Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Electoral Reeeeeeform

Even though I don't agree with the man's politics, I maintain it's a crying shame Preston Manning didn't run for the Alberta PC leadership in 2006, out of fear some chap named Dinning would beat him. Hindsight being what it is, it seems obvious Manning would have won, and his time as Premier would have been fascinating to watch.

Manning's latest idea, is to move Canada to an open primary system, something I wholeheartedly agree with - not just for nominations, but for leadership races too. I'm not convinced it would work unless coupled with some sort of voter registration system, but I do like the idea in theory. It's hard to see how anyone who watched the US primaries last year couldn't.

Often it takes a crisis of some sort to create opportunities for reform. In Britain, the recent scandalous abuse of expense accounts by members of the House of Commons from all major parties has created precisely such a crisis and opportunity.

In order to bolster public confidence in its candidates for the soon-to-be-held general election, the British Conservative Party has become willing to experiment with democratic innovations.

One in particular is being introduced in the constituency of Totnes. It should be watched closely by Canadian politicians and parties.

The Conservative MP for Totnes, Anthony Steen, was recently forced to “stand down” when it was revealed that he had claimed more than £87,000 over four years in parliamentary expenses on his country home.

Rather than choosing a candidate to succeed him by the conventional method of a constituency nominating meeting in which only card-carrying Conservative Party members can vote, the party has decided to experiment with an “open primary” in which every voter in Totnes will be invited to help choose its candidate for the next general election.

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14 Comments:

  • it would certainly be more exciting

    having a few ridings have earlier nomination meetings would make the process alot more dramatic and ALOT more fun

    By Blogger Anthony, at 6:54 PM  

  • I had share this with you. I was walking today when I saw a group of Young Liberals setting up a stand. Each volunteer was wearing a Liberal shirt with the #23 on it. The first thought that entered my mind:

    "NO! We did not put Michael Jordan's number on a shirt. Its official ... the Liberal Party ... we're still in the 90s!"

    But then someone explained to me, no no no, its the number 23. My response was

    "Great! Now our campaign is a horror film starring Jim Carey! Oh well, I guess it will be a great sequel to Dion of the Dead"

    Then someone explained to me that it represents making "Iggy the 23rd Prime Minister"

    ... Is it bad that Liberal fundraising tactics make me automatically think of parodies ... and I'm a Liberal?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:48 PM  

  • I think it is a bad idea that will ruin Canadian politics. Open primaries do not mean everybody will vote. Overwhelmingly, it will still be conservatives that vote in the conservative primary, liberals in the liberal primary.

    The main difference is that people other than party members will vote. How will this change things?

    Since primaries begun to be employed in the US in the 1970's (there were primaries before then but they didn't matter since party bosses controlled most of the votes) they produced ideological hardening of both the Republican and Democratic party. Why?

    When you give party hacks the power, they will pick somebody who can win.

    When you give the people the power, it is the ideologically motivated who are able to capture the process. Yes, moderates can vote, but considering how few Canadians vote in general elections, why would most moderates - with no stake in one or the other party - vote in a primary? No, they will be swamped by the religious right, or hippies.

    In addition, primaries are far more expensive than ordinary campaigns. This restricts cash-strapped candidates from running and will increase the cost of mounting a nomination race. This in turn will increase the role of special interests funding candidates.

    Alternately, we can apply Canada's strict campaign finance laws to primary campaigns. The downside? Neither candidate will have enough money to get their message to the people.

    On top of this, why the hell would anybody join a political party if the benefits of membership were basically nothing.

    This is an idea that sounds good in principle, but are ill-suited to the politics of this country. In Canada we give our leaders a great deal of power, with few checks and balances. We do this without fear because there are informal institutions in place that prevent extremists from penetrating Canadian politics.

    Imagine George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter with the ability to pass whatever legislation they wanted; the ability to appoint the senate, the supreme court, the governor of the bank of Canada etc. without any checks to their power.

    We are a prosperous and free country because we have generally been governed by boring old men, chosen from the ranks of the establishment by other boring men (I suppose some of them are youth delegates) and a few women.

