Atlantic Uprising: How the east coast is leading the way on voting reform

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Cross-posted on Huffington Post


While we've all been distracted by the fallout of Donald Trump's unexpected election as president, another important political story has been unfolding under the radar. At the same time that Hillary Clinton lost the presidency, despite getting three million more votes than Trump, voters in New England (the birthplace of the American Revolution) and Prince Edward Island (the birthplace of Canadian confederation) delivered an unprecedented one-two punch to the archaic and dysfunctional first-past-the-post voting system.

In two referendums, one on each side of the border, residents of Maine voted in favour of switching the entire state over to ranked choice voting (RCV) and two days earlier voters in P.E.I. embraced a system called mixed member proportional (MMP).

Both of these systems offer distinct benefits to voters and offer a glimpse of hope that we can overcome the democratic deficit in both countries. First-past-the-post feeds cynicism and apathy because it distorts election results, pushes out new voices, forces people to vote 'strategically', encourages negative campaigns and produces predominantly white/male governments that do not reflect the diversity of the population. Both RCV and MMP, on the other hand, help to cure some of these problems.

Let's look at Maine first. Using ranked choice voting, voters are asked to rank their top three choices on their ballot. Easy as 1,2,3. On election night, all the first-choice picks are counted and if any candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote, he or she is declared the winner. But if no one has a clear majority then the candidate with the fewest votes in eliminated and his or her votes are transferred to the second choice marked on each ballot. This repeats until one candidate has won a majority. This means that no one can win a race against the will of the majority. It also means that candidates can't be accused of being a "spoiler" and that people can vote with their heart, knowing that a vote for an obscure candidate will not be "wasted."

This creates a more open and inclusive political atmosphere that can help break up the oligopoly of our major parties. Ranked ballots also encourage more positive and civil campaigns, as candidates try to secure second-preference votes from their opponents' supporters. The victory for Maine's proposition #5 means that all future state election will be held using a ranked ballot, including races for U.S. senator, U.S. representative to Congress, governor, state senator and state representative. While some municipalities such as Minneapolis and San Francisco have already switched to ranked ballots, the referendum in Maine marks the first time that an entire state will be switching away from first-past-the-post.

In P.E.I., a completely different system was chosen by voters. MMP is a proportional system that goes even further than RCV. While the reform in Maine ensures that the majority is heard, proportional systems are designed to ensure that all votes count equally, and that the elected government reflects the same percentages of the popular vote. For example, if 10 per cent vote for the Green Party then 10 per cent of the seats are awarded to the Greens. Sounds like an obvious way to run an election, but first-past-the-post doesn't even come close to achieving this simple goal. In Canada, for example, the Liberal Party has 54 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, despite having won only 39.5 per cent of the vote.

The same goes for provincial elections, such as Alberta's New Democratic Party that won 61 per cent of the seats with only 41 per cent of the vote. MMP ensures that these distortions are avoided, using a hybrid model that distributes some seats by local races in ridings/districts and some seats based on the proportion that each party won overall. MMP has a proven track-record and is currently being used in both Germany and New Zealand. Another proportional system, called Single Transferable Vote (STV) uses ranked ballots and multi-member districts to achieve proportionality. In the U.S., either MMP or STV would break the stale two-party system that has dominated for generations. Proportional systems offer more choice, fair results and have also proven to increase the diversity of government bodies.

There is one thing in common with all of these reforms: they give more power to voters. That's precisely why, in both Maine and P.E.I., politicians are trying to block the reforms from moving forward. P.E.I.'s Premier Wade MacLauchlan has ignored the results and is calling for another referendum in a desperate attempt to maintain the status quo. In Maine, state legislators are stalling implementation, using legal procedures in an unprecedented attempt to overturn the decision.

In both cases, the political efforts to stall reform are only emboldening the activists who organised the referendum victories. With false majorities in Canadian legislatures, the Clinton campaign winning millions more votes than the Trump campaign, declining voter turnout and skyrocketing skepticism, there has never been a better time for these two countries to take a close look at reforming their broken voting systems. Voters in Maine and P.E.I. have opened the door for us.

"Hundreds of Islanders, of all political stripes, volunteered their time and talents and our hard work paid off on November 7 when a clear majority of voters supported PR. We'll continue to pressure our government to honour the results of the plebiscite and legislate MMP in time for the next provincial election"
     Mark Greenan, campaign manager for the PEI Coalition for Proportional Representation.

"Maine's motto is 'Dirigo', Latin for 'I lead'. We have once again led the nation in advancing meaningful reform to give more voice and more choice to voters. At a time when Americans and citizens in democracies all over the world are hungry for change and looking for reforms like Ranked Choice Voting to improve politics, Maine is proud to lead the way."
     Kyle Bailey, Campaign Manager for Maine's YES on Five campaign

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