The push towards electoral reform may not be dead in the water just yet, despite yet another referendum rebuff by Prince Edward Island voters on Tuesday.
Instead, those involved in the movement say the focus is shifting from national and provincial politics to the grassroots level — municipal politics.
P.E.I. put the question to voters in a referendum during the provincial election on Tuesday as to whether to move from first-past-the-post, the current system used in federal and provincial elections across the country, to mixed member proportional representation.
Democratic reform advocates argue the system is more fair than first-past-the-post because proportional representation ensures parties receive the number of seats in the legislature that reflects the percentage of the popular vote they actually received.
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In contrast, the first-past-the-post system awards majority control to parties that often receive less than 40 per cent of the popular vote but who win the majority of votes in each of the 338 ridings in the country.
This especially benefits parties that can win big in areas like the Greater Toronto Area that have a lot of ridings up for grabs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in 2015 to get rid of first-past-the-post but then abandoned the pledge of electoral reform in 2017, arguing there was no broad support for change despite the fact he won an election with democratic reform as a key part of his platform.
B.C. Deputy Premier Carole James also declared just a few months ago that “electoral reform is finished” after voters in that province rejected changing their system in a December 2018 referendum.
But while the vote in P.E.I. might not prompt other provinces to try again, experts say it may encourage the cities and towns within them to look at whether different voting systems could make their elections more fair for all and in doing so, provide some much-needed experimentation on the political stage.
“If the vote does fail, I think we will certainly see increased attention at the municipal level. There’s a lot more room for experimentation among cities, and perhaps more interest as well,” said Stewart Prest, a lecturer at Simon Fraser University in B.C., specializing in political science and democratic institutions.
“Experimentation at the city level might give us a chance to see how some of these kinds of changes play out, for better or worse, in the Canadian context — something that we’ve been missing throughout this long-running debate.”
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Targeting municipalities for democratic reform has been a focus of groups like Unlock Democracy Canada for the last decade but advocates there have seen particular success over the last couple of years.
The group runs a program focused on Ontario cities that works to get them to use either proportional representation or ranked ballots in their elections.
Democratic reform advocates say both options give a stronger voice to voters than first-past-the-post by giving their vote a greater impact on the results.
Dave Meslin, founder of Unlock Democracy Canada, says the group deliberately shifted its strategy about a decade ago to focus on municipalities after the 2007 Ontario referendum and the 2009 B.C. referendum, which both saw provincial voters opt to keep the status quo.
“Afterwards, I decided to focus on city halls instead, and it’s been working out great,” said Meslin.
“If you think about, this is the natural progression of any social change: bottom-up.”
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London, Ont., became the first city to use ranked ballots last fall and two other Ontario cities, Kingston and Cambridge, both voted in favour of doing so in referendums around the same time.
Ontario has legislation in place allowing municipalities to change how they vote, and advocates like Meslin and others are working to try and get bigger cities including Toronto to also change their voting system.
There is also some debate taking place in B.C. about whether to let cities and towns change how they vote on a local level.
But there is also still a glimmer of hope for broader change, he added, pointing to Quebec Premier Francois Legault.
Legault campaigned on a pledge to enact democratic reform through legislation rather than a referendum.
Two of the opposition parties in that province also support changing the system to proportional representation as Legault has promised to do.
That comes after the provincial election put Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec party into a majority government with the lowest-ever percentage of a popular vote in Canadian history. Quebec Justice Minister Sonia LeBel said in February she plans to table an electoral reform bill before October 2019.
Experts say while experimentation may be more likely to start at the local level after the rejections by voters in Ontario, B.C., and P.E.I., the big change will still likely need to come from provinces like Quebec that remain committed to working towards changing the system at their level.
“The movement for electoral reform seems to have reached a critical mass. And it hasn’t been deterred yet by a string of failures,” said Michael Morden, research director at the Samara Centre for Democracy.
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“I don’t the P.E.I. experience will greatly deter supporters of electoral reform. Change is most likely to start at the local level, and in fact, we’ve already seen electoral reform of a kind in some municipalities. But I still think the breakthrough has to happen at the provincial level.”
Prest said change from a province like Quebec could reopen the debate at the provincial or national level down the road.
“There is no perfect democracy,” he said. “So there will always be room for debate about how to improve it.”
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