    The only thing that is making parliament dysfunctional is minority government. Primaries of any kind will worsen that situation by preventing the emergence of the kind of moderate brokerage parties that could win a majority government.

    By Blogger hosertohoosier, at 9:00 PM  

  • And how would members of the public know who these people are? People would have to do fund raising just for the candidate nomination process.

    By Anonymous Mark, at 9:04 PM  

  • sorry, why would there need to be any voter registration system?

    By Anonymous josh, at 11:08 PM  

  • Horrible idea. The dilution of the US political process is largely to do with this. Two political parties with very little distinction except hyperpartisanship. We are lucky to have a European style multi-party state, and we need to grow more in the opposite direction. More parties to represent the views of more groups. In the US there are too many disenfranchised voters - because neither mainstream party represents them. Both parties are owned by corporate interests, with large, well-funded special interest groups holding the balance. Little chance for the little guy to get effective representation.

    Sometimes we think we're making things more democratic, when all we aspire towards is "mob rule". Mob rule suits the Reformer mentality: let the public decide everything. Human rights? What human rights? Courts don't tell US what to do - the public/mob has spoken.

    Let's not regress into the neoCon world of complete lack of ideas and buying campaigns with glitz and public opinion polling. The PR people, media, corporate bigwigs, and "failed economists" don't rule this country quite yet.

    By Blogger WesternGrit, at 6:45 AM  

  • Absolutely NOT. Neverending campaigning and oodles of costs/money.

    We ARE NOT the US remember? 2 years to get Obama elected and billions of dollars that could be put to better use.

    No, no, no.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:01 AM  

  • h2h: "The only thing that is making parliament dysfunctional is minority government."

    I see it more as the dysfunction coming from a minority govt trying to operate as a majority. You'd think any party that wanted to control the centre would do well with a minority.

    As for open primaries, a more transparent and open candidate selection process would be beneficial but I'm not sure open primaries would achieve the desired results.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:27 AM  

  • "I see it more as the dysfunction coming from a minority govt trying to operate as a majority. You'd think any party that wanted to control the centre would do well with a minority."

    Maybe you would - if you were very naive and thought parties care more about their agendas than in getting re-elected. If the government has a minority and favourable poll numbers they will try to provoke an election period.

    Might a centrist party be able to cooperate with more other parties (with minimal backlash from supporters)? Yes, but cooperation is usually self-defeating because changing polls alter the nature of any agreement between parties.

    Minority governments never work in first-past-the-post systems because small shifts in the polls can yield large numbers of seats. Fixing that problem should be the focus of electoral reform. This means either:
    *a version of proportional representation (to make minorities manageable)
    *Australian-style voting (to bring back majorities)
    *rolling back Chretien's finance reforms (which help small parties and fracture our political system).

    "As for open primaries, a more transparent and open candidate selection process would be beneficial but I'm not sure open primaries would achieve the desired results."

    No it wouldn't. Transparency and openness will contribute to the problem of a dysfunctional parliament. How?

    1. It will empower individual members by granting them more legitimacy.

    "Horrible idea. The dilution of the US political process is largely to do with this. Two political parties with very little distinction except hyperpartisanship."

    I agree that it is a horrible idea, but I think you are wrong in your assessment. Primaries accentuate ideological differences because most voters (even in open primaries) will be ideologues.

    For instance, the 2008 Michigan GOP primary was open to members of all parties. 68% of primary voters were Republcian, 25% Independent and 7% Democrats.

    What is more, the average primary voter is more likely to vote on an ideological basis than the average card-holding member of a Canadian political party. Political party membership in Canada is held by very few people, who are largely partisans before they are ideologues (look at how fast perspectives change on liblogs or the blogging Tories - nobody blinked when Chretien made the deepest spending cuts in our history, nor when Harper ran a massive deficit).

    In other words you should want open primaries, given your preferences for a multi-party system with ideological differences.

    Canadian parties are FAR closer to each other on the ideological spectrum than American ones. The notion that the GOP and Democrats are practically the same might have been true in the 60's (when the US did not have primaries), but is not true any more. Look at any measure of polarization, and US congress is pretty polarized (though this is less dramatic when you look at the presidency).

    By Blogger hosertohoosier, at 12:40 PM  

  • H2H: Good points.

