Saturday, 8 October 2011

A Convenient Scapegoat? Blaming the Electoral System for Declining Voter Participation

The results of Ontario's 40th general election are alarming. Turnout was the lowest on record, reflecting previous downward trends in electoral participation which have accelerated over the past decade. On Twitter and other 'social media' outlets - not instruments conducive to sober and reflective thought but rather of instant opinion generation - assorted insta-pundits precisely diagnosed the problem: the electoral system itself. It is the system, they argue, that distorts electoral outcomes as a result of the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system. Votes cast for candidates that do not win are ‘wasted’ and it is this waste that dissuades the electorate from casting a ballot. Identification of this as a ‘problem’ is not new, nor is the phenomena itself. Indeed, distortions within the electoral system are as old as that system itself.

Alan Cairn’s seminal “The Electoral System and the Party System in Canada” from 1968 explores this phenomena by way of the impact of the electoral system on the party system. Cairns analysis nicely highlights the disjuncture between the popular vote and distribution of seats, however there is no simultaneous analysis of voter turnout. In the period under consideration -- general elections between 1921 and 1965 -- voter turnout is fairly steady with few blips. Moreover, the period records some of the highest voter turnouts in Canadian history reaching a record high 79.4% during the 1958 contest. While the system continued to distort outcomes, it does not seem to have a tangible effect on outcomes.

The electoral results between 1867 and 1921 reflect much the same, even with two factors which one would assume to exacerbate disengagement by the public. First, there is a clear lack of choice. With only two parties in contestation, the electorate had a far more narrow field of options than present-day Canadians. By and large, the choice was between the Conservative Party or the Liberals. In effect, it was a two-party system in the style of the United States. This changes with by the late 1920s and early 1930s with the emergence of the Social Credit, Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and Progressives as forces in electoral politics. While neither was a viable alternative government, these parties never the less came to hold the balance of power in Parliament, particularly during the period of minority governments under Mackenzie King. Neither the lack of choice prior to the 1930s, nor the proliferation of parties after the 30s seems to have an impact on voter turnout.

Second, the earlier period, despite the presence of fewer political parties, resulted in some of the most glaring disparities between the popular vote and Commons seat distributions. During the 1891 campaign, Charles Tupper’s Conservatives handily won the popular vote over Laurier’s Liberals, with the parties claiming 48% and 41% respectively. Yet the Liberals took 117 seats (55%) to the Conservative’s 86 (41%). So disparaged by the outcome, the electorate stayed home in droves turned out to the polls in then-record numbers the following election (77.4%). The 1926 campaign resulted in a similar situation, in which the victorious Liberals claimed 47% of the seats but only 43.6% of the popular vote to the Conservative’s 37.1% of seats but 46.2% of the popular vote. The following election, again so downtrodden and defeated by having thrown their votes away, voter turnout increased by 6%. 

The historical evidence clearly challenges the thesis that there is a direct causal link between the electoral system with its First-Past-the-Post method of selecting representatives and the sharp decline in voter turnout particularly after the 2000 federal campaign. Why does a system with essentially the same characteristics as 1867 and with the same volume of parties since the late 1920s and 1930s (and after 1993, far more) suddenly see a steady decline in voter turnout? If the system is in some way a cause, it is not the sole (or even the most important) variable.

There are other methodological, practical and philosophical problems with the arguments for electoral reform, especially the push for Proportional Representation that invariably emerges after each election. First, using the popular vote as a measure to compare seat distribution is intellectually dishonest and distorts the very nature of the system. Using an aggregate measure to explain about local outcomes is inappropriate and mistakenly blends several distinct regime types together, namely the Westminster parliamentary model and the Presidential system south of the border. We do not directly elect our First Minister and provincial ridings do not act as an electoral college in the same manner as the United States. Ontarians elect a local representative. As such, it is appropriate to measure the whole of these local representatives (which we call a Parliament) and not the percentage of votes cast for a party itself. They are not measuring the same things. Aggregate provincial numbers cannot take into account nuances of local variation and inaccurately paint a picture in which party support is uniformly distributed across a diverse geographic area. The ‘popular vote’ can tell us nothing about local choices. Moreover, these constant appeals to the popular vote perpetuate the idea that Ontarians are voting for a leader or a party to run the province. Again, this is not a presidential system. We do not vote for an executive and a legislature. 

