In BC, Canada and worldwide, democracy is under siege. Most people want peaceful lives in healthy environments with education, wellness and fair sharing. But forces of information technology and globalization focus wealth and power in the hands of a few. Then peaceful, healthy, sharing lives do not serve global profit-taking by those who use wealth to capture government. As Earth’s finite resources limit endless growth, strains of inequality are exacerbated. In this struggle of democracy vs plutocracy, democracy slips away.

Is the end of democracy inevitable? The 2017 BC election and NDP-Green alliance provide a stunning opportunity for resurgent democracy — if we can think afresh. 21st century democracy doesn’t have to look like replays of 13th or even 20th century democracy. Can we in BC re-invent democracy?

Here we consider an especially simple but totally effective alternative to conventionally proposed methods. This is “Popular Proportional Representation” (PopularPR) where “popular” emphasizes people, i.e. citizens casting votes.

PopularPR

At election time, PopularPR is as simple as present first-past-the-post. Ridings are simple and local, without redistricting. A voter chooses a candidate from a simple ballot. The candidate with most votes is elected a Member of Legislature.

The number of votes for each elected Member is recorded as his or her Candidate’s Count, CC. Votes for defeated candidates are summed across all ridings for each party to provide a Party-At-Large count, PAL.

Each party reallocates its PAL to its elected Members, adding to their CCs.

The party or alliance of parties with largest total of CCs and PALs has first opportunity to form government.

When a vote is called, each Member stands for his or her CC and portion of PAL. The sum of CCs and PALs expresses numbers of citizens represented by their elected Members for or against a motion.

Adding CCs and PALs is done invisibly by computer while the look and feel of Legislature are unaffected. Members put and second motions, speak to issues, and rise to vote on behalf of citizens they represent.

PopularPR is a complete system that already achieves full proportionality while assuring the democratic principle that every citizen’s vote counts equally on election day and throughout the ensuing Legislature.

If one wishes to keep things as simple as possible, just stop here. What follows is a possible small extension to enable more voter control over choices — then further discussion on merits.

An optional question

PopularPR recognizes that candidates for office are not only members of a party; they are individuals. Some may be independents. A second — entirely optional — question could be added to the ballot. This is not a “second vote”; it only clarifies the voter’s wishes.

The question is: If a voter’s chosen candidate is not elected, to which party (which PAL) should the vote be added?

In most cases, this question is unnecessary. Voters usually choose candidates from parties of which the voter approves and the second question can be ignored. A goal here is to help independents and members of small parties that possibly will not elect any Member. Voters have a fallback: if a chosen candidate isn’t elected, the vote goes to PAL of a selected party. A voter can also specify that, if the chosen candidate isn’t elected, the ballot is discarded. In all cases the fundamental principle is that democracy rests with the citizen voter.

The second question would rescue a small percentage of votes that could be lost, encourage greater diversity of candidates, and enable more freedom of choice.

PopularPR: good, bad, ugly and more. The good?

Simple. The ballot is simple with no need to change riding boundaries. An optional second question allows voters to exercise clearer choices.

Transparent. The meaning is clear. Every citizen’s vote has equal value on election day and in every matter before the ensuing Legislature.

Representative. Every voter is assured to elect their local Member or to add voting power to their party of choice.

Proportional. Each party’s total voting power matches that party’s share of popular vote.

Cost effective. Only one member is elected from each riding with no added seats. Summing CCs and PALs is done simply and invisibly (a trivial task for any computer).

No rural – urban disparity. Whether rural or urban, each citizen casts equal vote regardless of the sizes of ridings. Boundaries are free to adjust to make convenient ridings.

No strategic voting, no “swing” ridings, no “gerrymandering”. Every citizen votes his or her conscience with assurance that the power of parties in the Legislature will perfectly reflect citizens’ votes. Turnout is encouraged even in “safe” ridings.

The bad?

It’s regrettable that thinking for ourselves can be unwelcome. Because PopularPR is not what they do in Germany or Ireland or New Zealand or somewhere, we can’t just import it.

