Friday, 27 February 2009

House of Commons Online Voting Records – The Back Story

I would like to thank The Enlightened Savage for drawing my attention to this article from Canwest News Service.

Unfortunately there is some missing and misleading information in the article which states:

OTTAWA - The House of Commons is developing a system to put every MP’s voting record on the web, shining light for the first time on information that has long been buried deep within House of Commons records.

While voting records of elected officials in other countries are often easily accessible, the House of Commons currently provides no comprehensive records of how MPs vote on bills and motions in Parliament.

The information can only be found by searching through thousands of pages of Hansard, the official record of the House of Commons debates, and extracting the listings for results of each individual vote, a process that would be extremely time-consuming.
What is true about the article is that there is not yet a user friendly online way to directly access House of Commons voting records. However, for at least ten years, an automated voting records system has been in place and MPs voting records have been provided on request. The system, which certainly has it's faults, has been developed and improved over the years but cannot be accessed directly by users. The main clients of the service have been Members of Parliament's offices and the media, so it is surprising that the Canwest article ignored this fact.

And even before this, the results of every vote were readily available in the Journals of the House of Commons, though not in a database format.

But what is most important is the question of the usefulness of such a system and the type of information it should provide.

We first of all have to acknowledge the very strong party system in Canadian federal politics and the House of Commons. Well over 90 per cent of the time MPs are going to vote with their parties. So if you want to get useful information from a voting records system you need to be able to track how the parties voted and identify the anomalies when MPs did not vote with their parties.

If I was designing the system, as well as having the ability to generate individual Members of Parliament's voting records, I would also design it to be able to automatically generate the following information. There are probably other standard things to track that could be added to this list.
- percentage of votes won by the government

- percentage of times each party voted with the government

- MPs that voted against their own party, and the votes where they did

- comparisons by party of MPs voting against their party by percentage

-ability to track votes by subject

-ability to track the rare occasions when a vote is declared a “free vote”
There is a whole other factor that comes into play as well – the fact that huge numbers of votes on amendments, particularly at report stage, can skew the statistical results. It would be useful to be able to exclude these votes from the results on certain occasions and just analyze the results for the main votes on each stage of bills and motions..

The system should also provide the ability for users to write their own queries.

We can only hope that this online voting records system will be comprehensive enough to be useful and provide more information than could simply be determined by knowing which party each Member of Parliament belongs to.

The most important factor in such a system, though, will be the users knowledge and understanding of the Parliamentary system and ability to actually understand what the results of a query on of the system actually means.

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