Why fixed election dates are unnecessary

Published Apr. 3, 2014, in The Ottawa Citizen.

In the rest of Canada, much of the coverage of the Quebec provincial election has focused on the possibility of a PQ majority government and the spectre of another referendum.

Lost in this coverage, however, is the fact that in 2013, the PQ government passed a fixed election date law that set the next provincial election to occur on Oct. 3, 2016. Similar to what the Stephen Harper government did in 2008, the PQ “violated” or at least circumvented this law by calling a spring election to coincide with favourable polling numbers. According to some observers, this was problematic because such a strategy supposedly and unfairly improves the re-election chances of the incumbent government.

Political experts have long argued that the election-timing power gives prime ministers and provincial premiers a powerful advantage at election time. The solution, they argue, is fixed election-date legislation, and indeed, the federal government and almost every provincial government across Canada, with the exception of Nova Scotia, has passed this type of legislation.

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Home Values, Homevoters and Municipal Politics: A Guest Post from Dr. Zachary Spicer

The following guest blog contribution is from Dr. Zachary Spicer, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, University of Toronto.

Ontario’s municipal election campaigns are well underway. Over the next seven months, candidates will present platforms and reach out to residents to earn votes. One particular group of voters, however, is prized above all others: homeowners.

Homeowners vote with higher frequency, are more vocal about local politics and are uniquely incentivized to insert themselves into municipal government. Simply put, home ownership changes how one views the political world. To understand why this is we need to examine what effect owning a home has upon an individual.

When one has a concern related to their municipal government – perhaps a pothole, poor garbage pick-up, or high tax levels – they have two options. They could either try to change the situation – e.g., complain to their local councilor, start a petition, vote or run for office themselves – or they could choose to move out of the municipality, altogether. These two options are referred to as “voice” and “exit” – a conscious choice to either stay and try to change things or move to another municipality that better represents your needs.

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Such decisions are not always easy. The choice to leave, of course, depends on the severity of the concern, but some may be attached to the community through their work, family or friends. Picking up and leaving may not be feasible. However, the largest factor keeping one tied to a particular municipality is whether or not they own a home. Owning a home increases the chances of homeowners using “voice” instead of “exit.”

Owning a home limits mobility. The transaction costs of moving are higher because one must disinvest prior to leaving – the prospects of selling a home for lower than one purchased it certainly factors into such calculations. As such, homeowners try to shape municipal conditions to better suit their own preferences as opposed to leaving and seeking out a municipality that better represents those preferences. This behaviour can dramatically change the type of issues that are discussed during elections, the candidates that are elected and the policies that inevitably get passed by any new council.

Thirteen years ago, William Fischel introduced us to this group of municipal voters. He called them “homevoters” in his seminal book, The Homevoter Hypothesis. His idea was simple: concern for property values influences the attitudes and behaviours of homeowners towards municipal politics. Owning a home, Fischel contended, provides a unique level of incentive and motivation to be active in local politics.

The purchase of a home is the largest investment that most people make in their lifetimes and Fischel argues that a desire to maximize property values and protect their investment from uninsurable risks related to municipal politics makes homeowners uniquely interested in the public policies of local government. Simply put, you can insure your home against things such as fire or flood, but you cannot insure it against unaesthetic development or fluctuations in local taxation rates that may negatively affect its resale value. This, Fischel contends, provides additional motivation for those who own a home to play a role in shaping their local politics.

Those who own a home participate in municipal politics at higher levels than renters. They vote and discuss local politics more often. Outside of election season, they are more likely to volunteer for municipal or community boards and contact their councilor and other local officials. Simply put, homevoters are more engaged in community life.

To illustrate some of Fischel’s argument, lets examine voter turnout. This information comes from a forthcoming article in the Journal of Urban Affairs that was co-authored by Mike McGregor and myself. In the model below, we use data from the 2008 General Social Survey (GSS) administered by Statistics Canada. The GSS contains information from over 20,000 respondents on a range of social issues. Central to our purposes is that it contains information on voter turnout at the municipal, provincial and federal levels as well as information on homeowners and a number of important control variables.

GSS data reveal that municipal turnout among renters is 55.9 percent (n=4,113) compared to 71.5 percent (n=13,599) for homeowners. However, a lot of different factors can co-vary with homeownership. Figure 1 displays vote probabilities from a logistic regression model that controls for several widely known correlates, such as gender, age, income, education, ethnicity and region. It also considers a variable that controls for the amount of time respondents have lived in their community. We also consider models of provincial and federal turnout.

Source: General Social Survey, Statistics Canada, 2008.

Source: General Social Survey, Statistics Canada, 2008.

As is apparent, homeownership displays a positive and statistically significant relationship with voter turnout in municipal election. The probability of voting in municipal elections is 13 percentage points higher for owners than it is for renters. We do see, however, that homeownership increases the probability of voting at the federal and provincial levels as well, but nowhere is it greater than at the municipal level.

So, what sort of policies do these homevoters want to see in place? Anything that will enhance the value of their property. Within a general context, they embrace lower levels of taxation, projects that will beautify neighbourhoods, and initiatives that ensure their access to local officials. Within a particular context, they will vociferously defend neighbourhoods from unaesthetic development. Politicians that can embrace these goals are likely to be supported.

