While a passel of politically minded folks were in Iqaluit on Monday busying themselves with concerns about fair elections, roughly 2,600 km to the south Donald Trump was in his gilded Manhattan tower with related worries. “Of course there is large-scale voter fraud happening on and before Election Day,” Trump tweeted, adding a line of libretto to the opera of victimization that now passes as his bewildering campaign. Such are the strange political times we live in that problems of legitimacy now dog elections in both countries, from Nunavut to New York.
To be fair, nobody at the Special Committee for Electoral Reform meeting at the Frobisher Inn in Iqaluit was promising to make Nunavut great again, although everyone was certainly keen to improve things for northern voters. Among voters north of 60, turnout for elections is below the national average, and in the last of their cross-country travelling tours, the committee was exploring whether switching from the current first-past–the-post system to a form of proportional representation might increase participation. I listened to the meeting online and it was full of intelligent, thoughtful questions and remarks about our voting system and making it more representative.
Meanwhile, Trump’s newly “unshackled” campaign has weaponized his paranoia. Under his withering bombast, inserting facts or objective evidence into the campaign has become a form of “mainstream media bias,” but it’s still worth checking out the widely circulated “Truth about voter fraud” report, published by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “Voter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly non-existent, and much of the problems associated with alleged fraud in elections relates to unintentional mistakes by voters or election administrators,” the report, which looked at elections since 2000, concluded. As they noted in another report: “Putting rhetoric aside . . . fraud is vanishingly rare, and does not happen on a scale even close to that necessary to ‘rig’ an election.”
Trump is setting up an excuse for a possible election defeat, but in the process he’s recklessly undermining the faith millions have in the democratic process. I asked Nathan Cullen, the NDP vice-chair of the electoral reform committee, if the Trump cynicism is having any impact on the discussion about changing the electoral system in Canada. “Trump’s rigging notion seems to be hooked to the idea of media bias, but I don’t know if he has much to say about democratic reform,” Cullen said, adding, “he has to believe in democracy to have an opinion there first.” Still, Cullen does admit that Trump has tapped into a genuine dissatisfaction, and the way we vote is a part of that. “There’s a rejection of politics as usual and a heightened expectation of voter power and choice,” Cullen said. “Elections haven’t kept up with shifting culture in the West. The ‘You can have any colour as long as it’s black’ model doesn’t work.”
The electoral committee, made up of five parties and 12 members, all appreciate the problem we currently face: the false majority. That’s where 39 per cent of voters take all the power, as we have now with the first-past-the-post system. The NDP and Greens—and most people who want to change the system—believe some form of proportional representation is better. The Liberals might like to see a preferential ballot system, and the Conservatives are open to change as well, but that’s where the legitimacy catch comes in, and it threatens to undo all the good work that’s been done up to now.
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Scott Reid, the Conservative vice-chair of the committee, maintains that the only way for any electoral change to be legitimate is be to have a referendum. “That is the red line,” he told me. “A consensus of all us [on the committee] is not enough.” Green Leader Elizabeth May, also on the committee, disagrees. She argues, persuasively, that the government has a mandate to make the change because it was an election promise and that three other parties also campaigned on the idea. Combined with the more than 40 meetings and consultations that have taken place, she believes a referendum is not needed, just the consensus of the committee. When I asked if consensus meant all parties unanimously agreeing, she wavered. “Well, four out of five parties agreeing would still be consensus,” she said. But if one of those parties is the official Opposition with 99 seats, that’s a hard argument to make. The question of legitimacy could be the rock that smashes the electoral reform boat.
Then there is the culture argument. “We come from a winner-take-all culture,” a senior member of Elections Canada told me. “You don’t give points to a hockey team that loses the game. You lose.” In other words, while the problem of false majorities is real, people actually accept it. May doesn’t buy that. “People hate that culture,” she said. “In the U.S. there is a two-party system, so they are used to that, but in Canada we have had four or five parties since the 1920s, so most people never get their vote counted here. They want their vote to count.”
Our electoral reform debate has none of Trump’s bloviating conspiracy theories, but we are tampering with the delicate heart of democracy. Get it right and our democracy becomes more inclusive, as proven in multiple countries. Get it wrong and we risk alienating large parts of the population who might question the very legitimacy of the system.