On May 10, the government released its principles for electoral reform. In this series we are looking at those principles one by one.
(e) Local representation: that the proposed measure would ensure accountability and recognize the value that Canadians attach to community, to Members of Parliament understanding local conditions and advancing local needs at the national level, and to having access to Members of Parliament to facilitate resolution of their concerns and participation in the democratic process;
It is said that all politics is local. There are few things worse for democracy than citizens viewing Parliament as a distant abstractions, with little relevance to or knowledge of their day to day lives. One of the principal roles of MPs is to translate the general principles that are discussed in Ottawa into local terms, into how it affects your job, the livelihood of your neighbours, your local school, infrastructure, and services, and in the other direction to translate that back up to what Parliament does through direct contact with local people. The smaller the community, the more direct the contact between a community and their MP, and the more relevant and effective Parliament can be.
This principle is easily understood as a call for single-member districts. There are many advantages to single-member districts such as we have now. Each voter has a single community representative that represents them, that must represent them. This is so ingrained in our parliamentary systems that MPs are referred to by the name of the riding they represent, not their own name nor the name of the party they belong to. There is no question whose job it is to represent you and if the job is not done properly, there is no question who is accountable to voters. Under the current system, getting rid of an unsatisfactory representative is a matter of not voting for them. Unfortunately, it is possible for a candidate to be (re)elected with 35-40% of the votes even if 60 or 65% of a district do not want that individual as their representative. What Ranked Ballots offers is increasing that mandate to 50% of the valid votes. With most known methods of electing MPs to multi-member districts, the percentage of votes required to be elected is smaller, as high as 33% for some methods but typically as low as 5% or less. Getting rid of an unsatisfactory representative is much harder, which reduces accountability.
Who will speak for a community when there are more than one MP who claim that right? In a multi-member district, does one of the MPs have more legitimacy because they obtained more votes or were elected more directly than the others? With 50% thresholds, it is clear who holds the mandate to act on behalf of constituents. The consequence of requiring 50% is that within each community, candidates must strive to engage with different types of voters in order to built a large enough consensus. Without this requirement, parties can just unabashedly cater to small socio-demographic groups or narrow interests, get a mandate from that minority rather than from an entire community, and wait until after the election to try to negotiate a compromise with other interests, or be ignored. Candidates need not be conscious of diversity. There is little need to go beyond their core support. With single-member districts and a 50% threshold, all candidates have no choice but to engage with the diversity within their own ridings. When they arrive in parliament they have already come to terms with internal diversity and what remains is to find reconcile geographic diversity, already the basis of our federal system.
MPs have other roles besides the legislative ones. They are also unofficial ombudsmen, the conduit for helping constituents deal with both the legislative process and federal institutions, and a go-between for institutions and other levels of government. If a riding has several MPs, which one do individuals go to? The one that they voted for, that they feel represented by, thereby revealing who they voted for? For organizations in civil society, who do they choose? The choice will be interpreted as a partisan one if there are members of two different parties. Or do they contact all of them? If so, which ones will believe that it is someone else’s responsibility and not their own to take on the cause of a constituent or group? Will they duplicate the work or work at cross-purposes?
The nice thing about single-member districts with reasonable size ridings, is that it is possible for an MP or a candidate to interact personally with every voter in the community by spending about two hours a day for a year. If ridings get bigger than their current size you can no longer interact directly with all constituents, only mass marketing techniques can hope to reach most voters. In order to make direct contact possible, larger rural and remote ridings have fewer constituents. We agree with this. It doesn’t mean that they are over-represented, since the quality of their interaction with their MP is no better. In fact, because spending limits for elections and nominations do not go up with the greater cost of reaching these voters, they get a lower quality of representation. In multi-member constituencies that contain both voters who are easy to reach and voters that are more expensive to reach, in can be expected that it is cheaper for parties to concentrate their efforts on the more cost-effective urban and suburban voters, and in areas where they are already popular, if the same dollar can earn them twice as many votes as in rural and remote areas.
Representing local concerns is best done with single member districts. Of the single-member district electoral methods, our current one is the one that reduces the legitimacy of the representative by allowing them to be elected with a minority of local voters. Our solution is to increase that percentage. Multi-member methods tend to decrease that percentage while making it unclear who is legitimately responsible for providing that representation.