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Some Crackpots Think the Canadian Public Is Too Dumb to Choose a New Voting System

Canada's current electoral system is crap, but shouldn't the public get to vote on choosing a new electoral system?
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA

The change is coming. Photo via Facebook

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised that the 2015 election will be the last-ever held under the First-Past-the-Post voting method.

Yay! Pom-poms. Dancing bears. Etc.

The Liberals have yet to figure out what sort of model they want to replace our current system, but lots of signs point to some form of a ranked ballot, or single-transferable vote—basically, some kind of system where you can list all your favorite candidates numerically, and a bunch of math fairies decide who has the most support in the riding.


But there are some other ideas floating around out there. Some people want proportional representation—so that a party with five percent of the vote actually gets five percent of the seats, and so on—while others have some different cockamamie schemes.

A few hippy-dippy tree-huggers even propose a system whereby you put a checkmark next to every single candidate you approve of, with the intent of turning our electoral system into the class president race in a Norwegian Montessori school.

But the fight over which system is best is scheduled for somewhere down the line. At least, hopefully.

See, some activists are out there demanding that the government just go ahead and change the electoral system without a vote, a referendum—nothing. Not so much as a show of hands or a group huddle.

That's the position of LeadNow, a coalition of lefty activists who pioneered strategic voting and vote swapping, lubricating our democracy's slow slide towards superficial idiocy in the process.

Star Wars! Get it? Millennial high-five!

(A millennial high-five is like a regular high-five except you both hum the few bars of the Full House theme song that you can remember and then tell each other how great the 90s were, even though you were wetting the bed for most of the decade.)

LeadNow, a special interest group prone to manipulating the public through political advertisements financed by unknown donors, warns that a referendum would be "a risky and divisive process prone to manipulation by the mass media and fear-mongering by corporate and special interests."


Pot, meet kettle. Oh, you two know each other? Oh, great. You both know Jennie? She's a hoot.

It is unspeakably arrogant to argue—be you a government, an activist group, or just some average boob—that the public shouldn't get a vote on choosing a new electoral system.

No, not "consultation." No, the government doesn't need to "engage" or "listen" to the public. That's all horseshit platitude-craft for: "We've made up our minds and have the focus groups and retweets to prove it."

Consultations with a wide group of NGOs, civil society groups, scientists, and business folks are a good way to find out which line items should be stuck in your budget—$5 million to retrofit seniors homes, $500,000 to study pig hooves, a five percent tax rebate for job-related cocaine purchases. Public "consultations" are inherently political bullshit.

Not all the e-petition signatures, Facebook comments, and Tinder right-swipes in the world can give a shit idea democratic legitimacy. The only way to actually be able to say that the public was consulted is to give them a vote on it.

At the moment, the Trudeau government hasn't unequivocally said that they'll hold a referendum, and that's drawing the ire of the Conservative Party, as it should.

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose asked the prime minister in question period: Will there be a referendum?

After explaining that the current system is bad, Trudeau said simply: "We will engage, as promised, in broad consultation with Canadians."


Ambrose asked again. Trudeau didn't answer again. Ambrose asked again. Trudeau didn't answer again.

The closest thing we've gotten from the Liberals thus far is a comment from Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef. She was asked by the Conservatives repeatedly about whether they actually intend to allow for a vote on this.

"As part of a national engagement process, we will ensure that electoral reform measures, such as ranked ballot, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting, are fully and fairly studied and considered. As part of that process, we are absolutely committed to ensuring that Canadians from coast to coast to coast are heard," Monsef said.

In other words: we're reserving the right to decide what the best system is, and then you'll all use it. You're welcome, Canada.

Obviously, there are concerns about holding referenda. Voter turnout, sometimes, sucks. Laws on how referenda are held are outdated, and haven't been updated in tandem with our regular election laws. Sometimes there are wolves.

But we can fix that. We can update the laws. We can buy wolf mace. Referendum votes could be mandatory, or everyone could get a TImmy's coupon with each ballot cast. Whatever.

Burrow down on these concerns, however, and the same hand-wringing is always at the core: What if the plebs vote wrong?

That is, what if the unwashed masses vote for the status quo. What if, gasp, voters pick first-past-the-post over whatever sophomore algebra class that is being proposed.


Voters often back familiarity over disruption. Not always, but often.

If that happens, the reform advocates will have no one to blame but themselves. Tough shit. You tried. You failed.

That's happened in British Columbia. A referendum there led to the public sticking with the status quo.

Perhaps it had something to do with this monstrosity:

Our current electoral system is crap. Nobody out there is waving the First-Past-The-Post flag. At best, you've got a few nervous nellies who don't like change and who begrudgingly say that the system is the best choice on the table.

So if the reform crowd can't convince the Canadian population to switch to something better, that's on them.

And, hey, there are ways to hold a referendum that makes it clear that change needs to come, without treating the national populace like a child in an ice cream store.

Look, here's a suggestion:

Canada is looking to change its electoral system. What system should Canada adopt?

  • A ranked ballot system; where voters list eligible candidates in-order, as though they are one of 60,000 judges at an incredibly lame science fair.
  • An approval voting method; where voters mark their ballot for every candidate they approve of, like some goddamn free love potluck.
  • Mixed-member proportional representation; where a shadowy cabal of party hacks pick a list of possible candidates for you to elect, but where you also get to vote for some local used car salesman who you will only ever see in the community when there is a parade.
  • Proportional representation; because fuck math.
  • All of these ideas are awful, go back to the drawing board and bring us better ideas. Call us when you're done. We're going to have a glass of wine and fall asleep in the bath.

I am making that ballot question freely available via Creative Commons. So feel free to use it, JT.

You're welcome, Canada. Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.