Many good people and organizations are invested in previously proposed systems such as mixed member proportional (MMP), single transferable vote (STV), hybrid rural urban proportional (RU-PR) and variations thereon. These systems try to address proportionality by rearranging (often adding to) seats in the Legislature, an idea expressed as “votes = seats = power”. PopularPR simplifies to “votes = power” while seats are only the furniture where Members sit when not standing.

PopularPR is sometimes categorically dismissed by invoking the label “weighted vote”. This refers to different Members standing on behalf of different numbers of citizens. Yet our democratic ideal is that each citizen’s vote has value v=1 while elected Members represent different numbers of citizens according to their votes.

What about parliamentary tradition? PopularPR leaves the look-and-feel alone as Members put and second motions, stand to vote, etc. The only difference is that, as the names of Members standing are recorded, an unseen computer adds numbers of citizens’ votes. This replaces one-Member-one-vote with basic one-citizen-one-vote. Rules such as committee memberships and procedures will be revisited.

[N.b. In 13th century the task of recording and then adding citizens’ votes for each standing vote in parliament would have been excessively burdensome. In 21st century, the task is trivial.]

The ugly?

“Dark money” is ugly. In a world of limited and shrinking resource, dominance of elite wealth over the rest of us leaves little room for democracy. PopularPR strengthens democracy in its struggle with plutocracy. But there’s lots of money out there waiting to defeat us.

Signs of reaction were already clear following Parliamentary hearings in 2016. See keepvotingsimple.ca/. Also in 2005 BC citizens recommended a form of STV; in 2009 that was soundly defeated. In 2008 Ontario citizens went to polls with MMP and were defeated. Proposed systems were seen as over-complicated, over-costly (especially in terms of extra seats), and undemocratic (large multi-member ridings, disadvantaged rural voters, party lists, etc.) Should BC again fight these same-old-same-old battles in hope of different outcome? Or rethink? The knives of “no” are drawn and sharpened.

PopularPR is so clear, simple, inexpensive and faithful to democratic ideal that previous arguments of “no” fail.

More?

PopularPR opens windows to further initiatives. Individual parties may adopt different strategies for allocating PAL among elected Members. For example if a party demanded gender balance, although numbers of female and male Members might differ, assignment of PAL could give each gender the same voting power. Similar ideas can extend fair representation to indigenous and other minorities.

Interestingly one could (if legal) convert results from the 2017 BC election to PopularPR. If the three Green Members stood together on an issue they would carry 17% of the legislative vote — matching their popular vote. The NDP-Green alliance would command a comfortable 57% majority — just as popular vote dictates.

Under PopularPR there would virtually never be a tied vote. A Speaker might, for example, release his or her CC and PAL share so that citizens included in that CC+PAL would be fully represented in legislative votes.

One issue that troubles any attempt at proportional representation is what happens to small minority parties that fail to elect a Member. While votes for such a party contribute to PAL, there is no Member to carry that PAL. It could be allowed, if the minority party captures more than some threshold of popular vote (possibly 3%, say), to create a compensatory seat for a Member carrying the PAL. Only one or two seats might be created this way (PopularPR plays with furniture after all?!) subject to ongoing legislative review of the threshold condition.

PopularPR allows redistricting without favouring any party, every citizen’s vote counting equally regardless of riding. If rural ridings can be too large in sparsely populated regions, such ridings can be more compact without over-representing the smaller number of rural residents. Likewise urban ridings can be expanded without under-representing urban residents.

Is there other free thinking in BC?

The good news is that individuals give creative thought to BC elections. Two initiatives are known to this author. Surely there are more.

1) See Perfect Proportional Representation, PerfectPR and PPR+.
PerfectPR is close to PopularPR. Indeed the common acronym PPR is chosen to avoid proliferation. “Perfect” refers to achieving (nearly) perfect PR. PPR+ explores further options.

2) See Absolute Representation, AR.
AR is a more ambitious idea which can be read at the listed website.

Greg Holloway was formerly a professor of ocean science at Univ of Washington and a senior research scientist with Dept of Fisheries and Oceans.

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