In defence of the Liberals’ electoral-reform survey

MyDemocracy.ca earned scorn among critics and experts. But professor Philippe Lagassé is standing up for its usefulness as a tool.

Shaun Best /Reuters

Shaun Best /Reuters

On Monday, the government launched MyDemocracy.ca, a website that walks people through an examination of their “democratic values.” Given the very roundabout way the survey gets at electoral reform and voting systems—which is to say, neither is specifically mentioned at all—the reaction was largely and loudly negative. Philippe Lagassé, an associate professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, was a rare informed voice who spoke out on Twitter in defence of the site. Maclean’s spoke to him about why he thinks the survey was smartly designed and what it accomplishes.

Q: What was your reaction to the pretty widespread blowback to MyDemocracy.ca yesterday?

A: I think there was a certain expectation of what people wanted the survey to be. Most people were expecting the survey to identify particular (voting) systems and to ask people to vote in favour of those systems. So my sense is a large part of the blowback was (due to) the fact that it didn’t ask that type of question.

Similarly, there was some hostility—putting it mildly—to the idea that there are some trade-offs involved, and the way the trade-offs were framed was not well-received. The idea that proportional systems would lead to greater cooperation at the cost of accountability was rejected or not seen as a way to frame the issue. A number of people, particularly in my Twitter interactions, tended to suggest there’s some system that can be devised which eliminates all these problems and you arrive at an ideal system that has absolutely no trade-offs.

The problem I have with that—and it makes me really wonder if people read the committee report—is that entire sections of the report explicitly admit any system has trade-offs, there is no perfect system. And that’s really what this survey was meant to try to explain to people from another angle. And yet, the reaction was that there are no trade-offs or trade-offs shouldn’t be presented in stark ways.

Q: Yesterday, you said had they gone about this by asking very direct questions about electoral reform and different voting systems, that wouldn’t have been very effective. Why is that?

A: It’s the same problem you get if you do town hall-style consultations or anything to that effect: you will get a flood of people who have a very predetermined view of what kind of electoral system they want, and they will be the first ones who leap in to provide their view. In effect, what you get are people who already understand the debate, who already understand the various systems, arguing amongst themselves and attempting to mobilize more supporters to vote on this website. What you would probably get is what a lot of public opinion surveys tell us: that among those who know about these issues, you have a distribution across the board of favouring different systems.

Now, those people that wouldn’t really get involved in it, frankly, are those who don’t know what the various systems imply, or who would simply stick to one principle. The first question you have to ask somebody who’s not familiar with the various systems and sub-systems is, ‘What do you want out of this? What’s your ultimate aim?’ Do you prefer to throw the bums out, or are you more comfortable with parties continually maintaining a certain percentage of the seats and always being forced to work together? This is really what the survey is asking. It’s starting from the other side; it’s starting from the result and saying, ‘Are you comfortable with these types of results and what it produces in a parliamentary system such as ours?’

Q: What you’re describing sounds more like a teaching exercise than an opinion-gathering exercise.

A: Right. This is part of the problem if you are going to critique how the survey was put together. It doesn’t make clear that it’s actually more an effort to get people to understand themselves and their own values. And that’s really explicitly what it is, and I think that’s where people are somewhat up in arms about the BuzzFeed-style approach to it. It probably would have been better at the end if they were to ascribe a particular system to you, as opposed to the vague terms they used.

On the other hand, the purpose of it is more to say you don’t necessarily have a particular preference for a particular system, (so) tell me what you actually want out of a voting system in terms of what it does in Parliament, and then I will tell you which attitude, in this case, is more reflective of who you are based on your answers. That’s really the exercise. When you gather all this together, the idea is to try to provide people who have no deep understanding of the debates with some sense of where they fall. That’s the key: it’s not simply proportionality as the be-all and end-all. It’s really, ‘What do you want out of a system of government?’

