Democracy, Political Institutions, and Trust: The Limits of Current Electoral Reform Proposals

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Abstract: A variety of electoral reforms have been proposed to reduce the perceived "democratic deficit" in Canada. Among the most prominent are recall and referenda, based in neo-populist notions of direct democracy, and proportional representation and electoral spending limits, originating in representative notions of democracy. This paper examines the extent of public support in Alberta for these electoral reform initiatives and inquires into the relationship between such support, trust in government, and assessments of the health of democracy in the province. We find a stronger link between trust and assessments of the health of democracy than between support for institutional reforms and such assessments. This suggests programs and policies that enhance trust in government are more capable of reducing the distance between government and citizens than proposed reforms frequently recommended by members of the "political community." In particular, programs and policies that render politics more transparent and that disperse political decision-making seem to have the most promise for overcoming the deficit. Overall, the data suggest widespread public support for changes that will enhance democratic practices, a policy opportunity which should riot be ignored.

Resume: On a propose, pour remedier au " deficit democratique " percu au Canada, une serie de reformes electorales. Parmi celles frequemment suggerees, figurent les referendums et la revocation, inspires par des notions neopopulistes de democratie directe, ainsi que la representation proportionnelle et les limites aux depenses electorales, liees au souci d'une democratie representative. Le present article mesure jusqu'a quel point la population albertaine soutient ces initiatives de reforme electorale. Il explore aussi le rapport entre ce soutien, la confiance accordee an gouvernement et des evaluations de la vitalite de la democratie dans la province. La conclusion est qu'il existe une correlation plus etroite entre la confiance et la vitalite mesuree de la democratie qu'entre cette vitalite et le soutien aux reformes institutionnelles. Apparemment, pour reduire la distance entre le gouvernement et les citoyens, des programmes et politiques ameliorant la confiance accordee au gouvernement valent mieux que les reformes frequemment recommandees par les membres du milieu politique. En outre, parmi ces programmes et politiques, ceux ameliorant la transparence des politiques et repartissant la prise de decision politique semblent particulierement aptes a remedier au deficit. Dans l'ensemble, les donnees suggerent qu'il existe dans la population un soutien generalise pour des changements permettant d'ameliorer la pratique de la democratie, etat d'esprit que les politiques devraient exploiter.


There is growing discontent with the current state of democracy in many western industrialized countries (Klingemann and Fuchs, 1995; Sandel, 1996; Pharr and Putnam, 2000). These concerns are echoed in Canada where academics, media commentators, and politicians have discussed the growing "democratic deficit" or--as the Law Commission of Canada (2002) describes it--the "democratic malaise." Using stronger language, Tanguay (1999: 325-26) refers to the "sickly condition of Canadian democracy" and suggests "it has been exhibiting a number of morbid symptoms for some time." Such concerns were being widely debated before the June 2004 federal election. The outcome--a minority Liberal government with severely reduced representation in Quebec and very limited representation in the western provinces--has led to increased discussion of the phenomenon.

Symptoms of the problems of democracy include declining voter turnout (Gray and Caul, 2000; Eagles, 1999), (1) disinterest in politics by youth (Adsett, 2003), cross-national data showing declining confidence in political systems and leadership (Pharr et al., 2000), and decreasing participation in civic affairs generally (Saul, 1995; Putnam, 2000). …