Canada is a wealthy and lucky place. It is poorly run, but that has not been a really bad problem for us because of what we have had available to us over the generations. We have suffered only a few rebellions in our history, so we could say that usually we are governed just well enough, given the easy circumstances. By world standards, on average, we have done okay in spite of ourselves. Things might continue like this in the future, and maybe we can under-perform for many more generations without serious consequence. On the other hand, it might be that our little globe is reaching its carrying limit, and there could be some very difficult times ahead. If so, we, and our ham-handed, awkward and unresponsive governing system will be tried and found wanting, and it may be that it, and we, will not survive a real-world test. Neither prospect really appeals to me. You may not agree. You may be a person who says ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Still, you read this far, so let me take you a little further. I can tell you that I have enjoyed writing all those previous chapters. In this current chapter, I am imagining Canadian democracy, and it is also a very satisfying pass-time. I get to make up, in some detail, an (almost) ideally governed Canada, a place I would really like to live in and would like my progeny to enjoy for centuries to come. You’ve read this far; don’t miss the last bit.
Let us start with some governing assumptions.
- The number of people in Canada is too large for us to engage in referenda on every issue. Like the Athenians, we are forced to rely on some kind of model of the whole community, some kind of Assembly.
As discussed in the early chapter on Channeling, to get enough randomly selected people into that Assembly to make it effectively channel the whole community is a pretty tall order. To get some 400,000 people to meet and stay on track on complex topics has never been tried, but it might be possible with Internet technology. We can imagine a huge Assembly that would only meet virtually (leaving future history students to puzzle over our use of the word ‘Assembly’ ). We can imagine an Internet-based application robust enough to handle a discussion amongst 400,000 people, grouping and linking the themes they develop, highlighting the conclusions they reach, filtering the level of sharing to optimize decision-making. (Today’s twitter and facebook and the blogosphere could be the proto-models for such an app.) The system would be resilient to hacking and would need to handle the issue of electronic vote counting in some way that could not be gamed. (Perhaps it should be open source, but that would mean many people would need to be able to read Assembly language!)
However, what this assumption implies is that, while the Athenian forum may be something to which we could aspire, we aren’t really ready for it. The technology is not yet here, but, more importantly, we aren’t up for it culturally. We don’t have, as a societal skill, the ability to argue fairly and productively with one another. We want to win, not learn from, an argument. We like to quarrel. People who disagree with us we dismiss as idiots or liars. We demonize or mock them and this buttresses our own position within our circle of friends or associates. And, importantly, the people in our circle accept our behaviour. For better or worse, this is who we are. That dynamic is a functional adaptation we have for getting along socially, and it is only a problem in that our social conventions do not lend themselves well to the practice of direct democracy.
And changing that is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Canada is a rich place. We don’t need to argue constructively to do well, and so there is small inducement to argue constructively. It is usually more effective to be belligerent and demanding and it is easier to be polite and effacing. There are of course, Canadians who can and do argue well, but so few that they do not make up anywhere near a critical mass, such that others might be inspired to participate. If Canadians wanted and could suddenly have an Athenian Assembly, it would be like finding oneself on a stage with a grand piano before a large expectant crowd of Mozart fans. A few talented individuals among us could make a good show, but most of us are not ready for the challenge. It takes understanding, training, practice.
The cultural difficulties of making an Athenian style of democracy in Canada are, of course, surmountable. We could include classes in the Socratic method in grade school. We could learn the standard fallacies and symbolic logic when we learn our alphabets and multiplication tables. We could set up a social convention for when we wished to engage in a constructive argument. Most important, we would learn to recognize the point at which a constructive argument stops being constructive, and we would be able to name that event and have a socially and widely acceptable way to either walk away or to bring the argument back on track. We don’t have that now. But, if we wanted to, we could incorporate constructive argument into our cultural repertoire within a generation or two. We would then be ready for direct democracy. If we ever choose to do this, I would really like to be involved in both the technical and social aspects of this great project. But the details, fun as they are to contemplate, are quite beyond the scope of this essay.
So, we cannot acquire useful skills without long patient practice, and we can’t just download a friendly AI to guide our huge discussions. All we might do, in the short term, is change our existing political institutions, if we want to.
Let us now make a very big assumption.
- It may be possible for an elected Assembly to consistently channel the majority opinion of the wider community, about as well as can a much larger Assembly of randomly selected members.
This statement is not justified based on our recent Canadian experience of three of the last three major referenda. But let us say that it is possible, let us say that an elected assembly can be the conduit for communication, for feedback, between the governors and the governed. Our current Assemblies just aren’t set up correctly to do that. Yet.
In the chapter ‘Rebellion’s Children’ I wrote about two ways to look at Responsible Government: as a tactic and as a strategy. But there is a third way. A good friend of mine once said to me that Responsible Government means that the government responds to the will of the people. Not ‘obligation’, with its implication of intent, but rather the way a musical instrument responds to the player, the way a bicycle responds to its rider, the way a well-made tool responds in the hands of a skilled crafter. The word ‘govern’ traces its roots back to (of course!) a Greek word, ‘kuberman’, meaning to guide, to pilot or steer. The modern word cybernetics, the study of communication and control systems, has the same root. Back in chapter 3, when I was extolling the robustness of democracy, I made the point that issues that affect the welfare of the community were more likely to get prioritized and dealt with in a democracy than in a dictatorship or oligarchy, because the issues don’t need to be assessed based on the (likely quite different) priorities of the dictator or the oligarchs. The very best dictators and oligarchs, colonial governors and party leaders, actually work hard to keep their personal priorities in the background and instead use their skills to guide or steer the governing process to fulfill their community’s democratic process. They use government to enact the will of the people.
