1867 Project: Reimagining Representation

Representation in Canada consists of two Houses in Parliament, the House of Commons and the Senate. In these Houses sit Members of Parliament and Senators, respectively. These individuals are elected or appointed based on the geographic regions they hail from. MPs are elected in ridings of roughly 150,000 constituents or less and Senators are appointed to fill each province or territory’s allotted representation in the Senate.

The process for selecting the boundaries of a riding is called districting.  Districts are determined generally by population based on specific formulas that have been adjusted over time. The number of seats in the Senate for each province was determined at Confederation for some provinces and at their introduction into the federation years later for others. The reasons for the current structure, while important, are better discussed in a system reform post on the challenges of our current representational model.

This discussion instead centers on how representation would be ideally structured in Canadian society today. Representation between jurisdictions that are equal parts of a federation but with vastly different sizes both geographically and by population is a complex matter. Often, complex formulas are created to address this issue in an equitable manner.

I believe two Houses in Parliament is the ideal structure for the government of Canada and the best way for Canadians to be represented in the federation. This is not a discussion about whether to have parliament but how to structure and balance it. The following is the solution I prefer.

Part 1: House of Commons

Currently the largest riding in Canada is Brampton West with over 170,000 people. It it one of only five ridings in all of Canada with over 150,000 people. All are located in Ontario. The smallest riding in Canada was Nunavut with just over 29,000 people. When the difference between the most populated riding and the least is so great that the majority of ridings are smaller in population than that difference in size, the balancing act of making ridings representative but fair is difficult.

To have a truly representative parliament there would be as many seats as there are people in the country. This is not feasible thus some system has to be put in place. I would suggest to have two population caps. There should be an ultimate cap for riding size at the top end determined by a specific number, say 100,000 or 150,000 people per riding. Whatever number seems to be representative without leaving residents unheard. There should also be a cap at the low end, reflecting the smallest riding or 29,000 people if today’s ridings were used.

If the bottom cap were rounded to 30,000 and all ridings were made to be this size, there would be over 1000 MP’s in the House of Commons. This is far too many to be manageable. However if all ridings were required to be above this number, the voters of Nunavut would not get their own say in electing an MP (they currently only elect one, as do each of the other territories).

Thus any solution must contain a range of population sizes across ridings that is close enough that each riding has reasonably similar representation without disallowing some areas of the country to select their own representative(s). Not having a range can lead to unlimited seat creation as the population of the country increases as a whole. With a top cap no riding gets so big that the voice of its people is lost and with a bottom cap, the smallest ridings rise with the population.

Since many of Canada’s ridings have around 150,000 people, I will select this as my top cap. This cap is fixed regardless of population growth. The bottom cap will be approximately 30,000 or the population of the smallest riding which allows Nunavut to be represented.

If Canada’s population was divided equally into ridings of 150,000 people the House of Commons would hold 213 seats. But in my model, as in the current system, seats would be divided not by national population but by territorial or provincial. This is simply so issues like running elections are not complicated by multi-jurisdictional issues across provinces.

Based on the 2006 Census data, if each province were to break into ridings of 150,000 people or less the minimum number of seats each would have is as follows (populations are rounded up):

Guide: Province -> share of national population in % -> number of seats in new model -> % of overall seats -> number of seats in reality -> % of overall seats in reality

Newfoundland, 1.6%: 4 seats, 2% (7 seats, 2%)

Prince Edward Island, 0.4%: 1 seat, 0.5% (4 seats, 1%)

Nova Scotia, 3%: 6 seats, 2.8% (11 seats, 3.5%)

New Brunswick, 2%: 5 seats, 2.5% (10 seats, 3.3%)

Quebec, 24%: 50 seats, 23.5% (75 seats, 24.4%)

Ontario, 39%: 81 seats, 38% (106 seats, 34%)

Manitoba, 4%: 8 seats, 3.8% (14 seats, 4.6%)

Saskatchewan, 3%: 6 seats, 2.8% (14 seats, 4.6%)

Alberta, 10%: 22 seats, 10.3% (28 seats, 9.1%)

British Columbia, 13%: 27 seats, 12.7% (36 seats, 11.7%)

Yukon, 0.10%: 1 seat, 0.5% (1 seat, 0.3%)

North West Territories, 0.13% : 1 seat, 0.5% (1 seat, 0.3%)

Nunavut, 0.09%: 1 seat, 0.5% (1 seat, 0.3%)

Total seats: 213 (308)

The population top cap could be lowered to 100,000, allowing for more MPs if desired. Each province would receive more but their share of the total would remain the same. More representatives could appease areas with less MPs, even if they still lacked equal representation to other areas.

