National Column: Mandatory voting low-hanging fruit in the garden of electoral reform

by Chantal Hébert

In the garden of electoral reform, mandatory voting is a low-hanging fruit that all parties seem content – for now – to leave on the branch.

That may change if a special parliamentary committee on electoral reform appointed to make recommendations to Justin Trudeau’s government ends up deadlocked over the big-ticket item on its agenda.

In the wake of Trudeau’s promise to put in place a different voting system in time for the 2019 federal election a cottage industry of electoral experts has sprouted.

The Conservative contention that no move to a different system should take place without its ratification by a national referendum is only contributing to the growth of that industry.

Policy wonks who sometimes have not been heard from since the constitutional debates of the early 1990s are coming out of the woodwork to argue for their pet voting model, or to debate the pros and cons of having a reform ratified by all voters.

So far the public’s engagement in this debate has been inversely proportional to the high academic and political interest it is eliciting. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most voters do not see electoral reform as a defining issue of the Trudeau mandate.

But who knows?

The unprecedented combination of a Liberal overture to do away with the first-past-the-post system with the long-held dream of the NDP and the Green party for more proportional representation could yet lead to change.

Still, the fact is that there are serious political and practical roadblocks in the way of having a different voting system in place in time for the next election.

In a deadlock, could mandatory voting offer the special committee a fallback avenue for attaining a political consensus?

To varying degrees, two of the parties on the committee have flirted with the idea in the past.

It was part of the Green party’s 2015 platform. In 2014, the Liberals – under Trudeau – sounded out their members on it.

It is no accident that exploring the option is part of the mandate of the special committee.

Mandatory voting is not a substitute for a more proportional voting system.

It would address the issue of declining voter turnouts, but would not lead to outcomes that more closely reflect the support each party receives.

Settling for a reform along those lines would undoubtedly amount to a climbdown from Trudeau’s promise and fall well short of the hopes of the NDP and the Greens.

But the introduction of mandatory voting could bring about transformative change in time for the 2019 election without foreclosing the option of switching to a different voting system at some later point down the road.

It would alter the electoral dynamics in a number of quantitative and qualitative ways.

Here are some of them:

In a system where voting is not compulsory, ensuring that one’s supporters show up to vote is sometimes half the battle.

As often as not, the need to mobilize the base takes precedence over expanding a party’s tent. It also provides an incentive for parties to practice dog-whistle politics. Mandatory voting could mitigate that tendency.

And then parties cater to those who vote. Mandatory voting would expand not only the pool of younger voters but also that of aboriginal Canadians whose turnout is well below the national average. In the last election, the Assembly of First Nations identified 51 ridings where the aboriginal vote could influence the outcome.

On paper, mandatory voting tends to favour progressive parties. Throwing more young voters in the mix could spell trouble for the Conservatives. They are often the third or fourth choice of that cohort. Chances are the official opposition is no more a fan of compulsory voting than it is of a different voting system.

But it is always risky to use today’s trends to predict the electoral future, and not just because political parties tend to adapt to new dynamics.

On that score, consider that not so long ago many analysts would have seen the introduction of compulsory voting in Quebec as a gift designed to keep on giving for the Parti Quebecois.

For most of its history, it had tended to be the party of choice of young Quebecers. The younger cohort consistently favoured sovereignty. But in 2016, the reverse would be true.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday,
Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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