But how do they do that? They guess! With their best insight, they take a chance. They use their persuasive talents to open the public discussion and then they see how their popularity fairs. Great ‘democratic’ ‘leaders’ somehow channel the people’s will. The problem is, the rest of us just have to wait for these lucky or intuitive or skilled people to come along.
The ancient Athenians’ gift to the world was to standardize channeling, to make that magic commonplace. Their Assembly of randomly selected representatives automatically, and fairly consistently, generated decisions that agreed with the majority opinion of the wider Athenian free male community. It was pretty good analogue cybernetics.
Our current approach is a huge step backwards. The Canadian Assembly is evolved from a concession negotiated with tyranny to avoid rebellion. Today we are back to hoping a good and wise person will rise to power, who understands us. Our political activity centers on throwing up or tearing down well-known individuals, selling them as in-touch or deriding them as out-of-touch.
If we want a political system that standardizes channeling, then, per assumption 1, we are not going to get it copying the Athenian method. History has saddled us with political parties and moveable platforms, with elections and statistically insignificant assemblies, with a society both too quarrelsome and too tolerant. Could we reorganize our institutions and rituals and build a cybernetic system that channels the Canadian democratic will? Assumption 2 is that this is possible.
The third assumption is a direct challenge to the convictions of many Canadian intellectual leaders.
- The greatest obstacle that prevents Canadian Assemblies from channeling the popular will is our fanatical party discipline.
I suggest that it is reasonable to imagine a person, a candidate, presenting themselves to the voters in a riding, saying, “I feel this way about these current issues”. I can imagine this person saying “I will vote with this party, my party, to advance its platform, much of which I like and which I believe the majority of you like. I will work with this party when the needs of our riding are not at stake. But when our riding and my party are on opposite sides of an issue, I will vote with our riding.” The voters in the riding can hear what the candidate says, can see how the candidate carries themselves, and as a local democratic community, the voters select that candidate from a field of others, to represent their riding in an elected Assembly.
As long as the candidate is only there for a short time, while the current issues are still current, it seems a reasonable assumption that, with some other helping tweaks, an Assembly comprising these representatives, able to act as they say they will, can roughly model the wider community, can consistently channel the will of the people.
searching in the light
Because elections are so fiercely contested, candidates must pull out all the stops. Quite simply, winning is everything. In their desperation candidates must denounce as fools or fiends all those who disagree with them. They must cleave to the party line or they will loose the invaluable support the party provides. In the end the winning candidate is utterly beholden to the party, and we all know this. And yet their job, as commonly understood, is to represent in the Assembly the interests of the people living in their riding.
That is the Canadian dilemma, the unavoidable paradox, the buffalo in the room; that a representative should support the people of their riding, but the representative must support their party.
This dichotomy does not go unnoticed. Yet what often is brought up is that our first-past-the-post (FPtP) electoral system is to blame, and proportional representation, or preferential ballot voting, are proposed as solutions that will fix the problem.
Preferential ballot voting is a kind of FPtP system where the ‘post’ is more refined. How Preferential ballot voting works is that when a voter votes, they indicate on their ballot a preferential sequence for the candidates. The sum of the preferences for each candidate is weighted, using a mathematical formula. For example, if you, the voter, ranked the candidates on the ballet with a 5 as best and a 0 as worst, then all the preferences from all the voters are tallied and the candidate with the highest tally wins. It need not be as simple as this. A number of sophisticated and interesting mathematical formulas have been proposed for summing preferential sequences in a satisfactory manner. This system makes it much harder for a polarizing candidate to split the opposition vote in their riding.
Proportional representation gets away from the ridings and the FPtP altogether. Before elections, each party presents a long and ordered list of candidates. People vote for their favourite party. The seats in the Assembly are awarded to the party based on the country-wide proportion of the vote the party won. If, for example, there are 300 seats in the Assembly, and a party wins 20% of the popular vote, then that party has won 60 seats (20% of 300) in the Assembly and so the first 60 people named on the party’s list are elected to the Assembly.
Both the preferential ballot and proportional representation are attempts to fix how the input from electoral votes is translated into representation in the Assembly. It is fair to say FPtP, whatever its advantages, cannot be rigorously defended as mathematically fair. That’s an interesting problem. However, if either the preferential ballot or proportional representation are implemented, they do not in any sense answer our fundamental paradox; the party still has absolute influence over the riding representative. Proportional representation actually does away with the very aspect of locality, the idea that a representative is responsible to voters in a riding. At present, the representative’s duty to their riding’s voters is, at best, a distant second to the representative’s obligation to the party. In that sense, Proportional representation may be a more honest approach, because it sweeps away any lingering doubt about where the representative’s loyalty must lie.
Both Preferential balloting and proportional representation build upon the foundation the Reformers laid in the 1800’s; both proposals reinforce the paradigm of rigid party discipline. However important it may or may not be to split fairly among the parties the spoils of electoral victory, making a fair split does not encourage elected party members to act on behalf of their constituents. It’s just not our real problem.
