Thursday, November 26, 2015


I have been thinking a lot about electoral systems lately since the new Liberal government has stated their intention to change Canada's First Past the Post system to something less bad.  I approve of the change but there are a lot of options in terms of what we could end up with, and some are better than others.  I suspect for the Liberals the best strategy in terms of selfish desire to rule is a simple ranked ballot.  Under that system an awful lot of voters will rank NPD - Liberals - Conservatives or Conservatives - Liberals - NDP and that will work wonders at keeping the Liberals in power.  (Which isn't my goal, but it seems the likely result, and not one the Liberals will ignore.)

However, today I ran across an interesting set of ideas called Liquid Democracy that proposes a fairly radical change to how voting and governing function.  The idea is captured in this chart reasonably well:

The basic idea is that people nominate proxies for themselves to vote on individual issues or vote directly.  Part of it is the assumption that proxies can also have proxies, and that each proxy can be contingent on the type of vote going on.  For example, I could vote directly on issues relating to justice, nominate one person to vote on native issues for me, and nominate another proxy to vote on everything else through their network of proxies, which hopefully is a carefully selected group of experts.  It has a lot of basic appeal, but also a ton of issues.

I actually take issue with the basic idea that it is a good thing to have the entire country voting on each individual issue.  People are shortsighted and don't have a grasp of the big picture, and if their votes are based on individual issues they aren't going to have any kind of overall strategy.  It seems very likely that everyone would happily vote for lower taxes, better healthcare, and more money spent on their project of choice, and then be angry when the budget was a total disaster.  People already vote themselves free stuff when they can and letting them do it on a case by case basis seems terrible.

The way I see it we actually need people who are in the business of governing and who are going to be at it for awhile to make cohesive plans.  I also question our ability to actually group up legislation into discrete chunks in that way - how do I separate the fiscal group from nearly any other group?  How do we decide if legislation regulating land use in a way that impacts native reserves is voted on as an environmental or native vote?

However, this was a useful exercise because it got me thinking about how we group our voting power and considering alternatives.  Right now things are greatly focused on physical location, operating on the assumption that people who live in an area have similar views that should be represented.  While I have things in common with someone who lives 2 blocks away, I have a heck of a lot more in common with atheist socialists living in Vancouver than I do religious conservatives living in my building.

So how might we go about letting people find representatives that match their interests better without completely removing the idea of local representation?

The idea I am putting forward here is that voting be shifted from pieces of paper based strictly on location to online voting that is location independent.  Imagine a system where people go to vote and have a list of possible representatives which includes everyone in the country who has gone through the procedure to be listed.  Each candidate would still be able to list themselves by riding, so that people who want to vote for someone local can see the list of ~5 people who are local candidates, or they can search (with electronic assistance, obviously) for the candidate they want that isn't local.

Example:  I go to vote.  I can vote for Carolyn Bennett, my local Liberal rep, as she appears alongside Ginny McGee and Dorfus The Greedy as my local candidates.  Or I can type in "May" and find Elizabeth May's name in the list and vote for her because I like the Green Party.  Or if my best friend Bob is running for office I can look him up and vote for him.

The top 300 candidates each get a job in Ottawa forming Parliament.  Everyone else who gets any votes can vote on each piece of legislation, and they get as many votes as they got in the election, but they don't get a job and full time salary.  Could potentially have a cut off (say 100 votes) over which everyone gets a small stipend to cover the costs they presumably incur in trying to represent their constituents.  This way if a geographic area wants their needs recognized they can vote for a local person to do that, but if I am more concerned about legalizing pot, or marriage equality, or keeping out refugees, I can vote for the person who is dedicated to doing just that.

Under this system gerrymandering ridings is still possible but almost entirely pointless.  People nearby to my riding can still vote for Carolyn Bennett if they want, but her name is in that short list for people actually in her riding to make it easy for those who haven't done their research.

It is even possible to change your representative partway through the term under this system, but doing so would require that your vote be registered to you and that is an issue all on its own.  While it would give more accountability it would also make voting anonymously impossible and that isn't great.  In any case this eliminates strategic voting, lets people who have very specific issues and preferences find exactly the right candidate, and lets people vote by the group or issue set they identify with rather than restricting it to locale.

I like it, but if anyone sees any really big holes in the theory I would appreciate hearing about them.


  1. Who would possibly be representing the interests of Prince Edward Island under your system?

  2. Let me get this right.... I can run as an independent, get about 200 people to vote for me, and I would get to vote on 200 pieces of legislation but not have to move to Ottawa or do any committee work or ribbon cutting? Sign me up!

  3. @Mom well, you would have 200 votes to apply to every vote that comes up. Justin Trudeau might have 2 million votes to apply, Carolyn Bennett 20 thousand, Elizabeth May 500 thousand, and you have 200. So on each piece of legislation each representative applies the votes they have on the side they want. So if Justin Trudeau votes in favour of a thing, it gets 2 M votes applied, and if you vote against 200 votes get applied against.

    @Nick Well, certainly the parties would run local candidates in PEI and they would get some share of the votes and get to vote. PEI only has a couple hundred thousand people, so if they really split the local vote then they probably don't get a rep in Ottawa (but they still get to apply their votes, of course) but if they actually coalesce behind a candidate they could have representation just fine. However, I don't place much importance on PEI specifically getting reps - why should they, over any other region of the country that has only 200k people? The Toronto Islands aren't getting their own rep either, nor will Manitoulin Island. PEI would, just like any other region, be able to elect locals if they want, or vote for other candidates, if they want.

