A Brief History of Democracy

Monday, May 16, 2011

Add Bill 19 as Another Reason Why the Court Should Intervene in the Quebec Charter Challenge of First-Past-The-Post

Last week, the Charest-led Liberal Government introduced Bill 19 in order to have an electoral map in place for the next Quebec general election, which is due to be held within the next two years.

The problem is that the proposed map does not address the fundamental flaw of the existing map that there are a number of rural tidings that do not respect the constitutional requirement with respect to the relative number of electors per riding, no more than a 25% deviation from the provincial average.

Previously, the Director General Elections had drawn up a new map that would respect this constitutional requirement by adding three new electoral districts to the more populous regions outside of Montreal and by removing three electoral districts in the sparsely populated outlying regions.

Unhappy with the fact that the Director of Elections would not comply with Charest's wishes to ignore the constitutionality of a new electoral map, the Premier decided to suspend the powers of the Director even before getting the necessary legislation adopted in the National Assembly.

He then introduced Bill 19, which essentially adds the three new ridings without removing the three targeted ridings. The problem of the inequality of voting power between rural and urban ridings remains: there are a number of urban ridings that have twice the number of electors than their rural counterparts. Consequently, the vote of a citizen in a riding that was targeted to be removed is worth twice the vote of a citizen who casts his vote in a more populated riding.

At the heart of the issue is the inability of the first-past-the-past voting system to accommodate demographic trends in Quebec. People are leaving the outlying regions to live in the more populated urban centers. As well, immigrants also choose overwhelming to do the same. Inevitably, if single member districts are to be used something has to give, and if a change to multimember electoral changes is not implemented, the outlying regions will bear the brunt of the redistribution.

Given the choice of respecting the fundamental democratic principle of the equality of vote or keeping in place an institutional practice that does not have the capacity to adapt to Quebec's demographic reality, Charest is clearly clinging to the outdated voting system that allows him to form a majority government with the support of only a minority of the electorate. Clearly, Charest's desire for political power overrides his responsibility to put and keep in place a democratic electoral system.

Although the question now before the Quebec Appeal Court is larger, the constitutionality of using single member electoral districts in conjunction with a plurality method to determine representation, by striking down the first-past-the-post system the Court would prevent the Charest government from adopting what is without question the most discriminatory electoral map in North America.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Electoral and Referendum Results Demonstrate the Need for the Courts to Intervene

Last week's results for the Canadian federal election and the crushing defeat of the alternative vote option in the United Kingdom's referendum on the voting system clearly demonstrates why the courts need to intervene in order to change the voting system.

Looking at the electoral results, first-past-the-post's propensity to produce significant distortions of the popular vote held true to form. Essentially, the election was decided by the huge winner's bonus that the system awarded the NDP in Quebec, which was more than offset by the vote splitting in Ontario that created the conditions for the Conservatives to form a majority government despite the fact that that had received slightly less than 40% of the popular vote. In a tell tale sign on the inadequacy of first-past-the-post, the Greens were able to concentrate their efforts into a single riding and elect their first Member of Parliament, but this came at a cost of loosing one third of their share of the popular vote as compared to the previous federal election.

Clearly, the systemic distortions inherent to the system were manifest and this time it was in Quebec where both the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois received the greatest reductions of seats as compared with the popular vote: a first for both parties during the last twenty years, which should catch the attention of the judges at the Quebec Court of Appeal.

In a similar vein, the massive refusal to change the voting system in the UK follows similar results on voting system referendums in British Columbia and Ontario. It appears that the populations in all three jurisdictions do not find the discrimination perpetuated by first-past-the-post to be sufficient to warrant changing the system.

Since the right to vote is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the political process has failed to change the voting system in a manner so that these rights are protected for all citizens, the Court is indeed obliged to intervene.

Only by striking down the electoral law that brings about first-past-the-post can the legislative branch be forced to bring its electoral practices in line with the equality guarantees of the Charter.

In doing so, the Quebec Court of Appeal would be following the example of the American Supreme Court that struck down state electoral laws that were extremely discriminatory towards African Americans and led the way to the adoption of the Voting Rights Act.