Part 2: Senate

The reason why the House would be based only on population is because while the House takes care of fair representation based on population, the Senate would cover equal representation based on membership within the federation.

Instead of a Senate where representation is based on geographic regions each totaling 24 senators (with some exceptions), the Senate would reflect the equality of a federation comprised of equal provincial (and territorial) partners. While not all citizens would be equally represented by a senator (which is the case now regardless), they would more or less be equally represented by an MP and their province would have as equal a say in the senate as any other. The Senate is about regional balance and not population.

I would propose five senators per province and territory (I would make the territories equal partners in the Senate as all areas of Canada would get the same amount of leverage in the Upper Chamber). Thus the Senate would look something like this (populations are rounded up):

(Province/Territory -> share of national population in % -> number of seats in new model -> % of seats overall-> number of seats in reality -> % of seats in reality)

Newfoundland, 1.6%: 5 seats, 7.7% (6 seats, 5.7%)

Prince Edward Island, 0.4%: 5 seats, 7.7% (4 seats, 3.8%)

Nova Scotia, 3%: 5 seats, 7.7% (10 seats, 9.5%)

New Brunswick, 2%: 5 seats, 7.7% (10 seats, 9.5%)

Quebec, 24%: 5 seats, 7.7% (24 seats, 22.9%)

Ontario, 39%: 5 seats, 7.7% (24 seats, 22.9%)

Manitoba, 4%: 5 seats, 7.7% (6 seats, 5.7%)

Saskatchewan, 3%: 5 seats, 7.7% (6 seats, 5.7%)

Alberta, 10%: 5 seats, 7.7% (6 seats, 5.7%)

British Columbia, 13%: 5 seats, 7.7% (6 seats, 5.7%)

Yukon, 0.10%: 5 seats, 7.7% (1 seat, 1%)

North West Territories, 0.13%: 5 seats, 7.7% (1 seat, 1%)

Nunavut, 0.09%: 5 seats, 7.7% (1 seat, 1%)

Total: 65 (105)

Conclusion

If such a model were applied to the existing system it would never happen (there would not be enough provincial agreement to pass it). The provinces of Confederation have too much too lose in the Senate because they have a seat bonus due to joining from the beginning. The later provinces have never been allowed to catch up.

On the flip side small provinces that already have more seats then they would reasonably have if representation in the House of Commons was by population would never go for such a system.

But if we were designing Canada today to be a federation that gives (relatively) equal say to its citizens and treats the people of all provinces and territories equally, this model would be ideal. People would get their fair share of the democratic discourse in this country but ultimately each area of Canada would get an equal say in the end, a shared veto or stamp of approval on our collective future.

1867 Project – Approval Voting

I would like to post a grand system design within the 1867 Project all at once but to do that I would have to iron out positions on things I haven’t yet figured out and would essentially be writing a book if I proceeded that way. Thus I will write a new post for each element of my contribution to the 1867 Project and maybe eventually will be able to create an overall list of the characteristics found in system of governance I would propose.

The most obvious place to begin, at least for me, is in selecting a method of voting. I suspect most others would begin with branches of government and I will get to that but what I have always been most concerned with is the manner in which the electorate interacts with its representatives.

In current Canadian society we elect representatives to the House of Commons in single-member electoral districts of, usually, 150,000 electors or less. There are complex formulas for redistricting based on population but what it all comes down to is people in a given area selecting one candidate to represent them in Ottawa. The system is called First Past the Post (FPTP) which essentially means that whoever has a plurality of the votes cast within a specific district wins the right to represent the people of that district.

I have no great dislike for FPTP in the way that other proponents of electoral reform do. I think the system we have works relatively well but was not designed for modern society, at least not in the way that people wish it to.

The two biggest complaints made about FPTP are as follows:

  1. Candidates can win with only a plurality of the votes and are not required to achieve the support of the majority
  2. Elections under FPTP frequently lack competitiveness

The first complaint is not a problem I am terribly concerned about. It is argued that the winning candidate who achieved a plurality of the vote does not reflect the will of the majority and therefore does not truly have a mandate to represent the people of his/her riding. I would counter this with the statement that no other candidate was supported more and seats in the House of Commons cannot be shared by various candidates. The populace has to choose and the candidate who the most people can get behind wins.

This was a problem that did not rear its head for a very long time in the history of FPTP in Canada. This is because for much of Canada’s early history only two parties were truly competitive. Eleven out of the first thirteen federal electoral contests resulted in governments supported by a majority of the populace. As more parties were introduced, the number only climbs to sixteen out of forty elections.

