Sunday, March 28, 2010

Quebec’s Pathetic Electoral System

All is Not Well in the Belle Province

Aside from arts and culture, things are screwed up big time here in Quebec. If Quebec were a country, we would be among the top five debtor nations in the world. Counting our share of the federal debt, we have an accumulated public debt of approximately 90% of our GDP. Moreover, the Quebec Government recently amended key sections of its zero-deficit legislation so that we could again run substantial deficits without any clear plan on how to eliminate them.

As well, our social service programs are in a shambles despite the large amounts of money we invest in them annually. For example, less than 50% of Quebec high school students will graduate with a diploma within the prescribed five years. In Montreal, only 33% will do so from the Francophone public high schools. Estimates of the levels of illiteracy run as high as 15% of the population and as high as 50% if we include those who are deemed to be functionally illiterate. With regard to health care, good luck trying to find a family physician, and be prepared to wait more than 24 hours to see a doctor in one of our emergency wards, which doesn’t guarantee that you won’t die on a stretcher in a corridor while waiting to be transferred to a bed.

Furthermore, as a result of a highway-overpass that collapsed killing four people, the Quebec Government has gone a multi-billion dollar spending spree to fix our aging infrastructure, but it appears that the tendering system is rife with corruption. So much so, the vast majority of Quebecers cry out to have a public enquiry held to investigate the corruption and collusion within the construction industry, only to be met with the steadfast refusal of the Premier Jean Charest. Apparently, the Charest-led Liberal Party has very close financial ties with the province’s leading engineering and construction firms.

Even our sacrosanct publicly-funded, day care system has come under attack when it was revealed that financial contributors to the Liberal Party had been given preferential treatment in the awarding and exchange of the permits required to open a day care.

Well, you might ask, if things are so bad, why not simply vote the Liberals out of office?

It sounds like a viable option. However, we may have arrived at a point where the Liberals’ capacity to raise funds, voter apathy, disenchantment with the sovereignty option, and an archaic voting system have given them an institutional lock on political power.

Indeed, looking at the key components of the electoral system: the manner in which votes are translated into seats in the legislature, the electoral map, the financing of political parties, and the lack of an effective independent agency to monitor and prescribe electoral practices has led me to believe that Quebec has the worst electoral system in North America.

Looking southward, all 50 states are bound by the US Voting Rights Act of 1965, which reduces the variation of the congressional districts to less than 5% compared to the 25% variation allowed in Canada, and the distorted multi-party representation in Quebec’s National Assembly brought about by a voting system that is designed to accommodate only two political parties gives Quebec the highest levels of disproportionate results as measured by the Gallagher Index.

The Systemic Distortion of the Popular Vote

To begin, Quebec’s outdated first-past-the-post voting system produces large distortions of voting intentions so that majority governments are formed without having the support of the majority of electors. This is done by the system’s tendency to award more seats to the ruling party and less seats to the opposing party than they merit based on their respective share of the popular vote. Moreover, third parties are severely under-represented and representation is most often denied to smaller parties. Occasionally, a party will go on to form a majority government despite not having gained a plurality of the popular vote. This was the case in the 1944, 1966, and 1998 Quebec general elections.

One disturbing feature of the voting system is to repress political diversity and, as a consequence, reduce the level of participation during the electoral process. Since votes cast for third and smaller parties have little or no impact on electoral results, voters are given an institutional incentive not to cast their votes for their authentic choice or not to cast their votes at all. Lately, this institutional bias has led to a significant drop in the participation rate during general elections: from 81% in 1998 to 54% in 2008.

The vagaries of first-past-the-post are well known in Quebec. In fact, on four separate occasions the public has been consulted on how to fix the problem, and in each occasion recommendations were made to replace the existing voting system with a proportional system. Yet, the anachronistic first-past-the-post remains in place because those who benefit the most from the status quo – those who are elected by its use – are the least apt to change it despite the fact that changing the voting system is part of the official party policy for each of the parties that are represented in Quebec’s National Assembly.

The latest farcical attempt at change arose from Premier Charest’s 2003 electoral campaign promise to introduce elements of proportionality into the voting system. Draft legislation was tabled and yet another public commission was struck. Nevertheless, it became readily apparent that the proposed model would do little to correct the chronic problems inherent to the system. The citizens committee, which was part of the special commission, offered specific recommendations to make the system truly proportional, whereas the elected officials committee would only go as far as recommending that the new model not be implemented as it was proposed.

The Minister responsible for the file referred it back to the Director General of Elections (DGE) for further study, and a year later he responded with an exhaustive study of the possible modalities from which changes could be made. Unfortunately, the report was released on the last day before the legislature’s Christmas recess, and it was promptly shelved without a word of protest from the DGE.