Local politics is oriented towards these types of demands and focus on homeowners and tax rates. We often hear the word “taxpayer” substituted for the words “citizen” and “voter” by municipal politicians – an implication that only those who own a home pay property taxes and count in the electoral process. Toronto’s Rob Ford has this down to an art, but newcomers to Toronto’s mayoral election campaign are starting to use the phrase as well. Even social-justice icon Olivia Chow repeatedly refers to “taxpayers” on the campaign trail.

Due to the prominence of homevoters, we are likelier to focus on taxes than social housing during election season. Homevoters ensure our policy discussions are focused on protecting and enhancing property values. As such, the dominance of homevoters narrows the political agenda during elections. Opening it back up is a challenge, but not impossible task for savvy municipal voters.

Slumping Ontario needs strong leadership

Published Mar. 31, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

If you are Kathleen Wynne, what do you do?

You have been leader of the Ontario Liberals for 14 months and premier of the province for 13. For most of that time, you have been spinning your wheels. In the 2011 election, your party, then led by Dalton McGuinty, came within one seat of a majority in the 107-seat legislature. But resignations, retirements and byelection attrition have eroded your standing. Today, the Liberals hold 10 fewer seats than the combined opposition (48-58, with one vacancy).

If you are Wynne, you know this. You know you may face an election this spring. You also know that, although your personal popularity is OK, your party’s numbers aren’t. According to the poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com, the weighted average of Ontario political polls, as of March 24, had the Liberals tied — at 34 per cent — with Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives; Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats were nipping at your heels with 26 per cent.

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The experts say the Liberal vote is more “efficient” than the PC or NDP vote, because of the concentration of support in seat-rich Toronto. If they are right, you might eke out another minority government — if you are lucky.

You have survived for the past year by making nice to the NDP. You and Horwath agree on one thing: you don’t want Ontario to return to what you both regard as the Dark Ages of Mike Harris by making Hudak premier. (You may be right about the Dark Ages, but how do you persuade more Ontarians to buy into your Hudak aversion? Many voters see him as a friendly fellow, a good family man and new dad.)

So far, you have managed to secure Horwath’s support in exchange for a few shiny trinkets, such as a marginal reduction in car insurance rates or a minuscule increase in the minimum wage, but nothing very big or very costly. Nothing that engages the real issues and fundamental problems of the province.

Ontario is in a slump. The former engine of Confederation is running on just half of its cylinders. It needs growth and it needs skilled jobs of the high-wage, high-tech variety, not the part-time, minimum-wage kind. It needs real jobs, real careers, for university graduates.

To get there, Ontario needs renewed leadership, leadership with a vision for the future. It is not likely to get that vision from Hudak, as long as he looks back to the Harris era for inspiration, and Horwath does not project a sense of bold leadership; she seems too preoccupied with jockeying for position in the next election.

A year ago, I would have said Wynne could provide the leadership Ontario needs. I’m not so sure now. The battle for survival has taken its toll. Her government is still struggling to eliminate its deficit by 2018, leaving the province about three years behind better-heeled Ottawa in that important effort.

She has been unable escape from the nightmares of the McGuinty past. The hydro plant outrage occurred on his watch, not hers; but last week’s news that the police are investigating the scrubbing of computer files in the premier’s office during transition from McGuinty to Wynne moves the scandal dangerously close to her doorstep.

And all Ontarians had a right to be appalled when the annual “sunshine list” of top earners in the provincial employ was published last week; they could see how province-owned outfits, especially in the energy sector, have been hiring mediocre executives, paying them far more than they are worth in salaries and bonuses, then handing them severance packages in the six- and even seven-figure range when they fire them.

That largesse is not corruption. It is simple bad management. Ontarians don’t expect miracles (or even excitement) from Queen’s Park. But they do expect their affairs to be competently managed with proper respect for the taxpayer dollar. Can Wynne instil that image of competence and fiscal respect at Queen’s Park?

Trudeau shouldn’t expect big boost from ‘star’ candidates

Published Wed. Mar 26, 2014, in The Star.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s move to block the nomination of Christine Innes in the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina has filled the political news recently. He took the step, according to Ontario campaign co-chair David MacNaugton, because the Innes campaign was using “intimidation and bullying on young volunteers.”

More specifically, according to some party officials and critics, Trudeau’s decision was really about protecting star candidate Chrystia Freeland, a celebrated author and journalist, who last year beat NDP and fellow star candidate Linda McQuaig in the by-election for the riding of Toronto Centre.

Leaders and party strategists have long recruited and protected star candidates for a variety of reasons. They assume, for instance, that these individuals make excellent cabinet or shadow cabinet ministers. They also assume that star candidates attract all sorts of positive attention from the media. But the main reason why leaders and strategists are so attracted to these individuals is because they assume that these candidates can significantly increase their party’s vote share at election time.

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Peer Review and Social Pyschology: Or Why Introductions are so Important!

Inspired by my colleagues Loren King and Anna Esselment, both of whom regularly make time in their busy schedules to read (I know! A crazy concept!), I’ve started to read a new book that Chris Cochrane recommended: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.

I’m only in the first third of the book, but one of the main arguments so far is that when human make moral (and presumably other) judgements, we tend to use our intuitions first, and our reasoning second. That is to say, frequently we have gut feelings about all sorts of things and rather than reasoning out whether our feelings are correct, we instead search for logic, examples, or arguments to support those gut feelings. Haidt effectively illustrates this argument by drawing upon a broad set of published research and experiments he has done over the years.

