MPs devoting the summer to electoral reform; a look at what they've heard so far

This summer a group of MPs has been gathering for meetings of the special committee on electoral reform to hear from expert witnesses on how they should change the way Canadians vote federally. As the committee takes a three-week break, here what they've been talking about so far.

Committee looked at online voting, mandatory voting and whether any electoral changes require a referendum

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday July 6, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The summer political season is one usually spent far away from Ottawa, but this year a group of MPs has been gathering for meetings of the special committee on electoral reform to hear from expert witnesses on how — and whether — they should change the way Canadians cast their federal election ballots.

As the committee takes a three-week break, here is a taste of what they have been talking about so far.

The options

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised the 2015 federal election would be the last one conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

The committee is tasked with studying viable alternatives; so far, the witnesses who think Canada should change its electoral system seem to prefer some version of proportional representation, which tries to align a political party's share of the popular vote with the number of MPs it sends to Ottawa, rather than the ranked-ballot system Trudeau himself once said he prefers.

"Although it does give greater choice to the voters, it seems to replicate all the problems that we find in first-past-the-post," Brian Tanguay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, told the committee Monday.

Many witnesses have also said Canada would need to design a version of an electoral system that is unique to the country, especially since the Constitution locks in minimum representation in the provinces.

They have also pointed out that no electoral system is perfect and that they come with trade-offs, such as less local representation in favour of more proportionality.

"Often, to give up some of one is required if you want to get some of the other," said R. Kenneth Carty, a professor emeritus with the University of British Columbia.

Online voting

The committee was also given the mandate to explore the possibility of online voting, but most of the electoral experts who have appeared so far remain unconvinced that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Maryantonett Flumian, president of the Institute on Governance, is strongly in favour of it.

"People live their lives online, do their banking online, pay their taxes online, but they can't vote online," Flumian told the committee Thursday.

Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer, told the committee earlier this month that such an analogy does not always fit when you consider the security, confidentiality and integrity required of the electoral system.

It's not that there are no risks to electronic banking, Mayrand said. It's that the bank is the one that takes on the risk.

Mandatory voting

The committee has also been tasked with considering mandatory voting, but the reaction has been lukewarm.

"I think mandatory voting probably addresses the symptom rather than the cause," Michael Marsh, a professor emeritus from Trinity College in Dublin, told the committee by video conference.

Witnesses described unintended consequences such as a phenomenon in Australia called a "donkey vote" — where voters forced to go to the polls just choose candidates alphabetically because they know or care too little about them.

Carty described a possible positive effect.

"We'd end this kind of mass-voter mobilization kind of stuff because the voters would get themselves to the polls themselves and you wouldn't spend money on that. Parties would be engaged in other kinds of activities," he said.

Patrice Dutil, a professor at Ryerson University, said he is against mandatory voting, but noted the experience of western democracies that use it has shown it will boost participation rates be about eight to 10 per cent.

Referendum or no?

The Conservative MPs on the committee have been devoting many of their questions to whether changing the electoral system should require a referendum, which should surprise no one who watched question period in the House of Commons this spring.

Reaction from the witnesses so far has been mixed, with some strongly against and others fervently in favour.

Nelson Wiseman, director of the Canadian studies program at the University of Toronto, said a referendum would be a waste of time.

"It's unnecessary, it's a waste of money, and it will almost certainly fail," Wiseman told the committee.

Dutil, however, noted the fact that electoral reform has been rejected by referenda in other provinces is not an argument against holding one now.

"(It) adds all the more urgency and morality to the matter. The past views of voters expressed cannot be simply discarded," Dutil said.

The idea of holding a referendum after one or two elections under the new system has also been floated.

Referendum or no, everyone has talked about the importance of consulting as broadly as possible with Canadians.


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