In a recent column, former BC Liberal staffer Keivan Hirji issues three complaints against the process to be used in the upcoming referendum on electoral reform. In this post I will explain these charges, and show why all three should be rejected.
Hirji’s first complaint concerns an alleged false dichotomy in the referendum question. A false dichotomy occurs when two alternatives are presented as exhausting all possible options, but other options are in fact available. The false dichotomy in this case, Hirji claims, is between support for the status quo and support for all three forms of proportional representation on the second part of the ballot. One might prefer MMP to FPTP, for example, but prefer FPTP to DMP, and the structure of the ballot does not allow for the expression of this kind of preference.
But to say that the first part of the referendum ballot presents two alternatives as exhausting all possible options simply because there are only two options on that part of the ballot is like saying that an ordinary election ballot presents three or four alternatives as exhausting all possible options simply because there are only three or four names on the ballot. Unless they include a space for write-in candidates, all ballots exclude possible alternatives. No fallacy is committed because the options on the ballot do not purport to represent all possible alternatives.
Hirji’s second complaint is that two of the three forms of PR on the ballot (dual member proportional and rural-urban proportional) are not in use anywhere in the world. To adopt either of these two system would be to treat the province “as a guinea pig in electoral experimentation”.
In fact, only DMP is truly untested; RUP would use two well-tried electoral systems in different regions of the province. Moreover, the phrase “guinea pig” is obviously loaded—compare Hirji’s description of the province as a lab animal with Justice Louis Brandeis’s memorable description of the members of a federation as “laboratories of democracy”. Laboratories undertake important experimental work. But notoriously, guinea pigs often suffer and die in laboratory experiments. For Brandeis, citizens are like the scientists and technicians who make use of the laboratory to make important discoveries. For Hirji, citizens are like lab animals who are used in the laboratory. Hirji’s analogy is meant to lead readers to feel that if we try out a new electoral system, we too may suffer and die like the guinea pig. However, Hirji declines to elaborate on his anticipated failure modes of proportional representation in BC. How on earth would any of these systems lead to consequences sufficiently dire as to justify the lab animal analogy? Without elaboration, this part of Hirji’s argument is nothing more than a crude appeal to readers’ fear and can thus be dismissed altogether.
Finally, Hirji complains that voters in the referendum will be forced to choose between electoral systems without knowing what the boundaries of the new electoral districts would be. Hirji compares this to choosing between vehicles without knowing any of their specifications. Again, this analogy is highly misleading.
District boundaries change all the time. They will continue to change regardless of whether voters decide that our electoral system should respect the principle of proportionality. Anyone who votes to retain first past the post is doing so without knowing what the district boundaries will look like several years down the road. By the logic of Hirji’s vehicle analogy, this means that these voters will be making a completely blind choice; not knowing the exact boundaries that single member districts will have in the future means not knowing anything about how FPTP will work in practice. That’s utterly absurd. So something must be wrong with Hirji’s analogy.
One problem is that district boundaries are not comparable to the full set of specifications for a vehicle. In fact boundaries are impossible to evaluate without also knowing the district magnitude (i.e. the number of offices to be filled) and the electoral formula. Hirji’s analogy makes more sense if district boundaries are treated as comparable to a subset of a vehicle’s specifications—they’re important, but they’re not the whole story. And if district boundaries aren’t the whole story, then voters can draw some reasonable conclusions about what would happen in the future under FPTP (e.g. majority governments formed by single parties that lack majority support) and under various kinds of PR (e.g. majority governments formed by compromise between parties that collectively won a majority of votes). Contrary to Hirji’s claims, BC voters do not have to make a blind choice.
A further problem with Hirji’s argument is that in BC, like the rest of Canada, district boundaries are drawn up by an independent, nonpartisan boundaries commission. Commissioners are mandated to set boundaries that allow for effective representation given a particular electoral formula, striving to achieve roughly equal voting power for all citizens while also taking into account the various natural communities of interest that comprise the province. The integrity of this process is unquestionable. And BC will continue to use this process whether or not we decide to change our electoral system. Even though we can’t say in advance exactly what the district boundaries will be if we stick with FPTP, we can confidently say that the boundaries will allow for effective representation. And if this is true under FPTP, it’s also true under PR. So to return to the vehicle analogy, we may not know some of the relevant specs in advance, but we do know that they’re guaranteed to meet our standards whatever we happen to choose.