At the end of chapter 2, he writes:

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“I have tried to use intuitionism while writing this book. My goal is to change the way a diverse group of readers … think about morality, politics, religion, and each other …. I couldn’t just lay out the theory in chapter 1 and then ask readers to reserve judgement until I had presented all of the supporting evidence. Rather, I decided to weave together the history of moral psychology and my own personal story to create a sense of movement from rationalism to intuitionism. I threw in historical anecdotes, quotations from the ancients, and praise of a few visionaries. I set up metaphors (such as the rider and the elephant) that will recur throughout the book. I did these things in order to “tune up” your intuitions about moral psychology. If I have failed and you have a visceral dislike of intuitionism or of me, then no amount of evidence I could present will convince you that intuitionism is correct. But if you now feel an intuitive sense that intuitionism might be true, then let’s keep going.”

I found these first few chapters, and this paragraph in particular, to be extremely powerful and relevant to academic publishing (and other things!). If humans tend to behave in this manner, (e.g. we frequently rely on gut feelings to make moral judgements and we frequently try to find reasons to support those feelings), then the introduction of a journal article is CRUCIAL, both for peer review and afterwards. On the issue of peer review, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a referee report that was extremely negative, yet failed to: a) clearly show that they understood my argument; and b) demonstrate logically why my argument is wrong. I always blamed myself for not being clear enough, which is probably half true! But the real story is that sometimes my introductions were probably ineffective at connecting with people’s intuitions, and so these reviewers found reasons to reject it.

The lesson here, I think, is that introductions matter! You can’t ask or expect readers to withold judgement while you present the theory and evidence first. Instead, you have to find a way to tap immediately into their intuitions to make them open to considering the merits of your argument.

First Nations communities should explore municipal partnerships

Published on Mar. 27, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

It’s no secret that many aboriginal communities across Canada are underserviced and underfunded.

Media reports over the last several years have highlighted the lack of adequate funding for on-reserve education, clean water, housing, and health services, among other things.

Earlier this year, a story surfaced about a house fire on a reserve in northern Saskatchewan. Commentators noted how a lack of financial support from the federal government for proper training and equipment had directly contributed to the death of two young boys. As a result of that tragedy, First Nations’ leaders have called for the federal government to increase funding to on-reserve communities for proper fire protection services.

In many ways, these demands make sense. Aboriginal governments frequently lack the fiscal tools to raise sufficient revenue to pay for these services, and so federal and provincial money is crucial to building healthy and safe aboriginal communities.

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Mentors and Giants: An Interview with Christopher Achen

Christopher Achen is Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Politics at Princeton University. According to his bio, he “was the first president of the Political Methodology Section of the American Political Science Association, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received fellowships from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics. He received the first career achievement award from The Political Methodology Section of The American Political Science Association in 2007. He is also the recipient of an award from the University of Michigan for lifetime achievement in training graduate students. Recent academic placements of graduate students for whom he was the principal dissertation advisor include Stanford, Duke, and the London School of Economics.”

During my first year at Laurier, I was appointed colloquium officer. We had a tiny budget, but I, being fresh out of grad school, was feeling ambitious and was determined to try and bring to Laurier a big name in American political science to spend the day with us. My hope was that this individual would give a public lecture and host a smaller workshop with political science graduate students and faculty members. There was also, at the time, a strong push to help develop LISPOP, and so I thought I would attempt to bring in someone who was a giant in public opinion and/or methodology.

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One of the first names that came immediately to mind was Chris Achen. I remember reading his monograph, Intermediate Regression Analysis (Sage: 1982), at UofT, which, although dated, really helped me get a handle on the logic and math underpinning regression analysis. As well, although I’m sure there were others, at the time I thought he was one of the few “big names” in political science who was rallying against a certain methodological trend of “dumping” as many variables as one could into regression models and magically finding statistical significant relationships. And so I really wanted to meet him!

Happily, Chris accepted my invitation and his public talk and workshop were amazing. As my colleague Loren King mentioned the other day, he was a pioneer in getting to know your data and figuring out how to do matching to establish causality long before matching became a trend in recent days. An added bonus was that Chris was such a nice, humble, and encouraging guy. I made a lot of rookie mistakes during my first year at Laurier, including taking Chris to a bit of a “dumpy” bar instead of a fancy restaurant (darn budget!). But rather than complain, he happily had a beer and burger with the rest of us and told me he preferred the bar to the fancy restaurant (even though I’m sure that’s not true)!

Even though I haven’t spent very much time with Chris in person, I count him both as a giant and a mentor to me. His work and his visit to Laurier had a profound effect on how I have pursued my academic career so far.


I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career

How much time faculty spend on committees and administration, and how important it is to learn to manage those obligations while making sure that teaching and research get the time they need.

The individual I admire the most academically

I have a long list of predecessors I greatly admire, but Harold Gosnell, founder of political methodology, is a personal favorite. He did the first field experiments in the 1920s, he used statistical techniques in the 1930s that didn’t come into common use for another 30 years, and he pioneered among students of African-American politics. I had one memorable lunch with him when he was already in his nineties. Alas, he is no longer with us.

My best research project during my career

I always feel that my current one will be the best.

