My Article in the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law on Electoral Reform

Some of you might be interested; some of you might not.

This article itself has gone through an incredible odyssey since I first conceived of it in the summer of 2016 at the height of Trudeau’s push for electoral reform. It started as an expanded version of what the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Inside Policy published on 8 June 2016, “Time Has Run Out on Electoral Reform” and then met with several roadblocks thereafter. Before the Trudeau government abandoned electoral reform in December 2016, most publishers expressed great reluctance toward the anti-proportional representation and pro-majoritarian arguments that I have advanced. In June 2016, I introduced the fact that Parliament was never going to be able to alter the electoral system in time for the next scheduled election in 2019, as Trudeau had originally promised in his first Speech from the Throne in December 2015, but only for the election scheduled for 2023 at the earliest.

This larger manuscript (as it existed in November 2016) was originally going to appear in the Canadian Parliamentary Review. But a few days after I fact-checked Elizabeth May and other pro-proportional representation advocates in an entertaining manner on Twitter in real time at a conference at the University of Ottawa on 3 November 2016, the Canadian Parliamentary Review coincidentally, and definitely not causally, reversed its decision and refused to publish my article. But this blessing in disguise gave me more time to respond to Pilon’s counter-arguments to my earlier work, explore all the constitutional requirements for each type of electoral reform, and fully flesh out the constitutional history of electoral reform in Canada for the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law instead.

In this article, I describe the history of electoral systems in British North America from 1791 to present and outline constitutional and statutory laws that underpin the system by which Canadians elect Members of Parliament.  I took this approach after listening to my opponents on this issue — especially after the Canadian Study of Parliament Group’s conference on electoral reform in June 2016, and learning from what they said there and wrote elsewhere — because I found that most pro-majoritarian scholars too often ignore that that that single-member plurality only gained a monopoly on electoral systems in Canada (federally, provincially, and territorially) in 1996. In fact, as I demonstrate here (and which several pro-reform scholars have also shown), Canada has not used single-member plurality since the beginning. And contrary to what most pro-SMP scholars seem to believe, single-member plurality actually developed here, first in the Province of Canada in 1841 — we did not inherit it from time immemorial from the British Isles. Most Canadian provinces west of Manitoba started out using some form of multi-member plurality, and some continued using it well into the 20th century. The Western Provinces have also experimented with instant run-off balloting (a majoritarian system with the effect of single-member majority), and multi-member proportional representation in the form of the single transferable vote.

I then outline what statutory and constitutional amendments would be required to make the switch from SMP to MMPR, STV, or single-member majority through instant run-off balloting. Again, no one — neither pro-majoritarian nor pro-PR — has really ever bothered to do this. I boiled down the normative platitudes into what they would look like as real and credible bills or proposed constitutional amendments; whether you’re pro-majoritarian or pro-PR, you should know what you’re dealing with.

In addition, I also examine the possible constitutional implications of the Senate Reference on electoral reform, as well as how switching to a proportional system, which would make minority parliaments and coalition governments more common, would affect the Crown’s authority over, and the constitutional conventions on, forming governments and dissolving parliaments. Since proportional representation (either through STV or MMPR) would make minority parliaments the norm, switching to a proportional electoral system would probably revive old 19th-century conventions on forming governments. (I’ve explored that subject in my article on how Government General Lord Aberdeen dismissed Prime Minister Sir Charles Tupper in 1896.)

I conclude that Parliament alone could certainly implement instant run-off voting through regular statute and that Parliament could probably implement some forms of MMPR or STV unilaterally as well under the Section 44 Amending Procedure — which means, contrary to what my detractors like Elizabeth May and Dennis Pilon insisted in 2016, electoral reform is, by definition, a constitutional issue, just not necessarily in the way that they believed. However, a form of MMPR using the popular vote of anything other than that of a single province as the basis of assigning compensatory seats would certainly require a constitutional amendment under the General Amending Formula and thus lies outside of what the Parliament of Canada alone can do. In addition, changing the timing of the decennial redistribution, or adding additional redistributions, would necessitate further constitutional amendments under the Section 44 Procedure — another example of how electoral reform is, in fact, a constitutional matter.

I’ve grown really tired of having to explain to elected politicians and professors of political science in this country — who should know better than anyone and who think that they know better than me but don’t — that the Constitution of Canada contains five amending procedures and that therefore the spectrum of what constitutes (if I can say that) a constitutional question runs the gamut from the Parliament of Canada or a provincial legislature acting alone and passing a constitutional amendment as if it were a regular statute to mandatory unanimous agreement of all legislative bodies federally and provincially.

More fundamentally, I also delve into what I’ve identified as three schools of thought which serve as the basis and first principles for different electoral systems and show why and how these core personal presumptions and beliefs determine what kind of electoral system we support. I utterly reject this preening middle-brow hyper-correcting pretense of neutrality and objectivity on electoral reform, just as I reject that scholars cannot permit the indulgence of the first-person singular; in fact, going to absurd lengths to avoid the first person and privilege the third person is the real indulgence. Most scholars in this field do not hide their views on which systems they prefer, and regular readers of Parliamentum know that I’m no exception. I don’t hide my views and my preference for majoritarian systems. Other scholars who draw the opposite conclusions from me and similarly do not hide their preference for proportional representation. This is for the best. We can at once approach this question of electoral systems from different angles and from various underlying presumptions of what electoral systems are for and what they should do on the one hand *and*, on the other, produce good scholarship which acknowledges the same historical facts of electoral reform in Canada and the facts on the features, purposes, and tendencies of the various electoral systems.

In any case, even though COVID-19 has merely paused — dare I say,  in the classic sense of this word, *prorogued*? — most coverage over electoral reform, the issue will not simply fade away. Once the pandemic passes, electoral reform will re-emerge as one of the pet peeves of middle-brow politicos (along with the usual pearl-clutching over party discipline) later in the 2020s, both provincially and federally. When that happens, I’ll be ready. For instance, Quebeckers are scheduled to vote in a referendum on switching from SMP to a form of MMPR concurrently with their next general election in 2022.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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2 Responses to My Article in the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law on Electoral Reform

  1. Congrats on getting the article published!


  2. Roger Bowden says:

    Can you send us the article?


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