Thus the system worked in the climate it was intended to. Federal elections in Canada began in the second half of the industrial revolution, a time where populations were just beginning to be introduced to the idea of choice. Majority-supported governments were a regular occurrence in Canada at a time when the American Henry Ford famously stated about his Model T car, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. FPTP reflects the time it was born from. The system is not broken, society has simply modernized to provide greater choice.

This brings us to point number two. While the electorate wants candidates to have the backing of a majority of voters, those same voters also want elections to be competitive. I would suggest elections where no candidate wins a majority of the vote can be called competitive. But voters want both. They want the race to be tight but for it to also leave no doubt who the crowd favourite is. I don’t think it is impossible for FPTP to achieve this. There can be tight races that pull away at the end. There are however better options to address this modern longing for competitiveness.

In addition to the two main concerns of modern voters, I would add two of my own. I believe single member districts are important parts of democracy as they give the voters someone to specifically hold accountable. Thus the electoral system I would have to pick to satisfy this and the two conditions of modern electoral society listed above would need to address these needs simultaneously. PR (proportional representation) ignores the real issue of accountability through proper districting and FPTP does not address the two conditions of modern electoral society in a satisfactory way.

One other major concern I have in this modern electoral world of increased choice has to do with something I call spectrum splitting. The concept of vote splitting is well known. When a vote is split it means that two candidates of similar political leanings cancel one another out and another candidate of (usually) different political theories wins because of the split. Spectrum splitting is when this occurs on a national level with several similar leaning parties on one end and  a unified ideological opposition on the other. When votes are split across the political spectrum, candidates of similar ideological leanings cancel one another out and the overall wishes of society are not accurately represented in the House.  There is a great level of gradation between the options on the political menu and spectrum splitting occurs as a result.

I argued earlier that plurality support is alright with me and it is. If within a specified riding not enough people can come together and select a candidate they agree on then the consensus candidate wins. That is how representative democracy works. But there is another way and when the ideological footing of an entire nation is underrepresented there is a need for a change to the system. I have no allegiance to parties and many electoral systems try to reflect allegiance to political parties instead of to the general will of the electorate, the overall mood of their votes. A proper electoral system for Canada would have to address the spectrum imbalance often caused by the increasing number of parties on offer. The elections of the 1990s would have been arguably closer had the conservative movement in Canada not split into factions. And while current federal politics is competitive, it is carried out with little interest and less support for any of the parties due to the massive spectrum split on the left.

I reject all but one method of possible electoral systems. This is a bold statement but I have read extensively on the subject and have concluded, correctly or not, that there is only one system that addresses these concerns of the electorate as well as many others without bringing too much baggage to counteract its solutions.

Approval Voting is not so much a system as it is a balloting method. I will explain what I mean by that in a moment. The approval ballot is one which lists all the candidates on offer and then simply requires that the voter mark the box of each candidate they feel then could reasonably support as a representative. That’s it. That is all the explanation required. The ballot looks something like this:

Approval Ballot

When I say it is not really a system it is because it is applicable to many different structures such as single or multi-member electoral districts. This is one of its main appeals, that it is extremely malleable and applicable in most if not all contexts.

In a single-member district utilizing an approval voting ballot, the voters would have a list of candidates and would simply mark the boxes of all the candidates they approve of. There would be no spectrum splitting nationally and no vote splitting locally because each voter could vote for all the candidates they could reasonably support. This would be beneficial to all candidates and to the process overall as candidates would cease sniping at one another and instead try to attract each others natural base.

There would be no complex formula or process to apply to the tallied votes as they would only need to be counted once and with the same weight. Whoever receives the most number of votes win. When more than one candidate can be selected on the ballot there is naturally more competitiveness and also a higher chance that the candidate will be supported by the majority of voters. It is true that more than one candidate can win a majority but the candidate with the most votes would win by being supported by the greatest number of voters and a majority of voters.

So approval voting fulfills the four primary requirements of a good electoral system:

  1. Candidates are supported by a majority of voters
  2. District races are competitive
  3. Candidates are responsible for and accountable to a specific district and its voters
  4. The ballot prevents vote and spectrum splitting allowing for a more ideologically representative legislature

Approval voting has many arguments in its favor for implementation into an existing political system (and I will discuss them in a later system reform post) but in the imaginary world of the 1867 Project, the reasons listed above are all that are required for adoption of a single-member approval vote system.

I would like to post a grand system design within the 1867 Project all at once but to do that I would have to iron out positions on things I haven’t yet figured out and would essentially be writing a book if I proceeded that way. Thus I will write a new post for each element of my contribution to the 1867 Project and maybe eventually will be able to create an overall list of the characteristics found in system of governance I would propose.