Paul's Internet Landfill/ lj/ MMP 102: False Dichotomies

MMP 102: False Dichotomies

One of my hopes for electoral reform was that it would give voters increased choice by giving the existing big-tent parties some competition. Currently, the big-tent parties get away by playing the "lesser of three evils" game: they motivate people to vote for them by arguing that they are slightly less-worse than the alternatives.

A particularly egregarious example was offered by the Liberals a handout I received at the tail end of the 2004 federal election campaign:

What's at stake on June 28th

If you believe...

Then sit on the sidelines by not voting.

Or vote NDP or Green Party.

Both parties have their merits. But a vote for either will do nothing to reduce the chances of a right wing Harper government.

Stephen Harper says he wants to change Canada in a way "you won't recognize." The choice for progressive voters is clear.

I don't know what infuriates me most about this style of advertising: that it is so blatant, that it can be applied election after election after election, that it is effective, or that it is correct. There is more text in the brochure, but none of it argues that the Liberals offer a positive alternative to the Conservatives -- just that the Conservatives are worse.

I don't mean to pick on the Liberals too much. All large parties in FPTP engage in these kinds of shenanigans, and the smaller parties engage in different but equally offensive shenanigans ("If everyone gets together, we can win this riding and some power! You just need faith!"). All of this shenanigizing has destroyed my faith in FPTP as an election system: what is the good of allowing multiple parties to run in an election when only the two biggest parties have any realistic chance of getting power?

Is this situation any better under MMP? Of course it is. That's the point: people who vote for small parties do not waste their votes, and thus contribute to keeping their perceived villains out of power. Closed lists or not, the simple fact that voters can choose between several political parties is a huge advantage for MMP. Suddenly, the big parties have some competition.

As I will argue in a future post, little parties cannot threaten the biggest parties as much as we might like. But the threat remains real, and voters can use it to punish big parties in some interesting ways. For example, say voters are sick and tired of both big parties. They can then direct their votes to smaller parties, giving those parties more power. One of the big-tent parties will likely end up forming the government (unlike FPTP, proportionality means it is difficult to wipe out parties entirely as the voting system did to the Progressive Conservatives in 1993) but the big-tent "winner" won't enjoy an easy rule: its will have less bargaining power because it will need more seats (and possibly more coalition partners) to cobble together a majority of seats.

In comparison, when big parties earn a lot of the party vote, they have a better chance of bossing their coalition partners around: because they need fewer seats to form a majority coalition, they can choose smaller parties and fewer parties. This appears to be the practice in New Zealand; instead of the small parties wagging their big-tent partners, the big parties have largely dominated, with smaller partners offering more influence than ultimatums (Vowles Banducci Karp 2006). In MMP, voters can consciously and proactively cast their ballot to strengthen or weaken big-tent power.

Contrast this to FPTP: in most situations voters have a choice: they can punish one big-tent party or the other, but not both, because one party or the other will almost usually win a majority government. Minority governments are also possible but they are difficult for voters to engineer; our recent string of federal minority government is largely thanks to Quebec and the Bloc. Voters elsewhere don't have strong, regionalized third parties to vote for, so they tend to vote for the two big parties and hope that not too many people make the same choice they do. In Ontario we do not have the same degree of regionalization, which may be a factor in why Ontario has had a lot fewer minority governments.

For all my bellyaching, this is why I come out in support of MMP: it puts power firmly in the hands of voters. Sure: closed lists are not ideal, and in some ways we are taking a hit to accountability by using them. Sure: sometimes we won't get the coalitions we expect, and cobbling together governments will be a pain. MMP still gives voters a whole lot more power over their political parties than FPTP does; even those of us who support big-tent parties can see that this endless false dichotomy between Tweedledum and Tweedledumber disenfranchises voters and harms the quality of our democracy.


(Vowles Banducci Karp 2006) Jack Vowles, Susan A. Banducci, Jefferey A. Karp. "Forecasting and Evaluating the Consequences of Electoral Change in New Zealand", _Acta Politica, vol 41, 2006, pp. 267-284. Available from NZES website:

Livejournal URL:

Mood: undecided