My worst research project during my career

I spent a summer before Bayesian software was invented, laboriously programming and analyzing a Bayesian model of the representativeness of Austrian mayors.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

I wrote a paper about rational party identification in 1989 and published it in 1992. The original draft included a footnote saying that if the argument of the paper was correct, the Republicans would become the majority party in the House of Representatives in the not-too-distant future. At that point, the Democrats had controlled the House for nearly all of the last 60 years. The footnote seemed crazy, and I lacked courage. I took it out before publication. Of course, in the 1994 elections, the GOP took over the House, and they have controlled it all but four years since then. The moral: stick to your guns.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance

One year my APSA paper with Duncan Snidal collapsed completely on August 15, two weeks before the convention. We had to work hard and quickly on a new paper, worrying that the argument was all wrong, and hoping that no one would attend the panel. Instead, it struck a nerve and, after considerable revision, became the lead article in World Politics. We were lucky. But there is a moral here, too: sometimes not worrying about crossing t’s and dotting i’s can free the mind.

A research project I wish I had done

Using political science tools to understand the Weimar elections that led to Hitler. The electoral patterns are quite complex and varied across German subdivisions, as Weimar historiography makes clear. Just mushing the electoral units together statistically at the national level was a very helpful starting point twenty-five or thirty years ago, but it has long been clear that something more locally informed is needed in the twenty first century. A serious command of German and of regional history and politics, a good deal of time in archives, and many years of patient investigation would all be needed, but the result would be a tremendous contribution. I hope someone will do it.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

retired from playing middle linebacker for the Oakland Raiders in their glory years. Alas, I am small, slow, and talentless, so I had to go into poli sci.

The biggest challenge in American politics in the next 10 years will be

managing the growing specialization into subfields—political behavior, institutions, American political development, public law, race and politics, public policy, and much else. The important problems and the most interesting intellectual challenges cut across those divisions.

The biggest challenge in political science in the next 10 years will be

making experimentation and other forms of causal inference become as fruitful on the big, longstanding theoretical issues in the study of politics as they have been in political psychology and public policy.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is

listen to wise advice, but follow your heart.

Sulky children usher premier out of office

Published Mar. 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Politics is a thoroughly miserable profession.

It treats many of its practitioners, not with the deference or respect they may merit, but with cruel contempt. Too often, the career of a politician is, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short.

Alison Redford discovered this in the weeks leading up to her resignation as premier of Alberta. It wasn’t really a resignation so much as it was a political assassination. She was assassinated by her own party, by her Progressive Conservative caucus. Caucus members didn’t like her style. She had won the leadership in October 2011 with almost no caucus support (only one MLA voted for her) and went on to capture a majority government the following year.

Notwithstanding her success (or because of it), her caucus resented her – partly because to them she was an outsider, partly because she was a pinker Tory than most of them, and partly, I believe, because she was a woman who had succeeded in a province where politics is still played by old-boy rules.

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She treated her followers like professionals instead of what they were: a bunch of sulky children whose little noses were out of joint. She didn’t stroke them enough, make them feel important enough, or invite them home for dinner often enough. And she didn’t keep them busy enough – too busy to waste time plotting her assassination.

She made mistakes, but they were not mistakes of government policy (Alberta continues to be one of the best-run provinces), nor were they mistakes of political strategy (she trounced the right-wing Wildrose party in the provincial election two years ago).

The mistakes were more personal – travel expenses and the use of government aircraft. It was entirely reasonable that she should fly to South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, with whom she had worked in the 1990s. But she should have paid attention to the cost of the trip. That $45,000 should have set off alarm bells. In the end, she reimbursed the treasury, but the damage was done.

She stood accused of being a wastrel with an overweening sense of entitlement. As we have seen with the Senate expense scandal, relatively small amounts can cause large damage: for Mike Duffy, it was $90,000; in Redford’s case that $45,000 left her vulnerable to attack by people who didn’t like her for other, less commendable reasons. She became the target of a nasty (and brutish) smear campaign.

Caucus members bitched about her leadership style. One MLA complained that Redford had a short temper and was not a “nice lady.” So the poor aggrieved fellow quit the caucus. Caucus members spread false tales that Redford had abused a member of her staff – an allegation that turned out to be without foundation.

The damage was done. Governments’ poll numbers often crater at the mid-point of their terms (as Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives could attest today) and Redford’s were no exception. Support for the Alberta PCs dropped to the 20 per cent range, Wildrose was re-energized, and, after 43 unbroken years in office, the Tories panicked.

In Ottawa, the federal Conservatives’ poll numbers aren’t all that much better these days, and, although there is anxiety, there is no panic. There is no sense that if they don’t push Harper off the Peace Tower right now, Justin Trudeau will become prime minister in October 2015. He may or may not win that election, but the Tories know time is on their side. Panic won’t help. They have time and the tools (lots of attack ads) to right the ship.

Alberta’s PCs have even more time, until spring 2016 before they have to face the electorate. When they do, it will be with a new leader – a male, surely. Ironically, they will be up against a Wildrose party under the leadership of, yes, a woman, Danielle Smith. Unless the old boys in Wildrose get to her first.



Political Action and Political Consequences: Are they Linked?

Christopher Alcantara raised a very important question, and an empirical one! Do group op-eds have an effect on political outcomes? The question is framed within the fields of public opinion and public policy. On the one hand, he is correct. Public opinion is not easily swayed by such communications. Op-eds, editorials, columns, and the media in general do not yield a strong influence on public opinion, other than to affect the priorities people attach to various issues. To paraphrase Cohen: the media doesn’t change how you think about an issue, but it can change what you think about).

