority a veto.)

Is this something we can leave to the public to decide? Is the question even answerable? No system is perfect, as the political scientists remind us; each has its pluses and minuses. But that does not mean we cannot say one is better than another. It’s a call, but so are most things; politics is all about calls. If the public is able to master such an extraordinarily complex task as voting in an election — combining, in one ballot, their assessments of the parties, their leaders, their front benches and platforms, not to mention the candidates in their riding and their positions on local issues — choosing between electoral systems would seem relative child’s play.

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