Quebec’s Electoral Map: Some Are More Equal Than Others

Having gone through the motions of proposing changes to the voting system, the Quebec government still faced the legal requirement of drawing up a new electoral map after two subsequent general elections. However, this didn’t deter the Liberals from calling a snap, third general election with an out-dated electoral map to take advantage of weak polling numbers of the official opposition, notwithstanding the embarrassing fact that at least 18 of the 125 provincial ridings did not comply with the electoral law’s stipulation that ridings are required to have no more than a 25% deviation from the provincial average for the number of electors per riding.

Afterwards, the DGE wrote up another report and went on another public consultation to explain substantive changes to a new electoral map that would bring the size and number of ridings within the parameters of the electoral law. In short, two ridings would be eliminated from the outlying regions and two additional ridings would be created in more populous regions. Although the new map did not address the problem of how the votes are counted and then translated into seats, it did bring Quebec’s electoral map in line with the federal Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act and existing jurisprudence.

Yet, the Liberal government, having already run roughshod over the DGE, added insult to injury by rejecting his report and tabled legislation in which the Liberal government, not an independent electoral commission, would redraw the electoral map to its own liking. Again, the DGE did not speak out publicly against what was clearly an affront to the independent role a director of elections must play.

Importantly, the new electoral map gives short shrift to the democratic principle of one person, one vote. It allows for ridings in the outlying regions that do not conform to the 25% deviation limit of the existing electoral law. Over and above, the exceptional circumstance ridings (there are two: the Madeline Islands and the North of Quebec) which the electoral law makes provisions, there will be several ridings in the outlying regions with have less than half the electors as the large urban ridings. As we could expect, the Minister responsible for guiding these dubious changes to the existing electoral law through the legislature represents a riding that has less electors than the law prescribes.

Malapportionment on Linguistic Lines

Beyond the failure to respect the notion of one person, one vote, the Liberal map also increases the already existing imbalance of voting power between the majority Francophone and the minority Anglophone and Allophone populations.

Presently, it is well known that the Anglophone/Allophone ridings contain more electors on average than what are traditionally known as the Francophone ridings. Based on the latest data provided by the DGE, the voting power of the ridings where Anglophones and Allophones comprise more that 20% of the electorate is 7% less than the ridings in the rest of the province.

As a result, there exists an interesting phenomenon in Quebec where at the onset of each general election, the media reminds voters that when looking at polling numbers to keep in mind that the Liberals, which carry all of the Anglophone/Allophone ridings, must have a 5 to 7 point lead in the polls to be on equal footing with their rivals the Parti Quebecois (PQ). With regard to the distribution of seats in the legislature, votes cast in these ridings produce fewer representatives in the National Assembly than the same number of votes cast in the Francophone ridings.

What garners no attention in the today's very limited debate is that the proposed changes to the electoral map will exacerbate the malapportionment among the linguistic communities since the ridings that will be allowed to have fewer voters than is prescribed by the law have electorates that are approximately 95% Francophone. As result, the voting power of the Francophone majority increases while that of the linguistic minorities decreases.

This movement toward further “linguistic gerrymandering” of the electoral map also underscores the limitations of a voting system that awards representation strictly on the basis of geographically located districts that elect a single representative. To maintain the number of ridings in the outlying regions so that they conform to the 25% deviation limit would require an additional 26 ridings to be dispersed in the more populous regions. Since this reasonable measure does not appear to be a viable option, the Liberals have decided to push the present electoral system beyond its constitutional limits rather than to give voters a better electoral system, which would have occurred if they had made good on their promise to introduce elements of proportionality into the voting system.

The Power of Money

Although the Liberals would be in line with popular opinion if they were to adopt a proportional system, by doing so they would inevitably undermine the power of money to determine electoral results, and this would not sit well with the rank and file supporters of the party.

One of the traditional arguments put forward in maintaining the present system is that it respects the so-called sacred link between the deputy and his or her constituents. Supposedly, the multi-member districts to be found in proportional electoral systems would make it more difficult for citizens to establish contact with their elected representatives. Not only does this insult the intelligence of the electorate, but it also hides the fact the few electors ever try to make contact with their deputy, in fact more than 50% cannot recall his or her name, and those that do often do so for reasons of personal gain.

In summary, the first-past-the post system is above all else an electoral system that turns financial contributions from donors into patronage goods: government contracts, appointments, and favourable political intervention into the marketplace and the society at large.

Indeed, the popular term for our voting system, first-past-the-post, is an appropriate choice. The analogy drawn between an election and a horse race confirms the cherished feature of the system: the odds of the payoff. Of all the voting systems in use the developed world, it is the easiest system from which political donors can back the right horse with little need to hedge one’s bet. First, polling data is quite accurate in predicting overall election outcomes. Second, only the very least in the way of performance is required for the payback: winning the most seats in the legislature rather than gaining a majority of the popular vote. With such institutional practices in place, it takes very little for politicians who offer the likelihood of forming a majority government to convince potential donors who are very eager to participate in a quid pro quo.