MORE: How MyDemocracy.ca was made, from the CEO of the company that designed it

Q: To be a bit cynical or maybe even patronizing, do you think we might run into the same problem here, that people who are already invested and informed will be more drawn to this, or does this kind of thing appeal for exactly the kind of ordinary voters it seems designed to provide helpful information for?

A: To my mind, you’re probably not going to get everybody engaged on this. It’s the limits of any kind of consultation. I’m not going to say that it’s the best way to get general public opinion about this. But nor are public consultations, as we’ve seen, nor are the citizens’ assemblies which really focus on people who self-select for these types of things. It’s simply a way of changing how people understand the debate. It really is trying to push people to examine more the consequences than to examine the systems.

Q: What do you think of the methodological problems, and how people can respond more than once?

A: If the purpose is at the end of this to produce a report and say, ‘This is what people thought,’ then I agree, you can’t do that. If, on the other hand, the purpose is to use this to try and convince people to look at electoral reform in a different way or to understand what their values are, and it’s primarily an educational tool or to simply try to change the terms of the debate away from the systems and toward the consequences, and the purpose is not to compile this data and present it as some kind of decision point, then I’m fine with that. I think everybody would readily attack them if they claimed this was a survey of some kind of significance if you’re able to re-take it over and over again.

Q: Is there anything you think was handled poorly here?

A: Well, the Innovators, Guardians (archetypes) is maybe not the best approach. I think it’s fair to say it maybe would have been better to use the questions about the parliamentary and government outcomes and then point people toward a particular system. In retrospect, seeing how people reacted to the archetypes, suffice to say I think it was a bit of a communications failure.

Q: You had an exchange on Twitter with Chris Selley about this: he was arguing that even if the survey is trying to get at outcomes instead of systems, it neglected to ask about what is arguably the most relevant and obvious outcome, which is popular vote vs. seats. What’s your take on that?

A: If you were to ask that question, you would have had to ask three questions. You would first have to ask about proportionality of seats; you would secondly have to ask a question about electing MPs with a simple plurality, and third ask a question about an alternative type of ballot. As soon as you get into that, you’re no longer looking at outcomes, you’re looking at processes to reach an outcome. And that’s specifically what the survey is meant to avoid.

Now, what this survey is attempting to do is say, ‘Okay, that part of the equation has dominated the debate from the beginning. Let’s look at it from the other side. Instead of portions of seats, look at what effect it has on Parliament.’ That’s my only rebuttal: it specifically is meant to avoid looking at those questions. It’s simply a different way of debating the question. It’s saying, ‘Okay, regardless of how you arrive at these outcomes, are you comfortable with these outcomes?’

So somebody might be very supportive of a proportional voting system in principle and then when you ask them, ‘Are you comfortable with the fact that this might lead to a situation where one party is not wholly accountable for governing decisions?’ they say, ‘Huh, that’s a different way of looking at it. I didn’t think of it that way. Maybe I’m less comfortable with it.’ So it actually forces people to think through the different principles that are at play.

Part of the reaction I found most bewildering is this view that nothing will change with the system, that it’s unfair to ask about black and whites because it’s all shades of grey. You’re stuck in a bizarre paradox where shifting from a single-member plurality system where you can have a majority of seats with 39 percent is somehow producing the same result in Parliament as a proportional system. And somehow you can simply reflect the popular vote and have no meaningful effect on how things would occur in the House—in spite of the fact that research suggests otherwise, in spite of the fact that the ERRE report suggested otherwise, in spite of the fact that the very reason small parties like the NDP and the Greens are in favour of a proportional system is because they know it won’t simply be status quo in the House. How can you on the one hand say that proportionality is important, but then on the other hand say, ‘Oh no, let’s not worry about what that actually means for government, because it won’t change anything?’ You’re in favour of the system in part because it will change how we’re governed, so it’s worth asking Canadians, ‘Leaving aside for a minute the idea of how votes should be counted, are you comfortable with this outcome?’

Q: It sounds like a very human thing happened, which is that people are angry that these questions point out that a best-of-all-worlds fantasy scenario doesn’t exist.

