Do facts matter? Raising the level of debate over B.C.'s voting system referendum

By Dennis Pilon
August 3, 2018 - 11:00am Updated: August 3, 2018 - 3:03pm

It was great to be in Kamloops again recently and meet with people interested in engaging in a fact-based discussion about voting systems. Conversations like these are crucially important at this time because British Columbians will be voting this fall on whether to keep the province’s current voting system, first-past-the-post, or switch to some form of proportional representation (PR). My talk was meant to advance this discussion by addressing just how well the first-past-the-post and PR sides in this debate are doing in terms of making claims about voting systems.

Here’s how I organized the talk. I took claims directly from the websites of groups claiming to support and/or oppose the different systems. My approach was simple: state a particular claim and then examine any relevant evidence to see if the claim could be supported. It is my belief that regardless of where you stand on this issue, you should be prepared to defend your claims, and do so in a fact-based, transparent way so that others can assess whether your claims are sound. On the PR side, I examined claims that a PR voting system would ‘make every vote count,’ more accurately represent the voting strength of different political parties, result in legislative majority governments that also represented a majority of voters, encourage cooperation across political parties, lead to more transparent government decision-making and policy development, and increase the representation of diversity and voter turnout. For supporters of BC’s current, first past the post voting system I examined claims that the reform process is rigged in favour of change and against rural voters, that it is rigged to keep the NDP and Greens in power and against alternations in power, that the PR choices that will appear on the ballot are mostly untried and too complicated to use, and that the adoption of PR will lead to political instability, extremism, party dominance, etc. For readers who couldn’t make the talk, you can view the entire powerpoint presentation with the evidence as a PDF here. As readers can see from the slides, fact checking leads to the conclusion that the PR side is generally offering up defensible, fact-based claims while supporters of the current first past the post system are not.

But not everyone attending my presentation was convinced. Kamloops’ ‘armchair mayor’ Mel Rothenburger claimed in a July 6th column that I was guilty of “handpicking facts to support proportional representation.” Indeed, Rothenburger argued that “[b]eing a proponent of PR, of course, his choice of facts supported his side of the argument.” I am disappointed that Rothenburger sees things this way. It would appear that he does not believe that people can differ on a matter of public interest in good faith. Of course, it is just this kind of highly partisan, bad faith approach to public debate that my presentation was meant to challenge. Besides, as an academic, I can’t get away with the kind of self-serving approach to research and claims-making that Rothenburger describes because I have to be transparent and systematic in gathering and using evidence. Rothenburger could have engaged with the evidence I provided but instead he just dismissed it with a wave of the hand and ad hominem attacks on my character. And, as I’m sure readers understand, when you attack the person rather than their arguments you’re pretty much admitting you can’t engage the debate on its own terms.

If Rothenburger and other supporters of the current first past the post system want their arguments to be taken seriously then they’re going to have to stop slinging mud and start doing their homework, which means making credible, fact-based arguments. For instance, in another column on this subject Rothenburger claimed that coalition and minority governments don’t work. He specifically pointed to BC’s ten-year coalition government between provincial Liberals and Conservatives as an example. But most serious analysts of BC politics credit the Liberal/Conservative coalition government that was in power from 1941 to 1952 as being very stable, effectively kick-starting the province’s postwar economic expansion and making important investments to open up the economic potential of the interior of the province. And it did last for more than a decade, hardly an indication of instability. When we turn comparative evidence, coalition government is the way that most western countries govern and do so effectively by any of the classic OECD economic and social measures. These are rich and successful countries and they get results - and their governments are made up of multiple parties. Clearly slamming coalition government is not the ‘slam dunk’ argument that Rothenburger and other supporters of the current first past the post system seem to think it is, if facts matter.

Of course, I suspect that Rothenburger’s interventions into the voting system debate draw more from his background as a politician than a long-serving newspaper editor. In the worst of politics, the truth doesn’t matter, it only matters what you can get people to believe. So mud slinging and alarmist claims and non-factual assertions are all fair game. Indeed, it is assumed that your opponents are doing the same. Rothenburger correctly notes that I support the shift to a proportional voting system and as such assumes that I will rig my claims to support my objective. But here he has everything backwards. It is my research that has led to me to view proportional voting systems as more in line with Canadian democratic values and practices, not the other way around. Indeed, most political scientists in Canada support proportional voting for just these reasons. We are not pitching for any particular political team or party as a beneficiary of this reform. The point, for us, is to assess what is in the best democratic interest of Canadian voters. Of course, as Rothenburger notes, there are a few Canadian political scientists defending the current system. Here Rothenburger appears to be saying the PR side has experts and the current first past the post side has experts so they cancel each other out. But people shouldn’t take the word of experts just because they are experts, they should examine the actual arguments and facts they are presenting. That is why I went to such lengths to present actual evidence in my presentation. Being an ‘expert’ on this topic doesn’t make me necessarily or automatically right, it just means I am informed about it. In a democratic society, people should investigate what I say, weigh the evidence, and decide for themselves whether my arguments and facts add up.

Dennis Pilon has researched voting systems and democratic reform for over thirty years. He is the author of The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System (2007) and Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the Twentieth Century West (2013) as well as many academic journal articles and book chapters on the topic. He is also the co-editor of British Columbia Government and Politics with Michael Howlett and Tracy Summerville. He presently teaches in the Politics Department at York University.

Click here to view the evidence Pilon presented during his talk in Kamloops.

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