By Metta Spencer
London Free Press, April 1, 1995, p.E5
Holding weighted referendums would give citizens the ability to spend votes on the issues they felt were most important to them.
Canada’s electoral system should be changed to give all citizens more influence over issues they care about, while empowering minorities and making secession less attractive.
In most democracies, the majority wins and the minority loses. If a minority, concentrated in a’ region where it is, locally, a majority, secedes, it will become a winner. Secession’s appeal was summed up by the Quebecer who said, “I want to be a majority in my own country.”
No group is entitled to be a majority in its own country and such aspirations are causing the bloodiest wars of our era. However, people cling to that dream if the other option is to be outvoted time after time. If minorities were able to win occasionally — with the full approval of the majority — there would no longer be any need for separation. That would be possible if Canada adopted non-territorial constituencies for aggregating votes and weighted voting in direct democracy — referendums.
Ontario voters already participate in one non-territorial constituency: the school system. If you declare your family Catholic, your taxes support separate schools and you vote for Catholic school trustees. Otherwise you are part of the public school constituency.
Let’s allow Canadians to register as members of one community, regardless of where they live. These communities could be based on ethnicity (anglophones, francophones, aboriginals) or on other concerns (environmentalists, gays or students). The number registering in a constituency will determine the number of members of Parliament it can elect. Voters may change their registration. When a constituency attracts too few members to be entitled to at least one MP, its remaining members must register in one of the remaining constituencies or vote in the residual constituency for MPs-at-large.
One advantage of this system is that francophones outside Quebec could participate in the francophone constituency. Also, to make political representation reflect demographic changes, the system would not require changing provincial or riding boundaries; voters could change their constituencies at will.
However, we want to keep some territorial basis in politics — probably by allocating ,
(elected) Senate seats to particular provinces — to keep the basis for political parties. It would be unfortunate if MPs were chosen only on the basis of single-interest politics. All candidates for these new non-territorial constituencies should normally be nominated by a party, as should candidates for the Senate.
Some countries already have non-territorial constituencies. For example, votes fbr the Irish senate are aggregated according to the occupation of the voters. Farmers elect a specific number of senators, university faculty members a specific number, and so on. Malta uses a similar system.
WEIGHTED REFERENDUMS: However, although this non-territorial voting scheme improves democratic representativeness, it does not solve the main problem of minorities: always being outvoted. This can be overcome with weighted referendums. MPs representing each constituency could put one proposition before voters on an annual referendum.
This way citizens can expend political power according to the intensity of their concern about an issue. Suppose you care deeply about only one issue, Proposition C, and I care deeply only about Proposition F. I may even flip a coin to decide how to vote on Proposition C, thus cancelling out your vote, while you flip a coin to decide how to vote on Proposition F, thus canceling out my vote. This is democracy, but we both lose.
With the weighted voting referendum, we will each be allowed to cast as many votes as there are propositions — but we may “spend” our votes according to our priorities.
Suppose there are 20 propositions on the. ballot. You may “spend” all 20 of your votes on Proposition C. Or you may cast 10 votes on two different propositions. Or 10 votes on one proposition and one each on 10 of the others, which means that you would not vote at all on I nine propositions. I might cast five votes on each of four propositions, skipping the other 16.
The outcome of this system Would mean each item would be decided only by persons who care enough to spend their votes on it. Moreover, if a community (say, francophones) care enough about a particular proposition to spend a large portion of their voting power on it, the likelihood of their winning will be enhanced. Even if they constitute a small minority of the voters, they may win — at least if many of the other voters are relatively indifferent to that topic, so that they do not spend many votes on it.
When a minority wins, the rest of Canada cannot object. Had other Canadians felt strongly enough to object, they would have spent some of their votes to block it. While minorities will benefit from the weighted referendum, so will everyone else. We will acquire greater influence over issues about which we care greatly. Democracy will increase by allowing people to spend their “political resources” as they please.
Metta Spencer is the associate chairperson of sociology at the University of Toronto. She is also founder and editor-in-chief of Peace Magazine.
See also OUR FUTURE: World Security: The New Challenge, by the Canadian Pugwash Group; Dundurn Press.
A series of essays on society’s future, the book includes one by Metta Spencer: “How to Enhance Democracy And Discourage Secession.”