Second, there are practical considerations to worry about. Is Proportional Representation amenable to a Westminster model of parliamentary governance? How will it impact the functioning of legislatures? Will a fractured and divisive legislative body undermine the ability of the executive to govern by forcing ever more frequent deferrals to fringe parties? In short, the answer is unclear unless we embark on the experiment. Canada (and its provinces) are not Germany or other European states in which the architecture of government varies considerably. The same dilemmas are evident in the half-baked demands for a reformed and elected Senate. Will an elected Senate alter the balance of power with the Commons? Will it undermine the delicate balance of regionalism and representation of the smaller provinces? These are all questions with unclear examples unless the experiment is conducted. The results could be catastrophic. Linked to this, how would a parliament, fractured with  multiple demands and alliances fair in an environment in which coalitions seem to have been rooted out by political leadership? Between Prime Minister Harper’s obfuscations over legitimate means of government formation and Tim Hudak’s attempts to delegitimize coalitions, how could such arrangements survive? In short, the notion of formal coalitions have been so vilified and misrepresented (despite their constitutional and democratic legitimacy) that a system which necessitates formal and workable coalitions may be difficult to construct. 

Third, the argument for Proportional Representation rests on shaky footings philosophically. As Cairns noted in 1968: “Advocates of  proportional representation base  their arguments on democratic fundamentalism. They simply argue that each vote should have equal weight, and that the distortion of the voters' preferences by single member constituency systems is no more to be justified than the use of false scales by a Butcher” (55). The argument, as Cairns points out, takes as given that any vote cast that in the FPTP system for a candidate that does not go on to parliament is ‘wasted’. The most concise argument against this mode of thinking is laid out ably -- if somewhat acerbically -- by John Pepall in his book Against Reform. Needless to say, the notion that unless a vote results in our preference for representation being selected than the vote is wasted is nonsense.

That argument also rests on a curiously limited definition of democracy on the part of those agitating for reform. It suggests a further question: is selection really the problem? To put it another way, is the problem that voters are dissuaded by the means of selecting representation or by the fact that they are largely limited to selection in the first place? Given that political parties themselves are of declining relevance for Canadians and membership in parties is no longer as central as it was, could the problem reside within the party system rather than the electoral system? Is the continued dominance of electoral politics by parties, parties fixated on brokering diverse sets of wants and needs, itself a problem? If fewer and fewer Canadians are bothering to register let alone actively participate in parties at a local level, how is the solution to the problem a proliferation of these bodies within electoral politics?

Both arguments -- for and against reform -- privilege political parties as the instrument through which Canadians access the democratic system, but as Janine Brodie and Jane Jenson eloquently argue in their classic Crisis, Challenge and Change, political parties act as the guardians of what constitutes politics, they define the political. They write that “a definition of politics -- more or less hegemonic -- already exists and patterns of support and allegiances are established” (13). Any new parties must work within an already established framework that is constantly delimiting prospects for change and precludes more radical forms of democracy.  It locks in patterns of power and dominance which largely maintain the status quo. Not only is the range of options limited, but so to are the array of topics that can be brought before the public for discussion. Already an artificial distinction between politics and economics (see, for instance Democracy Against Capitalism by Ellen Wood) precludes discussion about issues of economics which are deemed beyond access by political decisions and thus left to the central bank to decide. One need look no further than the New Democratic Party -- particularly its incarnation in Ontario -- as an example of this. Discussions of class are not conducive to electoral victory and, as such, a new populist road is forged which accedes the ground and takes conditions as given or immutable. In Gramscian terms they have be co-opted into the system without remaking it.

Given this, parties as a mechanism for democratic politics have a self-limiting mechanism built into them. They are shaped by the needs of brokerage politics and geared towards electoral victory. They are not vehicles of lasting or fundamental change. No doubt, the social victories brought about by third parties - particularly on pensions and health care --  will be touted by those pointing to the impact of these parties and their ability to prompt change from within the party system. Certainly these are important and noteworthy achievements, but they are equally noteworthy for what they do not accomplish. Neither fundamentally altered the party system itself and none expanded the scope of democracy itself. In essence, while they positively affected public policy and expanded the reach of government, they did not fundamentally alter the system. The distinction is of vital importance.