  4. So I think that the big issue I see with this is that it is going to put a lot of power into the hands of people with money.
    Parties aren't going to be very relevant any more. If I want the Liberal party to have power, it's much easier for me to vote for Trudeau then to find the local candidate and vote for them... and I probably know a lot more about Trudeau then my local candidate. (The only way I'm going to learn about my local candidate is if my local candidate has a lot of money to advertise/campaign). So random Joe-backbencher is going to lose a lot of power, and any voice they had at the table, literally. And so as parties degrade, people are going to be campaigning on a personal level at lot more.. which means that people with money (or who represent money) are going to be able to campaign, and those without, are not.

    Also, if there are fewer members of a party having more of the votes, that means that there are fewer members who can actually do any work/research/idea generation... you're actually putting more power into the hands of less manpower, which means a worse job is going to get done. (Unless, of course, you have funds to hire a staff...).

  5. It sounds like you want to abolish the entire concept of provinces here, and actual kill off the Maritimes entirely. Maybe having everyone move to a few locations in the country would be more efficient, but unless a lot of other things change along with your system that's what's going to have to happen.

    The Toronto Islands presumably don't need to be propped up the way PEI does. In your system it's going to be a spiral of doom. As soon as PEI loses a voice people will have to move away in order to live. That gives them fewer votes, which decreases the chance they do get a voice at any point.

  6. @Nick

    I actually think that the provinces are kind of silly, and particularly that PEI is ridiculous. (Why isn't Vancouver Island a province? How is it that Thunder Bay is a town in the province of Ontario, same as Toronto, but PEI isn't an island within Nova Scotia or New Brunswick?

    However, my proposal does not eliminate provinces, nor attempt to. Not the goal, despite my sense that the current provincial lines are ridiculous.

    PEI right now gets a trivial amount of votes, given that is has four seats. Is everyone moving away from it specifically because of its relatively small number of seats and relative electoral irrelevance right now? If not, then I can't see why anything would change under my system. PEI is *not* more special or in need of particular knowledge at the federal level than Manitoulin Island, Thunder Bay, Baffin Island, or some random small community in the prairies. And yet it gets four seats while none of those other places do. Why? Is there some reason why we need to specifically prop up that one island with 146k people that the rest of Canada doesn't deserve? Because obviously all those other places still have their people despite not having special rules to give them extra representation.

    PEI will be able to, just like all the other small areas with modest population, vote in people who care about it. Or not, if they decide not to. Every other place manages it, and if PEI really wants extra representation because they are officially designated a province then quite frankly I have no sympathy whatsoever.

  7. @Robb

    Are you keeping in mind my suggestion that every ballot specifically includes the list of the candidates that have designated that riding as their riding, but that people can, if they want, search the global list for another specific person? It would look like this, very roughly:

    Local candidates for Toronto - St. Paul's

    Sally McGee - Liberal
    Duncan Buffoon - NDP
    Billy Dorkus - Conservative
    Alehjandra Bling - Green
    Alo Purple - Pirate

    To search for any other candidate, please enter a search term: _________

    So yes, I definitely suspect JT would get more votes than other Liberal candidates, but local candidates are definitely going to get most of the default party ticket votes. However, if people hate their local candidate they can vote for their favourite party in the next riding over (might have to learn that candidate's name ahead of time, but could search for it) or the party leader, or just somebody else whose opinions they like.

    I don't think parties will vanish at all. If you want to form a government you have to be the largest party, so joining up with a party will be useful. Having a party advertising for you is useful. It will be similar to right now, honestly, except that if you can manage to assemble a bunch of votes for you but not a majority in your region you can have some effect.

    I don't see why a few people having more raw voting power changes research or work. Everyone in the 300 person parliament gets paid. Say the Liberals have 100 people, Conservatives 65, NDP 45, and 90 independents. (that doesn't translate to total voting power, obviously.) Just because the Liberal leader controls 2M votes doesn't mean all those Liberal backbenchers can't do the same work, research, and other stuff they do now. Doesn't change it at all, as far as I can see. It just means that at vote time, those backbenchers have, instead of 1 vote of 300, 40,000 of 24M.

    One caveat here is that ridings should probably be rewritten to be based more evenly on population. That would avoid areas like PEI having four ridings and ending up with no one in parliament because each riding only has 45k total voters. I would have to do a bunch of map and population work to figure that out.

  8. Everyone actually is moving away from the Maritimes as it is, and that's with the disproportionately high amount of voice in government. New Brunswick is getting more illiterate over time because most of the educated youth have to move away to find relevant work.

    The point isn't that the 4 people currently representing PEI are swinging major votes in parliament or anything of the sort, but the fact that they actually have the ability to talk to people in charge and actually mention relevant things. They're there to actually say that transfer payments from Alberta to PEI are critically needed. They're there so that someone in PEI has someone to talk to about their problems who can escalate it as appropriate.

    Remember too that all Maritimers are not the same. We have the full spectrum of people around, so expecting all of PEI to band together to vote for a single person is rather unrealistic. But in the current system having someone from the area in government allows for getting a piece of the money pie. My mother's riding was represented by a conservative last time around and managed to secure federal funding to revitalize the tourist industry around the Bay of Fundy. I have no doubt the liberal they elected this time will continue to push for that money. Even though the riding can only get 40% of people to agree with each other in the election, they still get represented and have a chance to have their issues dealt with.