Those with strongly formed opinions, the “partisans” among us, are especially resistant to media messages that contradict their views. And while there are members of the public who can be swayed, chances are, they are not reading such op-eds.

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On the other hand, the media has been shown to affect the policy agenda. Policy actors have been shown to respond to media attention to an issue, and sometimes, this media-policy dynamic is stronger than the public opinion-policy dynamic. The process is not simple and clean, however. Conditions that lead a media communication, such as an op-ed, to have any sort of influence over the policy agenda are varied: the framing of the op-ed, what is being primed, the issue domain, tone, placement, and so forth. These elements form part of the so-called “second level” agenda-setting research program, which looks at how a media communication, such as an op-ed, structures an argument, and how those structures can yield an affect.

So op-eds (or group-authored op-eds) hold some potential to affect the policy agenda. Here, we are talking about the media-policy nexus, and the media-policy nexus may have less to do with the psychological variables familiar to those who study public opinion. Instead, consider variables from the domain of group politics. Here are some:

  1. Group coherence. A group with factionally divided members will struggle to gain “respect” from state decision makers, and thus, demands from such a group can be safely ignored.
  2. Viable equilibrium point. Does the op-ed help the various stakeholders (both state actors and the broader policy community) move towards some equilibrium, i.e., a solution?
  3. Group organization. An op-ed may be just one tactic of a broader strategy or campaign. A group may have prepared a more elaborate and carefully considered campaign that includes other actions as well, and together, these may wield more weight.
  4. State actors’ openness. You can shout as loud and clear as you like, but at the end of the day, is there anybody listening? Groups that wish to influence the policy process need “access” to the key decision makers. State actors unwilling to give any a group a proper hearing effectively limit that group’s potential to influence policy.

This is not an exhaustive list of variables. But it does offer a way to begin a more systematic examination of the potential of media items such as op-eds. Maybe they are completely useless. Or maybe they can grab the attention of implicated state actors within a particular policy community, who then, for whatever reason, respond to the “challenging group” (to use Bill Gamson’s words).

In sum, the potential ability of an op-ed to influence policy decisions would have to be examined in light of what we know about the public policy process. It’s not a straight-forward communication-influence dynamic. It is heavily context dependent.

Marois May Benefit from Tonight’s Debate in Quebec

It’s obvious the Parti Québécois has been shaken off message in the current provincial campaign. Recent polls from CROP and Ipsos show the PQ, which walked into the campaign with enough support to secure a majority, now lags behind the Liberals. The Liberal party has momentum, the PQ doesn’t, and the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec appears to be draining voters away, to the benefit of the Liberals, while some bleeding appears to be happening from the PQ to the Québec Solidaire (which has a far less ambiguous position on sovereignty).

All these dynamics will come to a temporary standstill tonight as the party leaders face off in a televised debate. As usual, many believe the debate will be the “defining moment” of the campaign. I have noted in more than one occasion how televised debates rarely force a drastic change in the course of a campaign, with recent polling data from Leger confirming how the debate may not really matter much. Only 15 percent of voters plan to use the debate to help reach a vote decision. A good 40 percent will make their decision a couple of days before the April 7 election, suggesting tonight’s debate is just a single event in a much broader array of campaign activities.

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Tonight’s debate, then, might not matter a whole lot. Except for one little thing. Debates tend to raise and improve the profile of all participants. They get a lot of exposure on an unfiltered stage. Leaders can articulate and elaborate on policy positions and views, something they cannot easily accomplish with the “sound-bite” preoccupation of conventional media. Also, party leaders tend to perform rather well. They are successful politicians, having emerged to the top of their organizations. So they carry themselves reasonably well. Very rarely has a political leader screwed up badly in a debate. And even when that does happen, it may not matter (much) to the election outcome. In any case, leaders who are trailing behind can play catch up in a televised debate. Here, PQ Leader Pauline Marois may stand to gain. It is not to say that her campaign missteps will be instantly forgiven as if emerging from a confessional, but the televised debate may make her seem not as clumsy. It may give her a chance to clear the air on some issues that have dogged her, like her views on a possible future referendum (assuming such this controversy can be clarified). If her performance is superbly polished, it may boost her spirits, and, more importantly, get other PQ voters more energized. A strong performance may not necessarily convert a lot of voters, but it may get PQ supporters to the polls on election day.

On the other hand, in the unlikely event that she totally bombs, her already struggling campaign will continue to fail. It may or may not necessarily exacerbate the distance between the PQ or the Liberal, but a bad performance from Marois will certainly not help constrain the Liberal momentum.

Professors, Elections Canada, and the Harper Government: Do Group Op-Eds Matter?

Early last week, the National Post ran a letter drafted by a small group of Canadian university professors (you can tell who the original letter writers by the order. Just look at where the alphabetized list starts and any names above it were the main writers), and signed (and edited) by a larger number of professors (including some of the most distinguished, senior, and smartest academic minds in Canada).

Several days before the letter ran in the Post, a draft of the letter hit my desk asking for my signature. Ultimately, I didn’t sign for a number of reasons. The main reason I didn’t sign was that I didn’t agree with all of the contents in the letter. There are parts of the “Fair Elections” bill that I agree with, other parts that I didn’t, and other parts that I simply wasn’t sure about. The timeline for signing the letter was tight and didn’t really give me much time to think these issues through.