The above has taken a wildly circuitous route to address the basic question: what accounts for the recent and descending rates of voter participation in Canada and, specifically in this case, Ontario? I have so far focussed on refuting certain claims, above all that it is the system itself that is driving voters away and that an easy fix to the problem is electoral reform. I see validity in neither premise as both are resting on shaking intellectual and historical foundations. I should also add that making voting ‘easier’, for instance, by way of electronic or mandatory voting, is not a solution. First, voting is not a difficult task and is, by comparison, far simpler today than in 1867 when geography and technology spread elections over months. In Ontario there were twenty-five thousand polls at thousands of locations. Most voters, particularly in Southern Ontario, were no more than a few blocks from a polling station. The act of voting itself takes little time and, considering we are only asked to vote once every four years (barring minority governments) is no barrier. There is also ample time to vote in advanced polls and there are numerous mechanisms for aiding those with disabilities or the elderly to exercise the franchise. The notion of ‘voter fatigue’ is so intellectually vapid it deserves to be dismissed outright. Even, as in Toronto where three polls (municipal, federal and, finally, provincial) were conducted over the course of a year, the excuse stretches thin given the small level of commitment required to write an “X” three times over 365 days. It becomes an excuse for poor citizenship or, conversely, the problems of representative democracy itself. e-voting is no solution either. It removes the ritual from the act and makes it routine. Mandatory voting may well increase voter turnout, but it does so for the wrong reasons. Compelling voting does nothing to solve the underlying problems driving citizens away from the polls nor does it create more civic minded citizens. Surely the reasons why  people vote are more important than simply ensuring that they do.

Why then is voter turnout so low? One answer could be the lack of big ideas to drive voters to the polls. Have we moved to a period of what some thinkers describe as “Post-Politics” in which, as Zizek puts it: “ideological visions embodied in different parties which compete for power [are] replaced by the collaboration of enlightened technocrats” (198)? This is possible since each of the parties had no grand narrative of change, but rather focused on mundane issues of regulation and taxation. Essentially differences were limited to how revenue should be extracted from which source. None sought, at least not publicly, to undermine the status quo substantially.

Some have also argued that not voting is itself a vote, albeit one not cast. Certainly there were those who chose not to validate the system by refraining from participating. The problem is, however, that we cannot measure definitively what the intention of not participating was. In other words, we cannot separate those who actively chose not to participate to make a statement from those who simply lacked motivation to do so. My own choice was to decline the ballot, which involved physically going to the polling station, participating, but registering my dissatisfaction. Moreover, it distinguishes from non-voters, voters choosing a candidate and those who have spoiled there ballot accidentally or on purpose. Refusing a ballot sends a far stronger single, since it is marked without ambiguity, while a non-voter’s intension remains indeterminate.

Certainly there are a myriad of explanations for why voter turnout is low and I will leave a more thoroughgoing analysis to those with a more keen interest in voting studies. Yet they are unlikely to point to one final potential explanation: a rejection of representative democracy itself (as opposed to a rejection of the specific methods of selection). Perhaps citizens are tired of delegating authority and are actively seeking greater participatory mechanisms? These are all factors which require more thoughtful analysis than knee-jerk demands for electoral reform through Proportional Representation or an Alternative Vote system. Advocates for reform may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which their claims that the system is unfair and unrepresentative is itself driving more voters away. While there may certainly be a logical and coherent case for proportional representation, such a case needs to indicate in no uncertain terms how such a system can enhance democracy, rather than merely enhancing preference. A more vital democracy and more accurate reflections of voter choice are not one and the same. Addressing deficits within the electoral system without critically scrutinizing the party system is unlikely to yield changes which drive citizens to the polls en mass. In the absence of any meaningful and tangible connection to our democracy between electoral cycles is unlikely to break the spiral of decreasing voter participation and general apathy.


Sources Cited:

Brodie, Janine, and Jenson, Jane (1988) Crisis, Challenge and Change: Party and Class in Canada Revisited (Ottawa: Carleton University Press)

Cairns, Alan (1968) “The Electoral System and the Party System in Canada, 1921-1965” Canadian Journal of Political Science Vol 1, No.1, 55-80.

Pepall, John (2010) Against Reform (Toronto: University of Toronto Press)

Zizek, Slavoj (1999) The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology (New York: Verso)

Empirical Data:

Elections Canada. “Voter Turnout at Federal Elections and Referendums, 1867-2008” http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=ele&dir=turn&document=index&lang=e 

Heard, Andrew. “Canadian Election Results by Party 1867 to 2008” http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/elections/1867-present.html 


Additional Readings

Pilon, Dennis (2007) The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System  (Toronto: Edmond Montgomery)

Siedle, Leslie F, and Docherty, David C. (2003) Reforming Parliamentary Democracy (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press).

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