Last October, Quebec’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government introduced its promised electoral reform legislation, Bill 39, and in February the National Assembly’s Commission on Institutions held public hearings on the bill. In its brief, the Mouvement Démocratie Nouvelle (MDN), the pro-reform lobby that has long campaigned for electoral reform, complimented the government for living up to its commitment. However, it expressed disappointment with some important aspects of the proposed law.

Bill 39 sets out a version of a mixed compensatory electoral system for Quebec, based on the regional version used in Scotland, known as mixed-member proportional or MMP. In a mixed compensatory system, the territory is divided into electoral regions, each comprising a certain number of electoral districts. Consider a region which currently has 10 seats: under a mixed compensatory system there would be six districts and four compensatory seats. Each voter casts two votes: one for a party and one for a district candidate. If a given party wins 30 per cent of the party votes in the region, it is entitled to a total of three seats. If its candidate came first in two of the district seats, the person at the top of its regional list would be allocated one of the four compensatory seats.

The same proportional principle would apply to all parties – in practice there are complications in the allocation of seats that are resolved through what is called the d’Hondt method after the 19th-century Belgian mathematician who described it. Other things being equal, a party would need roughly 7.5 per cent of the vote to be allocated a list seat. Moreover, an element of disproportionality is built in. For example, party “A” could win all six districts with 50 per cent of the regional party vote – an infrequent but by no means unheard of eventuality. In that case, party “A” would be overrepresented by one seat, and one too few list seats would be left to fully compensate the other parties.

In Quebec, the proposal endorsed in principle by all the opposition parties, including the CAQ before it won the 2018 election, included keeping the number of members of the National Assembly (MNAs) constant at 125, creating 80 district seats (more or less based on the boundaries of the federal constituencies in Quebec) and 45 compensatory regional ones. Unlike in Scotland, the regions would differ in number of MNAs to reflect the dispersion of the population. It was accepted as inevitable that because the far-flung regions would have few seats to use for compensatory purposes, overall proportionality would be reduced. This left one issue unresolved: by keeping the total number at 125, the extra seats needed to make compensation possible in the least populated regions would result in an even larger average number of voters per MNA in the more densely populated regions, especially Montreal.

Originally, the CAQ did not intend to require approval of the proposal in a referendum, but it changed its mind and has planned a referendum to coincide with the 2022 Quebec election – in good part because many of its MNAs wanted to be certain that the reform would not be implemented in time for that election. While this was disappointing, given that in referendum campaigns in other provinces opponents raised exaggerated fears that led to the reform being rejected, supporters of a mixed compensatory system tacitly agreed to this concession as the price of getting any change through the CAQ caucus.

More disappointing were Bill 39’s two major amendments to the original concept. The first and craftiest is what is being called a prime au vainqueur – a bonus for the party that comes in first in each region. This is done by using only half of the district seats won in the calculation of compensation, and thus reducing the proportionality of the outcome. While this is rather complicated to explain (and thus to defend), we can illustrate it using the previous example. The CAQ formula would have party “A”’s six district seats treated as if they were only three. In applying the d’Hondt formula, its 50 per cent would then entitle it to one of the four list seats, giving it 70 per cent of the seats, and leaving only three seats, or 30 per cent, for the remaining parties that shared the other 50 per cent of the vote.

A second and equally important change was the decision to set the threshold of overall popular support needed by a party to benefit from the compensatory seats at 10 per cent, rather than the standard for proportional systems of 2 to 5 per cent. Since no country except Turkey, hardly a model of democracy, uses such a high threshold, we have good reason to expect the government to concede on this measure. Apparently, not having found any support for its prime aux vainqueur, it may drop this provision as well.

As a longtime student of proportional systems and advocate of electoral reform, I presented my own brief. In it I argued for elimination of the rule that would allow a candidate to run only in a district or on a party list, but not both. Apart from the advantage of recruiting stronger candidates, I referred to experience in Germany in particular where legislators elected from a list typically saw their role as being available to people in the districts in which they (unsuccessfully) ran. This made it possible for German voters who supported a party other than that of the candidate who won in their district to contact the office of a member from their preferred party for information or assistance.

To respond to fears raised of proportional systems leading to governmental instability, the MDN brief showed this is not the case where systems like the mixed compensatory one proposed are used. The brief also suggested that the reform include the provision used in Germany known as the constructive vote of no confidence, which requires efforts to bring down the government to take the form of a vote of confidence in an alternative one.

It remains to be seen what will happen with the proposed amendments. The Liberals, at this writing, remain opposed to the reform as such. In the last election, as several times in the past, the Liberals received too few votes in francophone regions to win more than a handful of seats there and wasted many votes in the anglophone and allophone districts in and around Montreal. It may be that the new Liberal leader, Dominique Anglade (see Eric Montigny’s article on page 97 in this issue), a child of Haitian immigrants who is especially sensitive to this ghettoization of her party in multicultural Montreal, is open to discussion on this issue.

Conversely, the CAQ found itself in power without any representation in the anglophone and allophone districts. Not only did they waste the votes they were able to win there, but they had no incentive to invest scarce resources in appealing to this electorate.

Adopting the mixed compensatory system would lessen this territory-based divide. The differences between Quebec’s communities are real; the last thing we need is an electoral system that exacerbates them. Yet the pandemic has put electoral reform, like much else, on hold. The MDN is redoubling efforts to make sure that the government’s inaugural address at the start of the fall session of the National Assembly will confirm its commitment to passing Bill 39.