    When you give party hacks the power, they will pick somebody who can win.

    When you give the people the power, it is the ideologically motivated who are able to capture the process. Yes, moderates can vote, but considering how few Canadians vote in general elections, why would most moderates - with no stake in one or the other party - vote in a primary? No, they will be swamped by the religious right, or hippies.


    I'm not sure I buy this completely. It seems to be the most ideologically entrenched individuals would be the ones most likely to join political parties. It would be a lot easier for a special interest group to stack a nomination under the current system, because it's a smaller pool of people voting and they're the most motivated. A primary system opens it up to people who are less partisan in nature and, presumably, would be drawn to less polarizing candidates.

    In addition, primaries are far more expensive than ordinary campaigns. This restricts cash-strapped candidates from running and will increase the cost of mounting a nomination race. This in turn will increase the role of special interests funding candidates.

    Alternately, we can apply Canada's strict campaign finance laws to primary campaigns. The downside? Neither candidate will have enough money to get their message to the people.


    Fair enough. Costs would increase. Not as much in a leadership race, because the media would be covering that, but for individual nominations, yes, it would. But I think a low-cost nomination would still be possible if you had a good organization and went door to door, etc.

    On top of this, why the hell would anybody join a political party if the benefits of membership were basically nothing.

    Well, if you're a Liberal or a Tory in a held riding, you didn't get to vote for the candidate this time. If you're a Liberal you didn't get to vote for the leader. There would still be events/etc as an incentive to join a party.

    This is an idea that sounds good in principle, but are ill-suited to the politics of this country. In Canada we give our leaders a great deal of power, with few checks and balances. We do this without fear because there are informal institutions in place that prevent extremists from penetrating Canadian politics.

    Imagine George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter with the ability to pass whatever legislation they wanted; the ability to appoint the senate, the supreme court, the governor of the bank of Canada etc. without any checks to their power.

    We are a prosperous and free country because we have generally been governed by boring old men, chosen from the ranks of the establishment by other boring men (I suppose some of them are youth delegates) and a few women.


    Looking at leadership, I still don't see how a primary system would lead to more extreme leader? Party members are more partisan and more idealogical by nature. I tend to think a Stockwell Day or Jason Kenney has a much better chance of winning a race voted on by CPC members than an open primary system.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 1:23 PM  

  • Old Preston, always trying to get the grassroots involved.

    With open primaries, I see members of other parties sabotaging the process (it's my same view on recall). I also agree with what's been said before in that it's a massive waste of money.

    If people don't want to pay $5 or $10 to join a party and vote at a nomination, then they're missing out.

    However, the problem is that parties are keeping incumbant candidates in place by being secretive about nomination meetings, etc. THAT's the real slap to democracy. Anyone should be able to run against anyone in a nomination.

    By Blogger hatrock, at 2:31 PM  

  • "Looking at leadership, I still don't see how a primary system would lead to more extreme leader? Party members are more partisan and more ideological by nature. I tend to think a Stockwell Day or Jason Kenney has a much better chance of winning a race voted on by CPC members than an open primary system."

    Yes, but that isn't the status quo. The status quo varies from party to party, but tends to either
    1. delegated conventions (delegates are often far more partisan than they are ideological. Therefore they will accept a moderate candidate if they believe he/she can win).
    2. preferential ballots (a system that obviously favours moderate candidates).
    3. generally ridings are weighted equally, inhibiting regional extremism (all of the votes being from one region).

    Why would an open primary system for leadership elections increase polarization over the status quo?

    I posit the following - there are two kinds of potential primary voters, ideologues and partisans. Some people are members of both groups. Ideologues care about issues, partisans care about parties, and want their party to win at all costs.

    Current rules place entry costs on the act of voting - you need to buy a membership, and there may be other requirements. Because partisans are sure about which party they like, and want to make a long-term commitment to a party they are far more likely to vote than ideologues. Most ideologues that do vote are also partisans - and so are willing to consider electability.

    If you eliminated those entry barriers, however, ideologues would swamp partisans. Because ideologues only care about their set of issues, they would happily elect extremists. Moderates aren't likely to turn out in primaries in big numbers to counteract this because passion is in the extremes.