A: A lot of the reactions I was getting were, ‘No no, you just don’t understand. We can devise a perfect system that preserves accountability, that leads to cooperation, that maximizes representation, you just don’t know this particular system that I’ve found that can do this.’ It’s one of the big frustrations I always have in policy debates, which is the ‘Everybody is stupid except me’ argument. Okay, but the committee report specifically says that there are trade-offs. The 2004 report that recommended mixed-member proportional said there are trade-offs. And yet when the survey asks that question, somehow it’s an affront to the whole process.

The one that I find kind of amusing is people were offended by the fact by the question that makes reference to an extreme party. And yet if you read the report, in the very system that was recommended, scholars note that it increases the possibility of extreme parties—they even use the word ‘extreme.’ And then you look south of the border or you look at what’s happening in European elections and you’re saying, ‘Are we really so special?’ Are we really so unique as Canadians, when you have two leadership candidates for the right-of-centre party that are espousing anti-immigration policies, that this is unfathomable in Canada, that you might have, as you do in many other western liberal democratic societies, strong anti-immigrant parties?

And what’s even more offensive to me is people are saying this whole survey is fear-mongering. I’m sorry, but asking if you’re okay with extreme parties or if there are trade-offs when parties have to cooperate to govern, meanwhile it’s perfectly acceptable to declare that Canada is not a democracy under first past the post? That’s not inflammatory? That’s not fear-mongering? But saying, ‘Hey, there’s a possibility of more extreme parties coming out, what do you think?’ or ‘If parties have to cooperate in government, they might have to cooperate with some pretty unsavoury folk,’ you can’t talk about that?

Q: You wound up some of your Twitter comments yesterday saying, “Want a survey on different systems as opposed to their effects? Hold a referendum.” Do you view that as the next logical step here?

A: For me, I don’t think there are any real insights to be gained in asking on a survey about the different systems, that’s my point. If the main critique is that the survey didn’t give people the opportunity to say, ‘We want a proportional system,’ or ‘We want to change the status quo,’ then why would you even bother with a survey? Just follow what the committee report said and hold your referendum.

If, on the other hand, you’re the government or somebody like me, who is not quite sure people fully understand what is at stake, and this issue has been dominated by people who already have a preferred system and already have a pretty good idea about what it all means and are being a little coy about what the effects are, then maybe it’s useful to invite Canadians to take a look at the different options, or at least take a look at the consequences that various systems bring. Similarly, if you are a government who is kind of coming to the conclusion that you’re probably going to have to hold a referendum, then maybe a survey like this is a good way to get a sense about what people care about and how you’re going to argue your case in the referendum. The survey has lots of problems, but at the very least, it actually introduces this other side of the equation.


In defence of the Liberals’ electoral-reform survey

  1. What irritated me most about the survey is the repeated questions about internet voting. Dead set against it yet my outcome showed me to be receptive to internet voting because of my responses. Huh?

    The survey asked questions which I was really uncomfortable answering. Democracy is democracy but when and where does the line get drawn? I asked myself that question a few times.

  2. The survey questions should have been the ones the multi-party Electoral Reform Committee told the House of Commons should be asked, the ones they already asked online:
    Should the number of seats held by a party reflect the proportion of votes cast for that party? They got 71% yes, 17% No.
    Should we change the system? 70% Yes, 27% no.
    Should no one party hold a majority of seats? 54% said yes, 28% No.

    But instead of asking relevant questions, they asked some which have caused a lot of jokes. And at the end, they tell you that you are a co-operator, or whatever. As I heard someone say, they tell you which Disney Princess you are.

  3. I took the survey but at the end it would not accept it, I was shut out. So I did the entire survey again and the same thing happened. I wasted close to an hour on this.

    Later I discover that people I know have had the same problem. They took the survey and got shut out at the end.

    This survey is a disaster.

  4. Thank you MacLeans for some reasonable discourse on this subject – this and a couple of other recent articles. Other pubications and the opposition choose to MOCK. MOCK – is what people tend to do when they don’t understand and can’t be bothered delving.