We are the fabled drunk in the night, who accidentally drops their keys in the shadows, and who, unable to find them in the darkness, shuffles purposefully off towards a streetlamp to look for them there because the light is better. It is a type 3 error, a testament to the divisive power of our representative democracy that the most popular answers to our democratic deficit are to conceive of different ways to reward political parties in our Assembly, and calling it “more fair”, as though a subset of our fellow Canadians was somehow cheating, somehow advantaged by our FPtP ridings. Like the 3E Senate advocates of yore, hoping to block certain provincial alliances in a quest for ‘fairness’, we are being silly. Yes, fairness is lacking. But it is not that fairness is lacking that is our problem.
When riding voters elect a representative, they commit to a single political party for about four years. The voters’ choice of party is an aggregate of the party’s current platform, the likeability of the local candidate, brand loyalty and the leaders’ charisma, the opinion of the mainstream media, and a guess about the sticks and carrots that await a riding that sends its representative to the government side or the opposition side of the Assembly. The representative of that riding spends four years nodding wisely or tsk-tsking, cheering or booing, and standing up or sitting down, in concert with their party leader. The people of the riding pay their representative about $165,000 per year for this service. If the representative claps and hisses at the appropriate times for those four years, then the party will probably endorse that person as its candidate in that riding for the next election.
Let’s be blunt. The party owns the representatives we pay for. The party sets the platform and moves it as it wishes. The party has a free hand to set its agenda with respect to all issues that arise between elections not specifically covered in the party platform. The party is not really bound to anything in the platform anyways. This is Responsible Government. Does it sound one-sided when I put it so candidly? No doubt! It’s the deal the Reformers worked out with reluctant 19th century colonial governors of the mighty British Empire. This deal’s only saving grace, and it is really a saving grace, is how very much better it is than what we had before.
Here we are, negotiating again, this time with our Prime Minister. Check out the second bullet point in the Liberal Party’s Resolution #31. They know M.P. freedom is an issue! Their solution is: we can have potemkin democracy when the issues are not important to the Liberal Party. This they fob off on us, something any and every party could offer. It does not advance the cause of Canadian democracy one whit. But it’s good public relations for the Liberal Party.
Our political parties are not going to change their behaviour unless it’s in their interest to do so. They need to maximize the number of votes they can muster in the Assembly, so they can advance their agendas with the legitimacy of the Assembly. When would it ever be in a competitive political party’s interest to let elected members vote against the interests of the party and in the interests of the voters in the ridings ?
My would-be fellow democrats, it’s time to sober up. Assumption 3 takes us away from the street lamp and the intriguing yet frivolous innovations we may find there, and sends us back to the darkness to search for the keys to our real problem: how to at least partially free the representative from the party. So, how about this for a start? What if we use the rhetorical question in the previous paragraph to guide our thoughts?
Question: Under what circumstance would it be in a competitive political party’s interest to let some of its elected members vote in the interests of the voters of those members’ ridings, and against the interests of the party? It seems a bit paradoxical, but think a minute before reading further. There are two related answers.
Answer 1: When the party stands to gain an advantage over its rival parties even after loosing the Assembly vote.
Answer 2: When the party cannot afford to dump those members because it needs, and can rely on, those members in future Assembly votes.
Well, under our present rules of engagement, these two scenarios never occur. The key, then, is to change our rules so these scenarios can occur. Here’s one way to do that.
winning isn’t everything
Let us define a Crowded Seat riding system. Each riding in a democratic community sends one or more representatives to the Assembly based on the riding’s election results. Every riding in the community is treated equally in the Assembly, so every riding has one seat and one full vote in the Assembly. Therefore, if the riding sends one representative, that one representative has one vote (as is the case presently with the FPtP system) but if a riding sends more than one representative to the Assembly, the sum of their voting strength in the Assembly is one Assembly vote, and each of the riding’s representatives has a fractional value vote of less than one. Under exceptional circumstances the riding may send only one representative to the Assembly, with that representative’s Assembly vote less than one.
Now let’s consider what happened in the election in the riding. People in the riding voted and the votes were tallied and announced (as they are in our present system). However, now some mathematical rules are applied to the tallies to award the candidates with the highest tallies a fractional portion of the riding’s Assembly vote. The mathematical rules are easy to follow. The rules utilize all the ballots cast, even those that are spoiled. The rules reward candidates based on their vote tallies such that candidates with high vote tallies do as well or better than candidates with lower vote tallies. The mathematical rules define thresholds that a candidate’s tally must surpass in order gain influence in the Assembly, and there is a minimum threshold below which a candidate’s ballot tally will earn them no influence.
For example, here’s a chart showing some Assembly vote splits for a three person Crowded Seat Riding. The math rules outlined in the chart above are as follows:
- From the results of an election, find the tallies of all the ballots cast for each candidate and all the spoiled ballots (Elections Canada does this already).
- Determine the 3 candidates with the highest tally of ballots, and divide each of their tallies by the total number of ballots cast. This step is called normalizing. Each of the three candidates now has a measure of their electoral success, a fraction less than 1. We’ll call the fraction for the first place candidate F, and the fraction for the second place candidate S, and the fraction for the third place candidate T.
- Now we begin a series of checks based on F, S and T.
(a) F+S+T < 2/3 and F< 1/2
If these two expressions are both true, then no party did well and the voters in the riding are divided about the party and candidates they wish to represent them in the Assembly. Only the first place candidate goes to the Assembly, and as a representative, only votes with a weight of 1/4. This is a penalty of sorts for the riding, but it sends a signal to all the parties that the potential for this riding is still untapped. Note, this case never occurred in either the 2011 election or the 2015 election. If the two expressions in (a) above are not true, then proceed to the next check.
