Whatever method we use to count votes, we still need to ask a more basic question - what is a vote, and what does it mean?
Published May 14, 2011
Last week's election swept Harper's Conservative government into power as a majority with just under 40% of the popular vote. Though they achieved only 2.3% more of the popular vote than in 2008, it was strategically placed and won them 24 more seats, tipping the scales in Parliament to allow them years of uncontested bill passage. As always, this has lead to questions about our First-Past-the-Post electoral system, but would another system such as IRV or MMP really bring the responsiveness, engagement or effectiveness we seek?
Whatever method we use to count votes, we still need to ask a more basic question - what is a vote, and what does it mean? Fundamentally, a vote is a data point. Our electoral system and parliament process that data, which serves as the method by which we, the public, can influence their actions.
Viewing votes and voting in this way, we begin to see how little actual information they convey. Voting for one of a handful of candidates is about a byte of data per person. This carefully chosen byte is the one form of binding influence we have over the government - and is meant to convey our wishes as far as which representative we get, their philosophy and which side of major issues we fall upon.
This input is considered valid for around four years. What professional number cruncher, from computers to statistics to economics would take these kind of assumptions uncritically? At best, an election provides a snapshot of public opinion, not too different from a single statistic or digital photograph.
The first and most glaring problem with our electoral system is the questions it asks. We focus nearly entirely on who and not what, how or why? By using representatives as a proxy for all the actual issues involved, we conflate them all into a single choice. Are we voting for a person, party, philosophy, prime minister, or any of a hundred policies?
The inability to differentiate between the many conflicting desires expressed with a vote leaves most of it up to speculation, with the elected member making the final call. When their actions don't correlate with the wishes of their electors, this is because they don't have to. Once in power, "representatives" are given a free hand to break any promises they've made or ignore large chunks of their riding at will.
There is no binding requirement to respect the electorate's wishes, and only the threat of electing someone else years down the road if we're unhappy.
Voting for individuals is a very poor technical substitute for actual issue-based input. For starters, by requiring that we choose one of three, five or a dozen candidates, we create a situation where only a very small "majority" is needed to "win". This often means that the more popular position (which fielded more candidates) often loses in favour of a vocal and well-organized minority. It also relies on those individuals to be trustworthy and effective - which clearly they often are not. And finally, it assumes that we all break down into easily quantified ideological categories, and often takes our support of any part of one as an indication of total support for their policies.
Between elections there's virtually no binding data collection. There are opinion polls, public consultations, meetings with representatives and other forms of input, but none carry any legal weight. As anyone who's been involved in challenging the government knows, these inputs are all easy enough to ignore, even when massively popular. And while other means of influencing government exist - such as involvement in parties or grassroots organizations, it must also be noted that many of these influences aren't terribly democratic. Power concentrations in business and the media, as well as the un-elected parts of our government have demonstrated a very clear ability to get what they want from our government.
The measure of a democracy, in many ways, is what happens when the wishes of those tasked with carrying out the will of the people come into conflict with the people themselves. Perhaps the best example of this is Municipal Amalgamation. Facing overwhelming public opposition (3:1 in Toronto's vote), the Harris Government simply went ahead anyway, greatly reducing local representation for many Ontario municipalities.
Simply put - we have a "democratic" system which greatly reduces actual democratic inputs. And one which is very resistant to change.
What we need, fundamentally, is more data, more often. This data needs to be far more detailed, and it needs to have binding influence on decision-making. It needs to be able to differentiate between our views of the personal performance of representatives and our views on policy matters. It also needs to provide a far better picture of people's wishes regarding individual issues (health care, carbon taxes, tuition etc) beyond their general philosophy and party affiliation. It needs to be able to track our satisfaction with the system itself. And it needs to do all of this regularly, perhaps even in real time.
There are technological ways we could do this - largely unexplored in an age where we can trade a million dollars worth of stocks from a cell phone. Using a system like modern encryption, private keys could be used to access an account on public servers updating your wishes by issue - anonymous and secure. It doesn't need to involve technology, though. Town hall meetings, neighbourhood assemblies, public forums and village councils and other age-old traditions allow us far less mediated means of public discussion. Many groups are already doing this, and many more could. I for one, would love to see a "Speakers Corner" downtown, with soap-box and all. While discussion is only a first step, whatever the venue, it is the crucial step.
There's no easy set of answers, nor any one-size-fits-all solution. Democracy is a dialogue, and it must involve all of us. What do you think? What questions would you like answered? And most fundamentally, how do you feel this land we call Canada should operate?
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