The Unanticipated Answer to Electoral Reform:  Just hold Longer Elections

For many of us who look for long and complex public policy solutions, electoral reform is a real boon.  Like Canadian Constitutional Reform, the landscape is full of possibilities. Just look around the world. The Australians use a ranked balloting system. The French require a second day of voting, if their representatives don’t get 50%+1 the first time around. Italy and a bunch of European Countries have a Proportional Representation system which require “Party Lists”, while, the Germans have combined many of the aforementioned systems to come up with “Mixed Member Plurality”.

But it doesn’t stop there. For example, we could consider the idea that voting is an obligation of citizenship and not a right. If we were to go down that route, we might think about an Australian solution. For they require that citizens vote. They mandate it. Consequently, in Australia, there is a small fine (i.e. like a traffic ticket) if one does not vote.  Electoral Reform is a quagmire and we are about to get stuck in it.

For, with the win of the Liberal Party of Canada, on October 19th, our country might have to fall down the rabbit hole and ask one simple question: what electoral reform might we consider? For our Leader, Justin Trudeau, argued for a change to our present First-Past-the-Post electoral system. He in fact said that he was hoping for this to be the last election that used the First-Past-the-Post system.

However, neither our party nor our leader had the opportunity to consider one simple solution. The reason for that is simple: no one thought or discussed that simple solution. In fact, until quite recently, we had not experienced it. For the simple solution that has never been discussed has been the length of our elections.

To be fair, it has not been discussed because no one thought about it. No one thought that the length of an election could have an effect on the outcome. No academic studies, that I have seen, argued that there was a clear co-relation between elections lengths and the “democratic nature” of those same elections.

It is true that when Governments, both federal and provincial, started shortening elections that some people argued that the cost savings produced would be small and the harm to democratic debate would be large; but, we had no evidence. We had no proof until now. This 78-day election has shown us something interesting: Longer elections produce more vibrant debate; which in turn engages the public. Longer elections give people more time to plan for elections, more time for problems to crop up and more time to understand the issues at hand. Consequently, those characteristics electrify the electorate and produce higher voter turnout.

In the last two years, we have seen provincial elections in which those same themes were at play. In Ontario and Alberta, we have seen more active electorates; and, as a result, higher turn outs. In 2015, Alberta saw the highest turn out in 22 years. (Provincial election sees highest voter turnout in 22 years, By Karen Bartko & Brett Barrett Global, Updated: May 6, 2015 1:11 pm) Most Albertans would note that this election was one which was highly anticipated. There was real and palpable anger on the ground. The issues were many and they were varied. They included questionable spending and the movement of more than three quarters of the Official Opposition to the Government benches. These were acts which were startling.

For history tells me that the last time that number of opposition members left for the government was in 1917. At that time, the Federal Conservatives asked a number of individual federal Liberals to cross the floor during World War I to end the Conscription Crisis. Given that Alberta was not suffering a huge constitutional crisis, one could easily ask what the Wildrose Opposition and Governing PCs were up to. In my mind, one can understand why modern Alberta voters were upset and why there was some “anticipation of a close election between the NDP, Wildrose and PCs”. One could understand why there was some “motivation for many Albertans” to head to advance polls and voting booths in “record numbers”. Accordingly, the issues electrified voters and drove them to the polls.

The same thing happened in Ontario. Given the Liberal Gas Plant Scandal and the PCs pledges, one can also see why a record of number of Ontarians went to vote. Or as Global reported “Ontario voter turnout, which had fallen steadily for five provincial elections in a row, reversed a generation-long trend yesterday and rose above 50 per cent.” Ontario’s rising voter turnout bucks 24-year trend, By Patrick Cain& Erica Vella, Global, Updated: June 13, 2014 12:42 pm)

In the case of Ontario and Alberta, those issues presented themselves to voters. They were top of mind. People knew what they were voting about and why they were voting. In other elections, these themes need to play out. Or put differently, sometimes we need a longer narrative and more time. We need time to see the leaders make mistakes, time to see them recover and time to discuss the issues. Canadians need time to discuss our future, digest the various parties’ visions and ask ourselves which version of reality we can live with. We need time to debate, talk and discuss around our kitchen tables. This time was given to us in the last 78 day election and I think it should be a regular occurrence.

This could be why By-Elections have always had a poor turnout. For the act of replacing an MP, MPP, MLA or MNP does not lead to the conversation that comes from a general election.  The minor discussions about changing a local road don’t impact the electorate like the vision necessary to build a port, a highway or a national railway.

If this is the case, our interminably long election provided the public with the opportunity to see their politician’s in action. It gave the public an opportunity to have conversations about what was happening and what could happen. During the 2015 federal election, we talked about everything and the time provided allowed crises to happen. From Syrian Refugees, to the Niqab, to Canadian Ecomic Policy to the acquisition of Fighter Jets and other Military Hardware, we talked about everything and then we talked some more. We talked about C-24 and C-51. We talked about the meaning of citizenship and the conditions under which it should be taken away. We talked about multiculturalism and inclusion. We talked about Canadian Identity and the CBC. It was clear who was going to run deficits and who wanted to try for a surplus. It was clear which parties wanted to increase or decrease taxes and/or tax credits; and a future vision of Canada started to come to the fore. We talked about programmes we wanted and those we wanted to get rid of. All of this was made possible because of longer elections. Consequently, it was clear where everyone stood on.

Longer elections seem to wake people from their torpor and called all of us to action. It did it in a way that fixed date elections didn’t. The Longer Election without Leadership Debates did not hamper our discussion and the contribution limits did not help any party. The Longer Election Period was more effective than any other electoral changes proposed. While, it costs more to administer, the evidence shows that longer elections are the cure for much of what ails our democracy. The longer election period allowed each party to lead and each party to fall into the electoral basement. The NDP, Conservatives and Liberals all got a change to talk to Canadians and Canadians were able to vote for a new Parliament. Longer elections work. The question is simple: did anyone else notice?

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