(b) 2F + 2S – 5T < 1/4
If (a) is not true, and expression (b) above is true, then the first, second and third place candidates all finished reasonably close in the election and all are awarded a vote of 1/3 in the Assembly. If this expression above is not true, then proceed to the next check.
(c) F – S < 1/6
If (a) and (b) are not true, and expression (c) above is true, then the first and second place candidates both finished reasonably close in the election, and both are awarded a vote of 1/2 in the Assembly. The third place candidate did not play a significant role in the election. If this expression above is not true, then proceed to the next check.
(d) 2F – 3S < 1/2
If (a), (b) and (c) are not true, and expression (d) above is true, then the second place candidate received roughly half the number of electoral votes that the first place candidate received. Both become representatives in the Assembly, with the first place candidate awarded an Assembly vote of 2/3 and the second place candidate awarded an Assembly vote of 1/3. The third place candidate did not play a significant role in the election. If this expression above is not true, then proceed to the next check.
(e) F – 2S < 1/3
If (a), (b), (c) and (d) are not true, and expression (e) above is true, then the second place candidate received roughly a third the number of electoral votes that the first place candidate received. Both become representatives in the Assembly, with the first place candidate awarded an Assembly vote of 3/4 and the second place candidate awarded an Assembly vote of 1/4. The third place candidate did not play a significant role in the election.
If (a), (b), (c), (d) and (e) are not true, then the first place candidate has dominated the electoral contest, and goes alone to the Assembly with a weighted vote of 1.
At this link you will find some notes on the derivation of these example thresholds. At each of these two links, one for each of the past two federal elections, 2015 and 2011, you will find an .xls spreadsheet that shows the seat distribution that would have resulted from this example Crowded Seat system. Each spreadsheet has three worksheets, one for the data and the math, one that summarizes the results by province and territory, and one that compares in a bar graph the seat distributions by party for first-past-the-post, for proportional representation, and for the Crowded Seats.
These rules are only meant as a working example. They do work but there may be better rules out there that someone else can discover. The rules presented here work because:
1. Candidates are rewarded or punished with Assembly influence if voters do or do not vote for them. Normalizing is not a convenience; it is an important part of the system; increasing the number of also-ran and spoiled ballots can knock the resulting Assembly vote split from one level to a lower level on the chart above.
2. The riding has multiple Assembly vote splits, so a candidate can move up or down to greater or lesser Assembly influence, based on their performance in the election.
Now let us consider what effect this has in the Assembly. The riding level live-or-die consequences of electoral success have been softened; now win, place, and show can all pay off. That means it is easier for a party to get representation in more ridings, but harder for a party to shut out another in any region. Successful political parties will have a stake in more ridings.
One consequence is that a governing party will not be able to write off ridings as easily. Punishments dished out by governments to enemy ridings will be tempered. That is good for us voters, but from a would-be democrat’s perspective, there is a much more important effect; a successful party now has leverage in ridings in which it did not win the most votes, but did well enough. When a rival party’s platform is not in the best interest of the riding, a successful party will have a representative from the riding to point out that rival party’s platform’s inadequacies. These place and show representatives are important beachheads into a rival party’s riding base. But, of course, the rival party’s platform might actually be good for the riding in question. In that case, it may be wise for the second and third place representatives to hold their tongues, or, under pressure, concede that this time circumstances are such that their first place compatriot is correct, and either abstain in the Assembly vote on that issue or even vote against their own party in the Assembly. In doing so, they preserve for their party the gains they have made in the riding, ready for a later battle. And their party will be wise to accept this strategic retreat and not inflict retribution on their wayward representative. And, in a similar vein, the party’s own backyard will have place and show representatives sniping away. Sometimes those criticisms will be telling, and there may be the occasional time when a first place representative may choose to abstain or even vote against their party, if the consequence for not doing so may be a later loss of first place status. Again, the party should allow, even approve, of this strategic disloyalty.
By opening up this new competitive frontier to the parties, we would have an Assembly where political parties still limit unruly behaviour, but do not have absolute control over their elected Assembly members, and where debates between Assembly members can effect the outcome of a vote, something genuinely unique in Canadian governance. The crowded seat directly addresses our dilemma; the representative can support the people of their riding even as the representative supports their party.
Proportional representation, the Preferential ballot and, for that matter, the 3E Senate, all have the curious property that they are proposals that don’t solve our key problem, but when the problem is solved, we find the solution contains important elements of all three. With crowded seat ridings, polarizing candidates no longer benefit from vote splitting, the problem Preferential balloting is intended to correct. By giving the first, second and third place candidates Assembly voting weights based on their ranking in the riding election, the distribution of Assembly votes drifts closer to true proportional representation, yet we keep our ridings. And, there can be more than one elected person from the same geographical area, to keep tabs on one another and to challenge each other’s authority to speak for the local electorate, one of the strongest positive aspects of the 3E Senate proposal.
There are some obvious pragmatic difficulties with crowded seat ridings. For each riding there are now maybe two or three representatives. How are we going to pay them and where are they going to meet? Sometimes it is uncomfortable talking about money, but when you are the boss (as you would be, for example, in a democracy) you need to deal with uncomfortable topics up front, and then move on to the more enjoyable aspects of the job.
