Thursday, September 2, 2010

Some Problems of Democracy. . . . .

I was having an online conversation with one of the people who commented on my blog and it got me thinking about the challenges facing our democracy in a way I hadn't before. Because of the gun-registry issue this person was struggling with the issue of representation and the manner of responsibility that a representative has to his or her constituents. Like many people this person had the gut reaction that an elected person should 'represent' the will of those how elected him/her, thus voting the way they want them to on issues such as the gun-registry. This is an understandable position because at first glance it is counter-intuitive to think anything else. I predictably pointed out that after hundreds of years of British parliamentary tradition our elected representatives generally vote the way that their party dictates and that the US system (one of the few other 'first past the post' systems remaining in the world today) is much closer to a directly representative one because there are no "party" policies and each elected representative votes they way they want on any given issue. This system also has its obvious pitfalls because major policy changes are almost impossible to manufacture and in the US, outside of policies de facto created by Supreme Court decisions, few major policy social policy shifts have occurred since the depression and the election of FDR.

Ironically of course, our present government started its life as the so-called "Reform" party which once stood up for less party power and more free votes, boy did that go right out the window when they actually got power!!!

Anyway, as I was having this online conversation about the various benefits and pitfalls of the different structures of democratic systems I began to think about the problem in a way which I hadn't really before. That is, even if one advocates for more so-called 'direct' democracy and thinks that their representatives first responsibility should be to his or her constituents, how exactly would that work in practice? Since in most representative districts the elected representative is actually elected without a majority of the electors, who exactly is he or she beholden to? Are these  representatives beholden to the, say, 35% who voted for them, or are they actually more responsible to the 65% percent who didn't vote for them? In other words, in a first past the post electoral system in which most of the representatives (let alone the ruling government) are not elected by a majority of voters, who do our elected representatives really represent? Now of course the conventional wisdom tells us that our elected representatives are supposed to represent all of the people in their constituency, and in some senses they often do. If you have a particular problem with, say, your passport or something you can appeal for help to you local representative and generally they will try to help without asking you what party you support. However, on most big electoral issues this warm fuzzy theory of representation means little since even in cases of free votes your representative will vote the way they think only those who voted for them want them to rather than a "majority" of the constituents. In other words where individual representatives are elected by pluralities rather than majorities free votes mean little and the idea of a representative actually representing their constituents is a bit of a fantasy. This is why, in the final analysis, the so-called "Reform" effort got nowhere, because they soon realized that where an electorate is often split in something close to three ways, your best bet for getting reelected is to play wedge politics and vote in ways that attract a plurality of votes, making actual representation irrelevant. Thus it is perfectly predictable that a guy like Harper who once claimed to believe in more direct democracy, free votes and all that they entail, quickly became expert at the dangerous, distasteful, and undemocratic political game of wedge politics. By the necessity of getting reelected the conservatives don't care a whit about representing their constituents, but they attempt to maintain the support of a slim plurality of the constituents. And one of the things that is particularly distasteful about this game is that it is in practice a direct effort to thwart the majority of electors. And their dream is to get a majority of members in the House so they can rule as de facto dictators without ever getting a majority of votes from the people. A rather perverse dream when you actually think about it.

The upshot of this discussion is that it has deepened my commitment to some form of Proportional representation. Though PR systems have their own drawbacks, they ensure that the individual representatives can vote for those who elected them and the game of wedge politics loses its cache.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Further to your train of thought, even though a voter casts in favour of a particular party, the voter may not favour all of that party's policy positions. This is especially true within big-tent, brokerage parties, although every party has its internal divisions and policy confusions.

And, actually, there is a surprising number of MPs elected with an outright majority: 118 in the 2008 election (ranging from 50.1% to 82%). (Of that 118, 80 were elected as Conservative MPs).

[There were 267 MPs elected with at least 40% of the vote in their riding. And only 8 candidates who received more than 40% of the vote but *did not* win a set.]

-Leo

kirbycairo said...

Thanks for the numbers Leo, it is a surprising number. However, of course the point still stands and the problems still remain.

Claude Tardif said...

118 out of 305 is about a third. Also, I think that ``safe'' ridings tend to be the ridings with the lowest participation. I confess I don't have thourough data on this, but it would make sense: why bother to vote if the opponent is sure to win?

First-past-the-post also poses an ethical problem with campaign financing: You can give money either to your favorite leading candidate, or to a minor candidate who has no chance of winning but could split your main opponent's vote. Which is the most cost-effective?

Anonymous said...

Your comments had me wondering, Claude. So I went to the numbers to test your theory: Is there a correlation between voter turnout and the propensity for an "outright majority" in a riding.

See the results here: http://tinypic.com/r/sy4do6/7

It appears that there is a trend of some sort: that as the size of the majority vote increases, the voter turnout decreases.

There are a lot of high turnouts with victories in the 50-60% range (top left of chart), which seems to counter act the trend.

But even some of the largest majority victories are not that far off the Canadian average voter turnout: with Diane Ablonczy and Jason Kenney near 70% majorities *and* over 60% turnout.

-Leo

kirbycairo said...

Thanks for the numbers Leo. It seems to me over all however that one can safely say that a significant number of MPs are elected with only a plurality of actual voters, let alone potential voters. And I think it is fair to say that this demonstrates a real problem for our democracy.

Anonymous said...

I'd favour an official regime of compulsory voting (though not punitive, but instead offering a tax rebate to those who cast a ballot).

-Leo

Claude Tardif said...

Thanks, Leo. So it would appear that there is a small trend. Actually, I noticed it when trying to devise a small tweak of our electoral system towards proportionality: Don't resize the ridings, add seats or change the ballot, but compensate towards proportionality by eliminating some ``worst winners'' of the over-represented parties and replacing them by some ``best losers'' of the under-represented parties. The number of seats affected (10%, 20%?) could be decided by the electorate at each election.

Furthermore, the score of candidates could be measured by (votes obtained / number of eligible voters) rather than (votes obtained / votes cast). That way, there would be a local incentive to high voter turnout: Better chances to retain a local candidate.

I did tests with recent elections in Ontario. It is there that I noticed that some of the worse winners had over 50% in a riding with a low voter turnout. Moreover, it seemed that these victims were women and minorities in safe ridings. It is just as if our parties put women and minorities as candidates in safe ridings to make us look good. This raises us to about 50-th in the world in therms of representation of women, instead of being much worse. But at the same time it seems to decrease voter turnout in these ridings.