    I can’t understand why Cullen doesn’t simply assemble a ‘voting system’ to meet the Gallagher = 5 index (he hobbled himself with that) and explain that it means 1) probably 30% unelected MPs filling ‘top up’ seats 2) dilution of Rural Vote 3) some game playing (why would the CPC not once again spilt into say a hard right and centre right parties to gain 2 seat per riding) or at least the votes that go with each since ‘all votes are counted’. And, now that Cullen is married to a referendum – he’ll have to hope that the CPC supports this. Not on his life.

    With Respect to the Survey – I have done these before. I’m not certain about adding in the 5 categories. These are just ‘throw ins’ and have led to more unnecessary ‘MOCKING’ without contributing to the results.
    I have received my report (on Monday 5th), but how do I get it with the most up to date current comparison data?

  5. I really find it hard to believe a survey of this sort can accurately translate a bunch of vague questions into a resulting clear indication of what sort of democracy I want. There is far too much calculation and interpretation between the answers given and the final conclusion as to which electoral process I really favour. As a result, this survey it is not a process that I can trust. A cynic would add that the vague questions and answers could be interpreted to support any electoral system the government wished to delude itself into supporting.

    Lagasse suggests that the survey is designed to get at the important question of what the effects (and down-sides) are of various electoral systems. This is of course a very important issue, but is one that I believe requires direct, not indirect attention. For example, he asks: “Are you comfortable with the fact that this (a proportional system) might lead to a situation where one party is not wholly accountable for governing decisions?”. Good question. Why not ask it directly, requesting a direct answer? That’s the sort of survey I’d participate in, not some wishy washy survey asking a lot of indirect questions supposedly designed by somebody that knows better than me how to get my democratic preferences out of me. In life we are always running into systems designed by experts that claim to know more about this than us and so are designed to ‘help’ us through our ignorance. Well, when you look into such systems you usually find they are making a lot of hidden assumptions and are making a lot of hidden decisions for you. Just what are the assumptions and decisions hidden in this survey and the derivation of results? So, here is a one question survey for you, the reader: Just what words are your survey results putting into YOUR mouth?

  6. We have a pseudo-survey with anonymous designers (“a panel of eminent experts and scholars” that the Minister won’t or can’t name…) which claims to be about “values” but deliberately avoids the ONE value that came up repeatedly in all the public town-hall consultations: proportionality. Not a specific voting system, just the simple principle of proportionality, i.e. that seats in parliament should be proportional to the popular vote. Was this too much to ask? Apparently so: Moncef and her boss Trudeau must be afraid of the answer.

  7. The survey avoided the collectivist parties monomania for party proportionality and avoided the Conservatives monomania for a referendum of the uninformed general public.
    I was impressed that my survey answers concluded: innovator.
    I did innovate Binomial STV and the Harmonic Mean quota.
    Richard Lung.
    Website: Democracy Science; with links to 3 free e-books on election method: Peace-making Power-sharing; Scientific Method of Elections; Science is Ethics as Electics.

  8. I see a couple of comments lamenting the fact that the question of “proportion” wasn’t asked directly. Well, isn’t that what the professor said was a good thing? That is the whole point of this survey.

    The proportional representation pushers in this country tell their avid followers that “more women will get elected”, there will be “more cooperation” , that “every vote will count”, there will be “bigger voter turnout” and then they slag the “worse than FPTP” ranked ballots with gems like “it creates even bigger false majorities”,”it leads to only two parties” etc. All those quotes in favour of proportional representation and against the ranked ballots are either outright lies or conjecture that the PR advocates are passing off as facts.

    The extent of the knowledge of the vast majority of those who say that they want PR is that “25% of the votes equals 25% of the seats”. Sounds fair. But then reality gets in the way. Ask these followers about a “threshold”…huh? Ask them about “party lists” versus “open lists”…..huh? Ask them about wasted votes with PR…..huh…..doesn’t “every vote counts with PR”? Etc etc etc!

