On March 1st, the New Brunswick Commission on Electoral Reform released its final recommendations for improving democracy and inclusivity in one of Canada’s more eastern provinces. The initiative started as a campaign promise in 2014 by Premier Brian Gallant’s government and in the fall of 2016 the provincial government formed an independent and nonpartisan commission to examine several proposed electoral reforms. Through input from citizens and experts alike, the commission ultimately recommended 24 potential reforms to improve democratic processes in New Brunswick.
Chief among these recommendations was the adoption of the preferential ballot, also known as ranked choice voting (RCV), and a move away from the current winner-take-all system. The government also recommended lowering the voting age to 16 as well as giving permanent residents who are not yet citizens the right to vote in provincial elections, among other suggestions. Like the United States, Canada primarily uses winner-take-all elections, and has grappled with many of the systems' drawbacks.
The New Brunswick Citizen’s Commission is the most recent of Canada’s provincial efforts for voting reform, many of which have also flirted with adopting RCV or other related mechanisms.
New Brunswick’s commission took place amongst a larger, nationwide interest in voting reform. For the past year, Canada has also been looking at voting reform (including RCV) at the federal level. During the last campaign cycle, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made voting reform and a switch to RCV a cornerstone of his campaign. At first, Trudeau acted upon his campaign promises after his unlikely ascent to the PM post, and formed an all-party parliamentary commission to investigate RCV and other measures. However, in a controversial move Trudeau halted the process in February 2016, citing lack of consensus among both political parties and constituents. Despite this setback, in a federated democracy like Canada and the US, states and provinces can act as mini laboratories for reform. If New Brunswick were to adopt RCV, their experience could help create nationwide consensus about RCV and its benefits.
Citizen’s Commission Review:
New Brunswick decided to look at voting system reform to increase trust in government and promote voter participation. It also came about out of an acknowledgement that a voter’s expression of candidate preferences are limited in current winner-take-all systems.
While weighing the potential of RCV and receiving input from citizens and experts, the Commission’s report acknowledged that discussions on electoral system reform revolved around three types of systems: winner-take-all, RCV, and mixed-member proportional representation (MMP).
The committee chose to recommend RCV over a winner-take-all system because it allows voters to register more preferences (and provide more information about who they would like to see in office), ensures a majority winner, and encourages civility between candidates. As commission member Bev Harrison pointed out, "[RCV] is an opportunity for candidates to be more civilized in their approach, because you are trying to get second and third ballot support in case you don't make it the first time." Furthermore, the committee called RCV a “modest, pragmatic choice for reform that does not create its own series of problems, as a wholesale change to another electoral system would. It also keeps things simple and easy, so that everyone can understand how to vote and that their vote really counts”.
As a “stepping stone in a continued evolutionary path of New Brunswick's democratic institutions” and a “small change”, the committee favored a move to RCV over a more dramatic shift to MMP. The committee, which was not initially asked to evaluate an adoption of a PR-type system like MMP, considered the merit of a PR type-system after it was continually brought up in committee meetings. However, the committee felt that voters were most likely not ready to adopt a PR-style system, citing the repeated defeat of PR referenda across Canada. They did, however, see the adoption of RCV as a reform that would help voters become more comfortable with the concepts of PR. They also recommended that reforms like MMP should be further explored and considered in the future.
New Brunswick Premier, Brian Gallant, said that New Brunswick would put the adoption of RCV to voters, wanting a clear referendum on the measure. Gallant said that, “to change the way people vote, we think, is a fundamental change”, and therefore the leadership wants to make sure the adoption of RCV is widely supported by voters. There is potential, however, for RCV to be used in New Brunswick’s next election cycle, which is in 2018.
Voting systems are complicated, and it is hard to determine how specific constituencies and parties would fare in a different system using the parameters of the current system. However, one of the benefits of a federal system, like in Canada and the United States, is the ability of provinces and states to experiment. If New Brunswick were to adopt ranked choice voting, it would provide a great opportunity for the rest of the country to see how RCV works in practice. In a country with two main political parties, two strong minor parties adoption of RCV allows voters to show more preferences when voting, which will translate into better representation. It also provides incentives for a more civil politics, since, as the New Brunswick report noted, candidates can win close races off of second and third choice rankings. Indeed, changes at local and provincial levels can help Canada in general become ready to make the leap from a winner-take-all system to a more representative type system.
Image Source: By Skeezix1000 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons