Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2016/ Brief to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform

This is what I submitted to the committee. Who knows whether it will be accepted as a brief? I doubt it will have any influence on the committee's decision, but what is electoral reform other than tilting at windmills.

Brief to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform

Paul Nijjar
Kitchener, Ontario

The List-Free Mechanic

I endorse Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMPR) as a good electoral system for Canada. It does a good job of maintaining local representation with good proportionality.

Unfortunately, discussions of MMPR often get bogged down in discussions of how to fill top-up seats (aka "list seats" or "party seats"). Who decides the makeup of the lists? From where do the candidates come? People spend a lot of time arguing between two approaches: closed lists (where parties publish lists of candidates before the election) and open lists (where voters have the option of choosing or ordering candidates for the list). Neither of these options is ideal. Voters don't like closed lists because they dislike giving political parties more power over candidate selection. Open lists increase the cognitive burden on voters, who then need to evaluate several party candidates when voting.

In my opinion the closed-list vs open-list debate is a false dichotomy. Historically, these two mechanisms were used to fill list seats in list-PR systems. However, adding local riding elections as we do with MMPR creates a better alternative: a "list-free" (also known as "implicit list", "best-runner-up", "best-loser", or in Hutcheon and Tomek's submission, "repechage") mechanic. My primary plea in this brief is to beg the committee to consider the list-free mechanic for any voting system to which it might apply, including but not limited to MMPR.

The List-Free Mechanic

Briefly stated, the list-free mechanic compares candidates running for the same party within a region. It orders the candidates according to how well they did in the region. First, candidates who won riding races are eliminated from the top-up pool. Then top-up seats are filled according to how well candidates did within their ridings.

This is easier to understand with an example. Consider the five ridings of Kitchener Centre, Kitchener-Conestoga, Waterloo, Cambridge, and Kitchener South-Hespeler. For this example, pretend that these five ridings form a region from which top-up MMPR members of parliament will be drawn, and pretend that proportionality dictates awards the Conservatives a top-up seat.

In my riding of Kitchener Centre, the results were as follows:

In this case Stephen Woodworth received 30.36% of the vote in his riding. We now compare Woodworth's share of the vote against other Conservative candidates in the region:

Harold Albrecht won his riding, so he does not qualify for a top-up seat. Therefore the first Conservative top-up seat for this region would go to Gary Goodyear. If a second top-up seat was awarded, it would go to Marion Gagne.

Note that I am not advocating that these five ridings ought to form a region, or claiming that election results would be identical under MMPR as they were under FPTP. But I hope this example illustrates the list-free mechanic clearly.


As the committee has seen, many submissions to the ERRE consist of voting nerds (and a few regular Canadians) passionately advocating for their pet voting systems. Why should the committee pay attention to mine?


No voting system is perfect, and the list-free mechanic has its flaws. In this section I will sabotage my submission by being honest about them:

Overall I feel that the advantages of the list-free mechanic far outweigh the disadvantages, but at the end of the day the committee's feelings matter more than mine.

Guiding Principles

Let us evaluate the list-free mechanic in light of Minister Monsef's guiding principles. When ambiguous, assume that the mechanic is used with a proportional system such as MMPR.

Other Acceptable Voting Systems

Overall I support most forms of proportional representation. I prefer list-free MMPR, but would be okay with (in rough order) Fair Vote Canada's Rural-Urban Voting, Single Transferable Vote, open-list MMPR, Sean Graham's Dual-Member Proportional system, or even closed-list MMPR.

I would not be thrilled with a Mixed-member Majoritarian system, but I could tolerate it. Stephane Dion's P3 system would be even more difficult to stomach.

I largely oppose Alternative Vote and First Past the Post. Fractional voting systems are interesting but depend upon parties winning riding seats.

Mandatory Voting

I reluctantly and weakly endorse mandatory voting, under the following conditions:

The primary reason I support mandatory voting is because political parties systematically ignore certain demographics during election campaigns. Parties do not canvas poor neighbourhoods (because "poor people don't vote") and they ignore safe seats in favour of swing ridings. Mandatory voting might incentivize parties to pay more attention to these demographics. If it doesn't, my support for mandatory voting diminishes significantly.

Online Voting

Many Canadians support the convenience of online voting, but many computer professionals oppose it, because they understand computers and know what security nightmares they are. This alone should give the committee food for thought. The so-called "robocall scandal" of 2011 illustrates that there are forces willing to subvert elections, and allowing online voting increases the attack surface significantly.

Estonia has embraced online voting thoroughly, but even their system has problems (for example, see: That said, Estonia has addressed many common concerns around e-voting, and if the committee wants to pursue this option they should learn from what the country has done.

I remain concerned that by implementing online voting we jeopardize several things:

It is not clear that online voting helps with voter turnout. As reported by the CBC, the City of Guelph enjoyed an 11% increase in voter turnout, but the City of Cambridge only had a 1% increase. Meanwhile, Kitchener (which did not have online voting) had a 2% increase.

Elections Manitoba has been conducting surveys of voters and non-voters in their province. They find that although 59% of non-voters said they would be more likely to vote if online voting was available (p. 29), in practice few non-voters cited inconvenience for the reasons they did not vote. 2% claimed that the voting locations were inconvenient, and 1% said polling stations closed too early. (p. 12). In contrast, 20% of non-voters cited reasons related to disillusionment, and 10% said they did not know enough about the parties or issues (p. 12). To me, this suggests that online voting does not address the problems we want it to solve. Being able to vote more conveniently does not make learning about the election any easier.

Having said all this, I acknowledge that online voting could make voting easier for those with mobility challenges. But I feel it is a lot of expense and risk for little payoff, and would like to see accessibility concerns addressed in some other way.

Other Comments

Unlike many other proportional representation advocates, I do not endorse full proportionality at any expense. Regional and urban-rural distinctions are important in Canada, and our voting system should take these into consideration even if it makes the system less proportional.

I believe the per-vote subsidy should be reinstated. This small change made a large difference in voter incentives under FPTP.

There are many details to consider when designing an MMPR system. My preferences are:

Although not a question directly considered by the committee, I endorse lowering the voting age to 16.

It is disingenuous to pretend that Canadians primarily vote on the basis of local candidates, as opposed to parties or party leaders. The argument that FPTP is fair because we vote for individual candidates and not parties is similarly disingenuous. However, I agree with the underlying criticism that political parties are too powerful.

I agree with Denis Pilon's arguments concerning referenda. To those not satisfied by Pilon's arguments, I offer the following thought: the next election will serve as a referendum for these electoral changes. If Canadians vote into power parties that pledge to return the country to FPTP, then it only requires an act of Parliament to reinstate FPTP.

I am disillusioned with fixed election dates. They do not dissuade governments from calling early elections, and they result in a lot of pre-campaign campaigning.

It will be disappointing if the committee's final report breaks down across party lines. If it does, expect voter cynicism in electoral reform to increase yet further.