Today the average salary for a MP is $165,000/year. Is their job really worth that much? Presently they must show up for votes and shout yea or nay when their party boss says yea or nay. They need to come up with talking points to frame issues to sell their party to their riding’s voters. They may or may not be involved in setting policies. Behind closed doors they may bring the riding’s issues to the party. A fair amount of their work is really done on behalf of the party, not the voters. Since their job is to wear two hats, let the party pay part of their salary. A third of what they make now is $55,000/year. From the spreadsheets linked above, in 2011 there would have been 617 parliamentary representatives for 308 ridings, and in 2015 there would have been 717 parliamentary representatives for 336 ridings. Taking it all proportionately, and with everyone getting the same pay, we could have paid each representative $165,000 x 308 / 627 = about $82,300 for a similar total in 2011, and $165,000 x 336 / 717 = about $77,300 in 2015. We could set the average pay for parliamentary representatives at , say $80,000/year and still wind up with about the same total payout for salaries. And $80,000/year plus party perks is a good salary.
As to the second problem, where are they going to sit to meet? Tradition has it they should meet physically in a single room where everyone can see everyone. The Internet is not yet reliably secure enough to allow them to meet virtually, and so that personal tradition needs to hold for a while more. Therefore, we will need a room larger than the chambers used today to house our representatives. Either the existing room will need to be expanded or we will need to build or rent a larger venue. (And, despite my symbolic cartoon, we can buy more chairs, or some sofas.) It’s really not too expensive a problem for the benefit gained, and we were headed slowly for this problem anyways as the number of people in Canada grew.
(Here is an interesting side note about voter behaviour and party loyalty. If you get a chance to visit the links above and examine the spreadsheet results, you will see that there are relatively few instances in which the first place candidate alone takes the riding and votes alone with a strength of one in the Assembly. For the 2011 election, the great majority of these ridings, 15 of 19, would have been in my home province of Alberta, and all for the Conservative party. For the 2015 election, still 10 of 24, would be in Alberta, and for the Conservative party, of course. There is a consistent uniformity of perspective here that is not present in any other region of Canada. Here is the real distinct society!)
timing is everything
We have hotly-contested elections roughly every four years, and in those contests most voters lose, and must remain losers for four long years before they get the opportunity to try again. Yet, four years is too limited a horizon for any kind of long term planning; a ‘seventh generation’ perspective is not possible. If you consider responsible government as responding to the wider community, it’s also a long time between meaningful input from the voters.
Presently, there are two sources of between-election public input for the assembly and the cabinet. One of these sources is polls. But polls are strictly advisory. They may be poorly crafted, they may be secret and they may be ignored if they have an unwanted answer. The other source is citizen participation. Often we are told that democracy is more than just voting; it is also civil society interacting with the political parties. It is a pleasant idea, but it is not convincing. People not in the political party system do not guide that party’s agenda without having money and influence. That’s the Canadian business community. For the rest, it means a lot of volunteer time that has a high probability of being fruitless. It can be worse than fruitless; if a civic campaign is contrary to the will of a governing party, then those participants come to be seen as enemies of the party and the government, and subtle pressure can be put on them that will weaken their civic activities. That weakening can then be taken as a sign that the agenda is not really popular because of the small effort put into it. By the same token, if a civic initiative can be of benefit to a political party, then the movement is used as a vehicle for that party agenda; a process called ‘astroturfing’. It may seem cynical, but the bare truth is that the average individual is not capable of defending themselves from an organized political party, nor from a government. That members within political parties may go to extremes, and that their compatriots in their party will give them cover, is a feature of rigid party discipline, a consequence of the desperate struggle between parties that leads to demonizing the party’s adversaries.
Four years is both too long and too short. Thus, we would like to make the election cycle both longer and shorter. Can we achieve that by making modifications to how we hold elections? Consider an election as passing information from the democratic community to the government. The information is useful, and if its guidance were followed, then those with that information would be better able to adapt to changing circumstances. Therefore, instead of having general elections every four years or so, at the discretion of the Prime Minister, we can have periodic elections that cycle through the entire Assembly over 4 years. We could, for example, have by-elections in 16 ridings every 73 days, 5 times per year. That cycles through 320 ridings in 4 years. (On the leap year, one of those by-election spacings is 74 days.)
As mentioned above, one advantage of this is approach is that there is frequent input to help guide the parties. They will know when their platforms and performances are striking the right key with the electorate, and when corrections are required. This is a very important cybernetic principle. All parties will receive the information, and we might expect that all parties will improve. This kind of motivation drives a ‘race to the top’ behaviour among the participants. And 16 ridings is both too large a number to be casually ignored, and yet too small to be crippling if a party does poorly.
Spreading out of the election process is also advantageous from a would-be democrat’s view because each election becomes about those few ridings. The relative importance of the ridings and their candidates is enhanced, and the local representatives have a stronger position in the arrangements they make with their parties. The media will need to talk about local issues, so national media coverage will be less effective and small local media will be comparatively more influential.
It also takes from the governing party the right to set the time of the election. I have never read a good democratic defense for why a governing party should have that advantage. There is, arguably, some advantage for the whole community that general elections not be at set dates, but called within a certain span of time, and certainly the governing party is best able to set the election date under those conditions. But governing parties generally look to use the timing strategically, to avoid certain issues or bad news expected later, or to go for a time of financial weakness on the part of it’s rival parties, and so forth. That deceptive aspect would be removed.
