proportional representation by age

I was vacationing in Lisbon while Ontario was electing Doug Ford.  Because of the time difference, I couldn’t stay awake for final results.

In the morning I suffered the usual post-election hangover.  The difference between the popular vote and the seat count was great enough for the losing side to talk about proportional representation.

Indeed, had the seat count reflected the vote count, Ford would be trying to lead a minority government, which might have been interesting.  He would be forced to thread his tangled, knotty agenda through the eye of a needle, with the NDP and Liberals poised to tell him every time he missed the target.  Minority governments require dexterity of every leader, but for a ham-handed bombast like Ford, this would prove a special challenge.

Proportional representation is always proposed as a means of closing the gap between the vote count and the seat count and of reducing the power of any single party that doesn’t have overwhelming support.  It works by adding another layer of choice to an utterly simple ballot.  This works as a cofactor in the final determination of who wins power and how much power they win.

It sounds complicated, but it’s not.  Many parts of the world consider it normal to allow for the possibility of winning some but not all of the legislative power in the way our first-past-the-post system allows.

The most straightforward way this works is to have a voter signify their second choice as well as their first choice when marking their ballot.  Of course, second choices count for less than first choices, but as long as they count for something, the real mood of the electorate is more accurately reflected.

However, the cofactors suggested for rebalancing first-past-the-post election results tend to focus on the candidates or on the jurisdiction, not on the individual voter.  The debate is always about whether or not the right balance has been achieved between party and regional interests.

The regional focus is understandable.  Look at the electoral map of southern Ontario, and you’ll see an orange NDP City of Toronto huddled by the shore of Lake Ontario, hemmed in on all sides by blue Tory suburban and rural ridings.  That kind of segregation makes it difficult for anyone to lead, especially where cooperation is required between the City and the Province. toronto electoral map

The Ontario election suggests a different way of weighting votes which might have softened the edges of that division and yielded a more representative legislature at Queen’s Park.  It was the first election in which eligible millennial voters outnumbered boomers.

The age of a voter makes a difference, in my view.  The decisions of government have long lasting effects on the economy, the environment, education, and public health.  The people who inherit the enduring effects of a government are disproportionately young, yet they have no greater influence than the old, who won’t be around to suffer the consequences of bad decisions.

Actually, those with the greatest stake in the intergenerational outcomes are those middle-aged family leaders who are whipsawed between the demands of child care and elder care and who bear the greatest share of the economic burden at the peak of their earning years.  They care about those who went before them and those that come behind.

That is an extremely valuable perspective that politicians should adopt.  Maybe their votes should count for more than those in the age cohorts above and below them.

At the fringes of the bell curve of voter weightings could be the newly eligible voter and those nearing the end of their voting lives.  One lacks experience in the process and the other has already exerted generational control over the government’s direction.  Those in the middle, by age and income, offer the best balance of perspective.  Not only do the care about the well being of young and old, they actually provide care for them, directly and through taxes.

My own son and daughter might dispute this, offering as evidence a world in which previous generations have degraded the environment, incurred massive debts, priced housing out their reach, while giving themselves universal social benefits that were neither needed nor affordable.

I have no answer for this except to say that it occurred while I was still a student.  My generation’s failure to reverse these economic and environmental trends is culpable, it’s true, but not causal.  Just as their voice is muted by an imprecise democracy, mine was too.

Before anyone reduces this to absurdity by talking about the principle of one man, one vote, we should remind ourselves that some blocks of voters have already become more powerful in pursuit of their interests.  Post-retirement voters were always important because they had leisure time for political agitation and have served as the conscience of government at critical points in history.  However, life expectancies have increased by decades over the history of Canadian democracy, making this a much bigger and more influential group than it used to be.  Combine that increase with the increased concentration of wealth over a life span, and the case can be made that the influence of age is already unbalanced in our political system.

Is it any surprise that the senate and house in Ottawa tend to resemble a skewed age distribution, relative to the general population of eligible voters?  There is more grey hair in our provincial legislatures across the country than on a weekday in a shopping mall.

It’s a threatening idea, given the purity of the democratic ideal, magically handed down to us from the Greeks via the Brits two hundred years ago.  But it was never that pure.  It was always privileged.

And that’s the point of proportional representation: to mute the overrepresented and give voice to the unheard.  Party and regional balance seems less important to me than the long-life consequences of political outcomes, and I think everything will change when the people who are affected the most are empowered to vote with the greatest effect.

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