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Another reason why I didn’t sign was because, quite frankly, I’m not sure how effective these types of op eds are. If you have a chance, you should check out the comments left on the National Post page about the letter. To be succinct, they are nasty! There’s all sorts of anti-elitist rhetoric about professors being overpaid and narrow-minded (with some anonymous commentators regaling readers about their bad experiences at universities). Others claimed that professors are all Liberal-NDP supporters, or are at least ideologically aligned with those political parties. We are also experts with no real knowledge, apparently, who hide behind our PhDs and “peer review” to stifle dissent, etc.

To be fair, there were some defenders of professors (thank you!), remarking about the important expertise and knowledge that the profession have to offer. But the dominant discourse was negative.

In my view, it seems group letters bring out a certain amount of dissent towards the profession. Have a look at op-eds written by only one or two professors at a time; occasionally, you do see one or two anti-professor rants, but rarely very many. When we write these group letters, however, there seems to be many of these comments. So, do group-think letters actually help or hinder our ability to communicate with and affect public opinion and public policy?

In terms of public opinion, my sense is that these letters are not effective. Recent research suggests that most people have gut feelings about various issues or things, whether it be politics, religion or food, and then they search for justification for their gut reactions. (Frequently, I’ve been wondering whether the same phenomenon is at work in academic peer review?!) And so I think op-eds are built exactly for this type of behaviour. People don’t change their minds because of op-eds. They use them to feed their gut reactions.

How about public policy? Do these op-eds affect public policy? Well, I’m pretty sure Harper won’t be convinced by these types of letters but I do know that civil servants, including deputy ministers, scan op-ed pages for ideas. So maybe these letters will ultimately push civil servants to act in a way to thwart these reforms?

For me personally, I have yet to sign one of these group-think letters. Instead I’ve treated the op-eds that I write (and sign) as knowledge dissemination tools, trying to link current events either to my research, or the research of others.

But maybe I should have signed! I’ll guess we’ll see when the next letter gets circulated.

Canada’s aboriginal communities should explore digital currency

Published Mar. 15, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Recently, the news has been filled with stories about Bitcoin, a type of open-source digital currency that basically functions like money, but without any of the usual regulatory strings attached to regular currency.

Bitcoin is not managed by any government or central bank, but instead is controlled by all of its users in the marketplace. Much like regular money, the value of Bitcoin depends on a number of factors, including supply and demand, and the security of the currency and of the market.

Digital currency offers a number of important advantages. The primary one is that transactions occur directly between purchasers and sellers without having to go through a third party. As such, digital currency transactions are fast and cost substantially less in terms of processing charges and fees.

Recently, the Oglala Lakota Tribe in the United States became the first aboriginal group in North America to launch its own digital currency, the MazaCoin. Much like Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, MazaCoins can be owned by anyone and can be used to purchase goods and services from any person or business that is willing to accept MazaCoin as payment.

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Péladeau’s separatist talk bad for Marois

Published Mar. 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

It was last week when the cameras captured the tension between Pauline Marois, the Quebec premier and Parti Quebecois leader, and her star recruit, Pierre Karl Péladeau, in the April 7, provincial election.

Marois was at the lectern with the candidate by her side as she addressed the faithful at a routine campaign stop, when Péladeau tried to get to the microphone. Gently but firmly, Marois pushed him away – not once, but three times, or so it appears from the video.

The incident reminded me of the so-called “bum-patting” incident involving Liberal leader John Turner and party president Iona Campagnolo in the 1984 federal election. It became an instant sensation, sending a message that Turner, coming out of political retirement was an old-school pol who had yet to master the new political correctness.

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Last week’s pushback between Marois and Péladeau also sent a message. The message: there is trouble ahead in PQ-Land.

Marois supporters face the dilemma of trying to accommodate the ego, ambitions and distractions of the man they call PKP. Can they maintain control of their election campaign? Marois wants to talk about the economy. Péladeau wants to talk about sovereignty, and his voice may louder than hers.

She wants to position the PQ in the left-centre, preserving the party’s traditional labour support. He wants to move it sharply to the right. He is a media giant in Quebec. From his father Pierre, he inherited control of Quebecor, which controls about 40 per cent of the media in Quebec (newspapers, television, cable and wireless) plus the Sun newspaper chain and Sun TV in English Canada. He has established a reputation as a union-buster; organized labour ranks Quebecor among the province’s worst employers.

A man of, shall we say, flexible principle, PKP is in it for himself. As his father before him, he can be a federalist when it is in his business interest to be one. And he can be a separatist when that suits his personal ambition. Let’s face it, he is not in it just to become the member for Saint-Jerome in the National Assembly or even a senior minister in a Marois cabinet.

Péladeau is used to running things. He thinks he sees a chance to take over from Pauline Who and become premier, on the way to making himself the first president of an independent Quebec. If Marois had not brought this misery down on her own head by recruiting the media magnate, one could almost have felt sorry for her as she stood at the microphone insisting that the PQ has only one leader, that leader is her, and she intends to win in April and be premier for a full four-year term. Good luck to her.

The worst thing a political party can do in an election is to send mixed messages to voters.  Marois, who is better at reading opinion polls than Péladeau, says the issue in the election must be the economy, creating jobs for Quebecers. While Péladeau talks about making Quebec a country, Marois talks about winning a majority. On her watch there would be no referendum on  sovereignty until conditions are favourable – meaning not until she is confident she could win it – and that would not happen until after there had been a softening-up process with a white paper and plenty of public discussion.