But without a general election, and with these periodic by-elections, a problem can arise with the changing of the government. During one set of by-elections, it may be that a governing party, burdened with slumping popularity, looses its majority in the Assembly, by a few ridings, and the opposition party, or a coalition of opposition parties, attains the majority. So, per our tactical Responsible government ideal, a motion of non-confidence does not trigger a general election but the resignation of the members of the cabinet and the prime minister, and a new prime minister and a new cabinet are selected by the new majority in the Assembly. And then, in the next set of by-elections 73 days later, the old governing party, now the opposition, does well enough that by a small margin it has the majority again. A new prime minister (maybe the person who left the office 10 weeks ago), and a new cabinet are selected by the new majority in the Assembly. And then 73 days later maybe we switch again!
This is obviously a big problem for a smooth running parliament. So we must introduce a new rule: while most other issues are decided by a simple majority vote in the Assembly, a vote of non-confidence requires a higher threshold, let us say for example a majority of 50% + 32 (two by-election sets). And now, contrary to the tenet of Responsible government, a prime minister and cabinet can govern with a minority in the Assembly. They can put forward legislation that the majority opposition may vote against. But they might put forth motions the intent of which the opposition party members actually approves, and which have wide appeal throughout the wider community. So the opposition parties must decide if it is to their benefit to vote for or against motions, on the merits of the contents. Voters will be watching, and the minority government could become a majority government again if the opposition acts like a pack of jerks.
(Above I have used the term ‘minority government’ loosely. The situation described, a prime minister and cabinet with less than majority but more than the minimum support needed for the Cabinet in the Assembly, is a little more extreme than what we would presently call a minority government. A change from our current Responsible Government model, this prime minister and cabinet may be thwarted by the Assembly, but cannot be replaced, at least not right away. It’s more analogous to the American situation that often arises where one party holds majority in their House of Representatives and Senate, while the other party has the Presidency. And, of course, it is also like our own situation in 2008 when a majority in the House of Commons sought to replace then prime minister Harper but was unable to do so. We’ve already been there.)
Another problem with periodic by-elections is that people move. It is entirely possible that an individual or a family might move from some riding, scheduled soon to have an election, to another riding that has just finished having an election. These transients need to vote too. The simplest way to include them is to assign one (or more, if many people are caught this way) floating riding into the by-election schedule. Anyone who did not get a chance to vote during the previous 4 years can get on the voters’ list for this special riding election and vote, in their current home riding, and those votes are treated as coming from one riding and members are sent to the Assembly accordingly. It is not ideal; the candidates and the issues are not local. However, it is a reasonable and inclusive approach.
And the last problem is how to change the sizes of ridings, how to add new ridings, while still limiting everyone only one chance to vote every four years. That will take some coordination and some careful planning. I have not yet written a rigorous solution, in part because there seem to be several approaches. I don’t mean to cop out; this technical issue can be solved better by others if Rolling By-Elections are approved in a general sense.
With the Crowded Seat Ridings and a schedule of by-elections, our Assembly is far better equipped to channel the wider Canadian community’s majority opinion. It receives periodic and frequent guidance from us on several fronts. However, there is one other very strong periodic signalling opportunity upon which we are failing to capitalize. We pay income tax every year. We make those payments to the Receiver General of Canada. Beyond E.I. and C.P.P., those funds are used as general revenue. With your income tax form could come a list of accounts to which you could direct your tax payments. I guess I imagine a Canadian Armed Forces account and an account for environmental programs and one for R&D and one for transportation and communication infrastructure. You could decide the distribution of your tax dollars among the accounts. I have not developed this idea very far. The few people I bounced this idea off of were quite against the concept, but I was not quite clear what the difficulty was. I will put it out there for you to consider and comment upon. It seems a golden cybernetic opportunity.
This last tweak is one that others have proposed. See, for example, this fellow’s website. The idea is that, in elections, the votes of younger people should carry more weight than the votes of older people. I came late to be a champion of this idea, but I do think it is a necessary democratic reform.
Here’s how such a revision could work. If you are between 16 and 36 years old, then when you cast a ballot in an election, your vote has a weight of 3. If you are between 36 and 56, your vote has a weight of 2. If you are over 56, your vote has a weight of 1. You can have 3 different styles of ballots distributed at polling stations, one for each age group, so they are easily distinguishable during the counting. (This is a little different process than as described in the linked site above.)
The common justification for this kind of reform is that youngsters will generally be around longer than older people. The consequences of community decisions will be borne by younger people for longer than they will be borne by older folks. There is no doubt that this is the case. We could add that young adults are also often taking care of even younger people (kids!) and so are responsible, now, for an even larger chunk of our collective future.
One argument against this youth-weighted-vote idea is that it goes against the principle of one-person one-vote. Still, that principle could be taken as describing a particular threshold we have reached; Canadian women did not get to vote till 1918, the end of the first world war, and we didn’t allow first nations people as voters till 1960. It doesn’t mean we couldn’t improve on the matter.
There is also the argument that older people deserve respect, that they should not be penalized for getting old. It’s a fine sentiment, but the very point of the youth-weighted vote scheme is that young voters are currently being penalized. Presumably nobody should be penalized, and sentiment is not an explanation.