The adoption of a proportional system, however, would increase the uncertainty of placing a winning bet on a particular party since it is rare that a proportional voting system produces a majority government. This feature diminishes considerably the capacity of a single political party of reward donors with acts of patronage. Moreover, in multi-member districts in which each political party fields several candidates, it is more difficult to predict which of the favoured party’s candidates will come up on top. This means that, in order to manage the risk, contributions need to be spread out over the entire slate of candidates a party runs in a district.

Other majoritarian systems that use a preferential ballot or use two or more rounds of voting also add uncertainty to the outcome since a favoured candidate might not garner sufficient support on the second round of voting or after the second and subsequent preferences are counted.

Clearly, the element of risk with regard to receiving a return on one’s financial investment after an election is significantly lower within first-past-the-post, which explains why the Liberals, who are favoured by the business and investment class, did not respect their electoral promise to introduce elements of proportionality into the voting system.

Serious Doubts Concerning the Integrity of the Electoral System

One of the most important legacies of the PQ’s relatively short time in power was to prohibit donations from corporations and unions to political parties and to limit donations from individuals to $3000 per annum. This feature of Quebec’s electoral law served as the model for similar legislation at the federal level. Unfortunately, in Quebec the electoral law is easily circumvented, and the Director General of Elections appears to have little interest in enforcing the law.

It is common knowledge that all one needs to do is to have one’s family members make similar maximum $3000 donations or distribute money to one’s employees to do likewise. Over the last year, three current ministers of Premier Charest’s cabinet have stated that it is common for construction companies to donate money to the Liberal Party in spite of Quebec electoral law’s prohibition of this practice.

Upon analysis of the public records concerning donations of more than $200 to political parties, it has been noted that since 2005 more than $300,000 has been donated to the Liberal Party from employees of the major engineering firms that do business with the government. As well, more than 200 Liberal donors exceeded the $3000 annual limit.

In light of these revelations, the only response that came from the DGE’s office was a statement to the effect that the law is difficult to enforce.

Finally, Quebec’s former Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Marc Bellemare, has publicly declared that he brought the subject of financial irregularities to the Premier’s attention. In response, Premier Charest denied he was made aware of the problem, which prompted Mr. Bellemare to state that Jean Charest “lies as easily as he breathes.”

Furthermore, the former Attorney General says that he has proof that he made the Premier aware of the problem, stated he was ready to testify before a parliamentary committee, and refused to appear before the DGE, who he claims to have sold out to the Premier. A motion to have Mr. Bellemare testify before a parliamentary committee was introduced by the opposition but was subsequently voted down by the Liberals.

Failure of Quebec’s Democratic Institutions

What makes this turn of events intolerable for those who believe in the principles of democracy is that the political party that exercises the power of the majority and is responsible for these unfortunate turn of events was elected with the support of less than 25% of the electorate. Consequently, Quebec democrats have to confront a reality in which a well-financed minority is circumventing the rules that oversee its election and is in the process of re-writing Quebec’s electoral laws, having usurped the responsibility from what is supposed to be Quebec’s independent Commission on Electoral Representation.

Relief could be expected if the PQ were elected in the next general election. Unfortunately, given that the malapportionment inherent to the electoral system actually favours the PQ, it is unlikely that any significant changes would be made to Quebec’s democratic institutions until after it achieves its goal of independence for Quebec, which means that we could be waiting for a very long, long time.

It would then appear that the only recourse to exit from this political cul-de-sac is to bring the matter before the courts. In 2004, the Association for the Revendication of Democratic Rights (ARDD) filed a motion in Quebec’s Superior Court to have Quebec’s use of first-past-the-post voting system declared unconstitutional. Moving forward ever so slowly, the case will be argued before Quebec’s Appeal Court at the end of 2010 with a great likelihood that the case will be tried before the Supreme Court of Canada sometime before the end of 2012.

A decision in favour of the ARDD would have the effect of forcing Quebecers to decide which voting system they should adopt to replace the anachronistic system we have been using for almost 150 years. Even British Parliamentarians in the House of Commons voted to adopt a law that would have its citizens participate in a nation-wide referendum in which they would have to choose between first-past-the-post and a voting system incorporating a preferential ballot (the alternative vote).

On the positive note, Quebec’s superior Court did rule that the ARDD’s motion was justiciable, which means that an elected government’s choice of a voting system is subject to judicial review. What remains to happen is for the Court to rule that the continued use if the first-past-the-post system infringes on the rights of citizens to have effective representation and to participate meaningfully in the electoral process. In making such a ruling the Court would pave the way for Quebec and subsequently Canada to become a truly democratic state.

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