Viewed from a distance, Marois in election mode looks tougher than she had appeared to be earlier, but she is up against a corporate titan who is used to getting his own way, a man who projects both impatience and arrogance, a man who has little of the charisma of former PQ leaders (and premiers) René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard.

He would, in effect, turn the provincial election in to a referendum on sovereignty. That would raise the stakes for everyone, not least Premier Marois and PKP himself.

A Ranked-Ballot System for Toronto Municipal Elections: A Guest Post from Dr. Robert Williams

The following guest blog contribution is from Dr. Robert J. Williams, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, University of Waterloo.

What a concept: the possibility that the practice of electing representatives in a first-past-the–post election could be changed in the Province of Ontario. The last time we ventured into these waters, electoral reform was floated on recommendations from a Committee of the Legislature, followed by an elaborate public consultation experiment (the Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform) and a referendum associated with the 2007 provincial election. Once the contentious proposal for a Mixed Member Proportional system was soundly defeated, the good ship “Democratic Renewal” apparently sank without a trace.

Seemingly out of the blue, though, a more modest “Democratic Renewal II” has appeared on the horizon as two initiatives were introduced in the Ontario Legislature on successive days in late February 2014 that would permit the adoption of alternative voting arrangements. But before advocates for fairer elections in Ontario get too excited, notice that the recently floated ideas would involve the Legislature applying the power to experiment to somebody else’s elections (not their own) and, indeed, in only one place at this point, the City of Toronto.

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Ranked ballot

An example of a “ranked” ballot, where voters are given the option of rank-ordering their preferences.

On February 25, New Democratic Party MPP Jonah Schein (Davenport) introduced Bill 163, “An Act to amend the Municipal Elections Act, to allow the City of Toronto to adopt an alternative voting system” based on a motion adopted by Toronto City Council in June 2013. The Bill would give the City of Toronto legislative authority “to determine how its representatives are elected” without limiting what the replacement system might be.

On February 26, Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter (Scarborough–Guildwood) who is also Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Minister of Community and Social Services, introduced Bill 166, “An Act to amend the City of Toronto Act, to allow the City of Toronto to pass a ranked ballot by-law for city council elections.” The Bill provides for two unusual features: the Lieutenant Governor in Council (that is, the Cabinet) “may prescribe public consultation requirements that city council must meet before voting on a ranked ballot by-law” and, contrary to most other municipal by-laws, the Lieutenant Governor in Council must also give explicit approval to the by-law.

The fact that the initiatives are coming through Private Member’s Bills and not as a Government Bill speaks to the low priority attached to electoral reform in Ontario by the present Ontario government and misgivings over the merits of such reform, as well as the partisan dynamics at Queen’s Park. Through a quirk of the legislative procedures at Queen’s Park, Bill 166 was placed on the Order Paper ahead of Bill 163 and, on March 6, it was given Second Reading approval after debate and was referred to the Standing Committee on Social Policy to await consideration – in the event that the House does not implode over the next few weeks.

Whatever the back story may be behind the initiatives (and there are many commentaries to be found across the Web related to an activist campaign promoting the modification of Toronto’s electoral arrangements; see, for example, http://www.123toronto.ca/main.htm) and the curious arrival of these two separate initiatives on the Legislature’s order paper on subsequent sitting days, an initial examination of a ranked ballot system is valuable.

First of all, the contents of Bills 163 and 166 were extracted from a larger list of possible reform initiatives that had been placed before Toronto City Council in 2013. A staff report prepared in April, in response to requests from Councillors and others, addressed four ideas: holding elections on a Saturday or Sunday; allowing permanent residents the right to vote; using ranked choice voting; and providing internet voting for voters with disabilities. One theme connecting these various matters is that they would contribute to “modernizing” municipal elections. The first three require amendments to the Municipal Elections Act while the fourth was deemed to require further study (see here).

Council endorsed a string of nine requests to the Province and its own staff in support of electoral reform, the first of which was to request the Province “to amend the Municipal Elections Act to authorize the use and establish the framework of Ranked Choice Voting to permit Toronto City Council to use ranked ballots and instant runoff voting in municipal elections.”

A serious limitation of Bill 166, however, is the focus only on the ranked ballot idea. As the April staff report astutely noted: “a review of the entire election framework and process should be undertaken. Piecemeal changes to election law can render unintended consequences and leave municipalities to uncover how they should be implemented and administered, thereby affecting the integrity of the election and increasing election administration costs.” In other words, the passage of Bill 166 would appear to place the burden of the entire experiment (financial and otherwise) on Toronto’s shoulders alone. No wonder this is not a Government initiative.

The second observation is the abrupt disconnect between the lofty goal of “strengthening local democracy” espoused by supporters of the ranked ballot initiative and the application of such an arrangement in a municipal context in Ontario, let alone in the unique Toronto situation.

Many of those who spoke in support of the Bill on March 6 were captivated by the prospect that this change would bring.