Still, sentiment is the manifestation of some biological urge, something that helped us long ago when we were hunter-gatherers wandering a greener world. And it is reasonable to guess that respect for elders made sense when we all lived in our small nomadic communities long ago. Elders were the ones who had lived longest and had the most experiences to share. As age forced them to step back from the most strenuous tribal task, they could take up new responsibilities as teachers, to the tribe’s overall advantage. It is fair to suggest that this dynamic continues to this day. But there are some important differences. Back in our tribal days, life was a lot more dangerous. Getting old was quite an achievement. The people who succeeded in getting old were lucky or clever or both. What these people had to share, as elders, were stories of dangerous events, told, of course, from the survivor’s valuable perspective. Elders demonstrated life skills tested and proved effective, the proof being that they were elders and elders were rare. But things have changed. Nowadays our lives are a lot less dangerous; many people get old. There are more older Canadians than younger Canadians. Modern society is a victim of its own success. We show elders respect; it’s in our nature. But the payback for that behaviour is diminished in modern times; lots of fools make it past 56 today. In that light, the idea of youth-weighted-votes mimics the ancient tribal demography, artificially increasing the proportion of young to old. Might that be useful to us?
There are other arguments in favour of this reform. You may have heard small ‘c’ conservative people complaining that small ‘l’ liberal Canadians vote in such a way as to mortgage future generations. Similarly, you may have heard small ‘l’ liberal people complaining that small ‘c’ conservative Canadians vote in such a way as to shortchange future generations. Every short-term decision is a sub-optimal long term decision, but a short term decision is generally taken to avoid the risk that goes with a long term decision. And so our environment is trashed, and money is borrowed against the future, to keep people content today. We say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but we do not act on that pithy catechism. Our decisions veer away from preventative solutions and attempt to fix or ameliorate problems as they manifest. Could small ‘c’ conservatives and small ‘l’ liberals agree it would be helpful to give younger voters, with more at stake over the long term, a greater say?
In my humble opinion, we have made some really severe blunders during my adult life. Global warming, unchecked pollution, the extinction of many plants and animals, negative consequences of advances in technology, these are all serious problems to which we pay lip service, but have not really chosen to tackle head on. Still, if we worked together, all of these problems are surmountable. But there is one giant blunder that, in my mind, surpasses all others. In 1985 the liberal reforms and later dissolution of the Soviet Union brought an end to the Cold War. Some readers may be too young to remember, so I will tell you a little about what it was like. I was unreasonably happy. I wanted to embrace the world. I believed in the west, I believed in America the good! I reveled in the glorious knowledge that the threat of total global nuclear war had been lifted from us all. Yes, so many serious problems left in the world, but we could actually start on fixing them now, and I rolled up my sleeves and was ready to help any way I could. But it never happened! I have watched in impotent fury and growing despair over the years as we in the western world in general, in Canada in particular, refused to accept the win, and instead frittered away our time and resources, threw away our peace dividend in the drive for a new final confrontation.
Well, one person can’t change the world, at least this one can’t. And maybe Canada alone would not have been able to change the way things turned out, but then again, maybe we could have. The important point is, we did not try; we went along with it, at times we even lead the charge. So, on behalf of my generation, the ones who squandered a golden opportunity, perhaps the best opportunity in the whole of human history, I apologize to you Canadians who have come along later. Because we couldn’t accept peace, you will probably have to go to war, and what a war it will be! And after, if there is an after, you will need to clean up the mess the war made, and work on all those other problems that will have worsened through another generation of neglect. This is your inescapable fate, your doom, because we older folks misstepped so profoundly.
In my personal opinion, it is simple justice, and a small atonement, that younger people, with so much now against them, should get more say in how we all go forward. They deserve it. But in a democracy one person’s opinion is just that: one person’s opinion. Others may not feel as I do, some will think the decisions we made since 1985 were good ones. I might be in the minority. After all, the ancient Athenians made many stupid self-destructive democratic decisions. The true meaning of democracy does not mean I get to impose my opinions on others. My website reflects my thoughts, but it is only an instrument of persuasion, typed into the ether, not carved in stone. What I have written so far about youth-weighted voting recommends a policy, but has not been shown to particularly advance the cause of Canadian democracy.
But there is one democratic element without which all the other democratic reforms, the Crowded Seat assembly and the scheduled rolling by-elections, are kind of pointless. People need to have reliable news. We need some information coming in about our world and our country and our neighbourhoods, so we can weigh various courses of action. And our traditional source of news, news papers and TV and radio broadcasts, also known as the mainstream media, they have lost this ability to deliver. It’s an open question why this has happened. Concentration of ownership, financial pressure due to competition from the internet, corruption and laziness, commonality of view to the point of blindness, mysterious malign global influences, we may point to any combination of these real or imagined causes, or others. But there is no doubt that the once honourable profession of investigative reporting has evolved to mere shilling. The topic itself cannot even be addressed in the mainstream media.
This great shutting down of ideas, this embracing, by all major news sources, of ‘one true way’ has a debilitating effect on a goal of democracy. As long as we are not exposed to other ideas, as long as certain perspectives are outside the bounds of discussion, our decisions are constrained. The end effect is that, in ignorance, we all agree. And democracy is then of no real survival value.
It seems that no good business model for delivering real news exists in the west. Maybe that, too, is just natural evolution. I cannot instruct the mainstream media on what to do. Each person working today as a mainstream ‘journalist’ is making a living to feed themselves and their families. If that can only be done by generating duck-speak, so be it. But the rest of us don’t have to quack along. The internet is a flood of disturbing and thought-provoking opinions. Out here, the official version is just one perspective among many. Here, we can speak with each other outside the confines of the mainstream media. As a consequence, you will usually find the mainstream media denouncing the internet as unreliable. Well, there is a lot of nonsense out here, true enough. You never know what you might find. It takes time to filter and parse just the stuff you have time to read. It is certainly easier to digest mainstream pablum. But exposure to challenging ideas is, alas, one of the steps in surviving and growing. We must be able to review and judge current events, and presently there is no profitable way to outsource that task and get reliable results. It is another kind of failed channeling; our current information gathering and processing institutions are just not set up to produce the conclusions we would come up with on our own. They can only deliver propaganda.
