Over at Maclean’s, there is an interview with Philippe Lagassé in which he offers a limited defence of Ottawa’s recent, ill-received public survey on electoral reform (mydemocracy.ca).

Lagassé makes the argument that this survey does succeed in that it makes explicit that electoral systems are about tradeoffs.  Ultimately, there are tensions between, for instance, genuine local representation and the predictability achieved with party discipline.   Lagassé scoffs at “the reaction…  that there are no trade-offs or trade-offs shouldn’t be presented in stark ways.”

But here’s the challenge I see, even if we start from the premise that it’s useful to help people think through the tradeoffs that shape their preferences for electoral systems.

The questions the survey asks are not designed in a way that elicits careful consideration about tradeoffs.  

Here’s an example, scored on a Likert scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree): “A ballot should be easy to understand, even if it means voters have fewer options to express their preferences.” Later, it presents a similar question as a forced choice between two alternatives:  “Ballots should be as simple as possible so that everybody understands how to vote OR ballots should allow everybody to express their preferences in detail.  These questions do speak to a genuine tradeoff associated with different electoral systems.

One gripe with this kind of question (the most common one I’ve seen on Twitter) is that it fails to consider how well-designed electoral systems might reduce the steepness of these tradeoffs.  (I.e., there are good ballot designs that manage to allow for more expressed preferences at modest cost to simplicity and clarity).

But with the understanding that these tradeoffs exist, this survey does little to capture the ideal balancing between the considerations.  In the first question above, it sets it up as a gain in one area and a loss in the other (a gain in clarity, a loss in options).  There’s ample evidence about how gain and loss framing impacts judgment.  In the second question, it does address the tradeoffs a bit more fairly, but presents it as a stark, dichotomous either-or rather than a balancing act.

Compare those questions with the following:


MyDemocracy is meant to be about tradeoffs and priorities, but instead offers dichotomies or imbalanced comparisons between gains and losses.  Asking people to rank considerations, or to choose along a continuum between competing priorities (as in the question above), would allow people to give appropriate consideration to those tradeoffs.

The total lack of genuine tradeoff thinking is also present in the section on “priorities” on MyDemocracy, which asks you to choose which of several considerations are “most important” to you — without limit.  You can choose all of them!  What possible insights into one’s priorities might such a measure yield?

Lagassé suggests that MyDemocracy might be a success if we think of it less as a mechanism for gathering input on electoral systems, and more as an educational tool to “convince people to look at electoral reform in a different way or to understand what their values are, or to simply try to change the terms of the debate away from the systems and toward the consequences.”

I doubt this was the intention, by the way.  Cynically, I suspect the real intention here is to defend the status quo or create deadlock by highlighting the risks and costs of various alternatives, and to signal that one change (proportionality, barely discussed in the questions) might be accompanied by a raft of other changes (mandatory voting, online balloting, changes to the voting age).  If this was the intention, than this is a very, very fancy push poll.

But even if Lagassé is right, and even if this is a legitimate and well-intentioned attempt to have people think about tradeoffs and the consequences of electoral system design, it still fails.

At the end, the payoff for this thing is still an archetype — how you fit in a cluster.  (I’m an “innovator”, MyDemocracy helpfully informed me).  It doesn’t create a bridge to help you connect your values and intended outcomes to electoral systems that would reflect those values or achieve your preferred outcomes.   This could have been useful with Vote Compass (fitting people’s attitudes to a party label could help them with their voting decisions).  But here?  It’s useless.

It didn’t have to be.  It could have been educational, helping voters develop informed opinions about about how different electoral systems might reflect their values, or helping them learn how the design of electoral systems could help reduce the steepness of each of these tradeoffs.  Almost a decade ago in Ontario, a referendum was held on a mixed-member proportional representation system recommended by a citizens’ commission.  The citizens’ commission was a wonderful piece of deliberative democracy — but it fell short at the ballot box, in part because “…people didn’t know what the issue was. They didn’t know what mixed member proportional stood for, so [its defeat] was not a surprise.”  A tool like this could have been used to help build a more informed electorate, to ready voters to weigh proposed reforms.  But as it stands?  It offers nothing.  Investing time filling out the survey leaves the respondent no better equipped to understand MMP or STV or any other system, or how those systems might reflect their values, preferences and priorities.