    And you certainly can’t look to the proportional representative sales people (and that is all they are doing is a slick sales job) to provide their followers let alone the rest of the people with fair and factual information.

    If this electoral reform fails now, it will be Nathan Cullen’s fault. He could have made it work but instead got sucked in to supporting a referendum by the CPC after the PEI referendum accepted MMP thinking it will force the Liberals to accept his PR. And, surprise, he wants a referendum that will use that horrible ranked ballot! Just like PEI. What a hypocrite!

  9. There is, of course, no perfect voting system. There are trade-offs with all of them.. But a well-designed proportional voting system beats a winner-take-all system hands-down, no contest! That’s why you had >85% of both experts and citizens testifying, submitting, etc. to the Electoral Reform Committee supporting proportional representation.

    Moreover, some of the questions in the MyDemocracy.ca survey are intended to enforce PR myths. You can see these issues addressed here: http://mycanadiandemocracy.ca/

    The MyDemocracy.ca survey may not be a complete bomb, but Philippe Lagassé is blowing a lot of smoke here.

    • Actually, if the Proportional Representation advocates are so sure that “a well-designed proportional voting system beats a winner-take-all system hands-down, no contest!” then why are they so scared of being truthful and realistic about PR and ranked ballots. What is it about the ranked ballot or a variation of it like the Borda Count Method or the Condorcet Method that scares the daylights out PR advocates? If there was “no contest” then they should have nothing to worry about, should they? It it was “no contest” then the PR referendums should have passed in BC, Ont, and PEI prior to this one in Nov in PEI (thanks to the ranked ballot), shouldn’t they? They four of those referendums should have been “no contests” if the systems were so wonderful. Perhaps, when all the nitty gritty details were laid out, people just didn’t want them. But, no, that wasn’t even considered as a possibility. It was always somebody or something else’s fault…….the political elites, the special interest groups, the lack of education, etc etc.

      But as usual FVC again overstate (lie about) the benefits of PR and puts down (lies about) the ranked ballot? On the first page of the mycanadademocray.ca site they say “every vote will count”. That is blatantly false in any electoral system. They say 39% of the votes become 39% of the seats. It is not that simple at all. They state that the Alternative Vote is just FPTP with a ranking option. Not quite. They twist things by asking if electing Liberals in Alberta would be considered “radical” or “extreme”. That is not what that question meant and on and on through that document.

      I found it interesting in the ERRE online survey that only 29.2% “strongly agreed” that their vote was wasted if their candidate did not get elected. And another 14.9% “somewhat agreed” with that idea for a total of 44.1%. So 56% felt otherwise which seems to indicate that the majority of people are not buying into the Prop Rep’s mantra about “wasted votes”.

      This is a new low for FairVoteCanada, although I wasn’t entirely surprised. This should be illegal but probably isn’t. And for being ethically or morally correct, well that is something that FVC has never worried about. Their desperation is pathetic.

  10. Um your “rare informed voice” is some dude who studies military procurement and defense policy. Can you explain to me how this qualifies him as an expert on voting reform or electoral systems? This interview is complete nonsense – all he does is take a lot of nuanced and thoughtful concerns that have been raised with regards to the survey and create some sort of false strawman argument around people wanting a “perferct otherworldly” voting system. People get that there are trade-offs, but it is a hell of a lot more complicated than ‘co-operation vs. accountability’. Also, anyone who thinks we have accountability in our current system has their head in the sand. The Liberal government is trying to get out of an electoral promise that will harm their long-term interests. Given that the public consultations demonstrated overwhelming support (over 80%) for proportional representation, they are trying to find any means possible to undermine public positioning. Also this stupid survey doesn’t save your answer if you don’t fill out your household income. And you don’t have to live in Canada to fill it out. And you can fill it out multiple times. Yet it is somehow more reliable than the consultations held with real human beings.

  11. What a bunch of rubbish. It isn’t a ‘survey’ at all. It’s just a giant waste of time and money that can be used to pretend something is being done on this file. It is time to stop the neverendum and have a referendum.

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