    Candidates would have to pledge themselves to special interest groups able to get out their vote.

    In addition, I don't buy that media coverage would be enough for a leadership race.

    3. There is strong evidence from the US. Primaries became widespread in the early 70's. Here is a measure of polarization in Congress and the House over time:
    http://blogs.princeton.edu/mccarty/assets/polarization.jpg

    (I don't think they are the only cause of polarization, but they are a big one).

    In Canada as well, while we don't have primaries, we have a range of different leadership selection systems. Some are more open, some less. I posit that the less open ones will produce the most moderate leaders.

    Most open: OMOV
    The Alberta PC's in 1992, Ontario PC's in 1990, and Reform/Canadian Alliance employed a one member one vote system of leader selection. It is as close as any system to an open primary, though there are still barriers in the cost of membership.

    The leaders this produced include Ralph Klein, Mike Harris, Stockwell Day, and Stephen Harper mark I (and despite his massive incompetence, Day got like 38% of the vote). (Manning was acclaimed as leader of Reform)

    Middle: weighted OMOV (voting in ridings, which are given 100 points each), generally with preferential voting.

    Leaders produced include: Joe Clark (in 2000), John Tory, Ernie Eves, Stephen Harper mark II and Tim Hudak.

    Delegated conventions (less open)

    Leaders include: every post-1921 Prime Minister of this very moderate country save Harper, Peter Mackay, Dalton McGuinty, Lyn McLeod and Stephane Dion.

    Caucus selection (least open)

    Leaders include: every pre-1921 party leader (as far as I know), Michael Ignatieff.

    There are a few exceptions, and weighting ridings evenly may have a bonus effect in a regionally polarized country like Canada, but the bottom line is clear - openness does not produce moderate leaders (why else does Preston Manning support it).

    By Blogger hosertohoosier, at 3:39 AM  

  • I'm not sure what level of Primaries you would endorse.

    Are you suggesting holding Primaries for each candidate's seat, for each Party? Tough to do that over a 36-day election campaign. How long would you extend the campaign to permit it?

    But we don't hear anything about Congressional Primaries (I'm not convinced every Congressional District holds them), just the Presidential Primaries.

    So are you just talking about holding Primaries for the Leadership of each Party? Last time 'round, the LPC didn't seem to want to even let their own delegates have a proper leadership contest, let alone have voters at large have a say.

    I would encourage discussion of Canada changing its mode of Government to become a Republic. But Westminster Parliamentary Decmocracies don't tend to work well with Primaries.

    By Blogger paul.obeda@, at 6:19 PM  

  • H2H: Current rules place entry costs on the act of voting - you need to buy a membership, and there may be other requirements. Because partisans are sure about which party they like, and want to make a long-term commitment to a party they are far more likely to vote than ideologues. Most ideologues that do vote are also partisans - and so are willing to consider electability.

    I can't say I agree with this. Even if an ideologue potential voter isn't fully committed to a party, ten bucks simply isn't enough of a barrier to stop them from getting a membership and voting. There have been plenty of stories about this or that special interest group helping to stack nomination meetings.

    And as CG said, extending suffrage to people who don't bother to spend $10 on a membership would greatly increase the voting pool, diluting the influence of both ideologues and partisans. "Moderates" may still not be as likely to vote as those two groups, but they'd be more likely to do so than they are now.

    Your polarization graph is interesting, but I don't think it applies to this debate. First, there are too many variables over that time period to definitively say that this one issue is the cause. More importantly, the US shift was from a "party boss" system to a primary system, while what we're discussing for Canada is a shift from a membership system to a primary system. And for the reasons above, I think membership systems are more polarizing that primaries.

    PS- Mike Harris in 1990 was a weighted OMOV system.

    paul.obeda: Are you suggesting holding Primaries for each candidate's seat, for each Party? Tough to do that over a 36-day election campaign. How long would you extend the campaign to permit it?

    I'm guessing it would be like in the US, where the primary is several months before the general election. Not sure how that would work with minority gov'ts where the writ could drop anytime, though.

    By Anonymous The Invisible Hand, at 1:48 AM  

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