So what does that all have to do with youth-weighted voting? Well, long ago, in those same long ago times when old people were rare, young people challenged the status quo, making their mark before eventually growing into the establishment. This helped the tribe, by forcing generational re-examination of the way things were done, and finding improvements. This behaviour is still going on today. Young Canadians aren’t voting. They may not articulate clear reasons why, but they see our present system as a crock. More importantly, in the present context, young Canadians are not relying on mainstream news sources. Again, they may have no rigorous defense for that behaviour either; they just recognize someone else’s b.s. and won’t invest in it. They are looking for new ideas, new perspectives, ‘true’ ‘news’, from the internet. And why shouldn’t this be? Young Canadians are naturally skeptical of what older Canadians do, because that is the way nature makes youngsters. It just so happens that, in these modern times, they are quite right; our mainstream media is a crock, and we have to change our ways. Young Canadians are looking for real sources of news while older Canadians are accepting and defending traditional ‘news’ sources. If we wish to take full advantage of living as a democracy, we will need to weight the votes of those who look around them more than the votes of those who choose to wear blinders.
Of course, many older Canadians reflect upon our world in profound and novel ways every day. Just being old does not make one averse to new perspectives. I am pointing out a trend, not a hard and fast rule. But, it is a real trend that Youth-weighted voting could capitalize on, to all our benefit. I am asking my older readers to please consider this proposal with an open mind.
I started this website nearly eight years ago. It has been a learning experience for me. I have enjoyed trying to understand and define democracy. I do not believe we Canadians are smarter or braver or more honourable than other people. Nor do I believe we are foolish or cowardly or more venal than people in other lands. We are just people. Our self-mismanagement is systemic. It is rooted in our history, our traditions, our culture, things that distinguish us from any other group of people. And, I believe quite firmly, that if we chose to change our political culture, we would improve our self-management. In this series of essays I have tried to build the case for making those changes.
I suppose it makes me a crank, for I think their is some urgency. In the winter of 2008-9 we demonstrated, to ourselves, and to anyone watching in the world at large, that we are okay with a parliamentary minority having majority powers, as long as the minority has good mainstream media support. We proved we are not, as a culture, at all strongly committed to Responsible Government or to Representative Democracy as historically practiced here. We don’t quite trust each other enough to play the Athenian game together. I was kind of surprised by that, and this whole website has been a response to that event. First, I wanted to clarify to myself why the events of that December had disturbed me so, working on this website as a kind of therapy. Second, I wanted to find a way to make lemonade. Rather than evolving towards fascism, could we build on the coup of 2008 to move towards democracy in its original sense?
Well, what has been accomplished? At a minimum, I hope you, my reader, have been introduced to some novel perspectives on select vignettes of history, and also to some fun math. I hope you have an understanding of the effect the proposed 3E Senate would have, and won’t just accept the marketing if the proposal comes back into vogue. I hope you know what ‘Decisiveness’ is and why it is a good measure of political heft. I hope you understand that, using Decisiveness as a measure, provincial power is not fairly distributed in Parliament, that it is Québec and the territories that are under-represented. I hope you know what Responsible Government is, better than I did as a high school student. I hope I have provided a robust functional definition of democracy, that you get that channeling and cybernetics are essential parts, and I hope that your ears perk up when you next hear the term democracy used to describe a situation that is obviously not democratic. I hope I have made a strong case that significant but realistic revisions to our traditional procedures can lead to more democratic governance. If someone later says to you “Yes, I agree, things are bad, but what can we do? There is no way to fix it!” please point them to this site, because I think I have taken a credible stab at showing that there is at least one fix: Crowded Seat Ridings, Rolling By-elections, and Youth-Weighted Voting.
I will present these ideas in some form to the Liberal Party of Canada’s Special Committee on Electoral Reform. They want submissions of less than 3000 words(!) by midnight of October 7, 2016. I am cynical enough to suppose that only the most open-minded of the committee members will consider taking these ideas forward, but it’s fair enough to give their process a try.
Should this all go further? Let’s be realistic. If we had Crowded Seat Ridings, Rolling By-elections, and Youth-Weighted Voting, if we had the degree of democracy in Canada that resulted from those three institutions, so what? All our other problems would still be before us. We would not get new wisdom to go with our democracy, we’d only get more responsibility. We would not become masters in our land; that position is already hotly contested. Other interests, financial, military, industrial, religious, other forces would challenge us on asymmetric but roughly equal footing. All I can see us getting, if we became a democracy, is a place at the table. But, like the Reformers’ Responsible Government 168 years ago, that may be good enough for now, and way better than what we had before.
So, I ask again: should this all go further? That is kind of up to you. I’ve sketched a model. If you agree or disagree with some of the ideas, leave your comments. If you think this has legs, or better yet, if you think this can fly, recommend this site to a friend or two. If a majority of Canadians come to recognize these arguments as valid, if we start agreeing on what democracy means, start seeing ourselves as Democrats-in-waiting, then we will start to demand reforms, based on these arguments, from our governments, and from ourselves. I want to be part of that adventure, but I cannot do it alone. That’s why it’s kind of up to you.