Mitzie Hunter herself contended, “A ranked ballot election system would eliminate vote splitting and prevent candidates from dropping off the ballot due to poor polling numbers or to promote strategic voting. A ranked ballot would deter negative campaigning, fostering a more positive tone for elections in Toronto.”  Jonah Schein asserted that a ranked ballot voting system could “begin to transform the political culture in Toronto” and “would ensure majority support for winning candidates.” John Gerretsen, the Attorney-General and former mayor of Kingston, also spoke in favour: “I think that this is a very reasonable way, a very straightforward way in which we can at least be assured … that the person we [elect] has the majority support in that community. It may not be the first support that they give to somebody, but at least, at the end of the day, that person will have the support, at some level, of 50% or more of the people.”

Evidence that such heartening results have actually been achieved in ranked ballot elections at the municipal level was not presented in the debate.

The April 2013 staff report, in fact, noted some very important practical complications that would need to be addressed if a municipal election operated with a ranked ballot, none of which were mentioned in the March 6 Second Reading debate. For example,

  • Each elector in a municipal election is presented with a composite ballot to complete; that is, the ballot entitles the elector at minimum to vote, in Toronto, for a Head of Council (the Mayor), a municipal councillor and a school board trustee. In a two-tier municipality the list would be longer. Candidates may be identified with certain viewpoints or catchphrases but none wears a team jersey, so to speak. In contrast, federal and provincial voters are normally given one ballot to mark for one office with partisan labels attached to the various candidates.
  • How many preferences is an elector expected to mark on a ballot? Presumably, electors will not be required to submit a fully ranked ballot (which could not be policed in any case), but can the system work as its proponents anticipate if, say, electors only mark two or three choices?  In only 13 of the 44 wards in 2010 were there five or fewer candidates and 11 wards there were nine or more candidates. Will enough electors take the time and effort to prepare themselves to cast ranked ballots that will make a consequential difference in establishing the winner in a significant number of contests?
  • Counting ranked ballots would require new technology to count – and presumably redistribute – ballots, plus more (and more highly-trained) staff to research, plan, implement and audit the process. The determination of winners may not also be as rapid and clear-cut as it is in a first-past-the–post election. Will a complex voting count mesh well with an impatient news cycle?
  • Implementing a revised electoral system in a diverse city like Toronto would require an extensive voter education campaign over a number of years and a number of elections. Voter turnout in the simple first-past-the-post system is low; will a potentially more complicated system see an immediate upswing in participation?

All of these concerns can probably be addressed, but not without cost and some degree of disorder. Is the price worth paying?

A third concern is the wisdom of trying such an experiment in Toronto, the municipality with the largest (and arguably most diverse) electorate in Canada. Obviously Toronto’s experiences have often been a vanguard for municipal reform and innovation in Ontario, but the sheer scale of the electoral enterprise in Toronto adds colossal complications to the implementation of whatever new system might be adopted. This includes staffing, education and logistics: in 2010 the municipal electorate was 1.6 million people and there were 84 elective offices to fill, 44 wards (at present), 220 different ballot types, over 10,00 voting place staff, 140 designated neighbourhoods and dozens of spoken languages. To paraphrase a well know song lyric, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” – but is this really the logical place to conduct a tryout?

Further to the question of scale, both Mitzie Hunter and Jacob Schein praised a ranked ballot system for providing “more choices” to voters and for encouraging more people to run. However, “less choice” was hardly a problem in 2010 – there were some 476 candidates vying for 84 offices across the City in that election, 40 of them for the office of Mayor alone. Each elector was required to sort out which one candidate to vote for on three separate ballots; what will it take to develop ranked preferences for three separate offices among three, six, ten or – in the case of Mayor – 40 candidates? How much better will local democracy be if there are even more choices actually presented?

It seems to me to be unrealistic to expect that a significant proportion of Toronto’s electorate will make the required investment in education or research to participate responsibly in a ranked ballot election with six or more candidates (let alone 40!). I do not see how this additional level of preparation will improve civic democracy when the level of voter turnout is already distressingly low.

The Second Reading debate on Bill 166 clearly reflected the partisanship in the present Legislature but also some confusion, as well as legitimate reservations, about the implications of a “ranked ballot.” Proponents saw it as “a simple measure” that would strengthen local democracy. Opponents spoke of the additional complexity and the possibility that the “winner” (the candidate who was the first choice of most people) might not win. Like most legislative debates on Private Member’s Bills, it was not deep or discerning.

Should the present Ontario Parliament survive beyond the next budget, Bill 166 should surface again at the Standing Committee on Social Policy where the ranked ballot initiative would presumably be open to broad consultation. Even if the Bill were eventually passed (and that is not a sure thing), the question would not be settled because the legislation simply authorizes Toronto City Council to make such a change and only after a Provincially-approved public engagement process. Only if there is support at Toronto City Council level – at some indeterminate time in the future – will the specific details of a system be developed, analyzed and debated and even more time (years?) will be needed to implement it effectively in a municipal election.

There are plenty of obstacles to navigate if the good ship Democratic Renewal II is ever to land its cargo of a ranked ballot system. For that matter, it is not even clear that it is carrying cargo that will be worth bringing ashore.

Dr. Alcantara on CBC News: LRT Debate Could Boost Voter Turnout in Waterloo Region

Broadcasted February 10, 2014, on CBC News.

Lack of incumbents, lack of political parties, and lack of knowledge about platforms can create confusion about who to vote for. Dr. Christopher Alcantara suggests that not knowing who to vote for can reduce voter turnout.  Can the use of media and internet tools increase voter turnout? Find out what Dr. Alcantara has to say by watching the video here.