How to start this post. Writing about voting and representation isn’t easy, especially during an election. But this election in particular has me thinking about our options and how we get this right in the future.
I’m not talking about the presidential election in the U.S., which is over a year away but already consumes pretty well everything of consequence in that country, not to mention unimaginable amounts of money. Unimaginable amounts. I’m talking about the election Canada is in the middle of right now, a simple 6-week election period. An election cycle similar to most representative democracies around the world, and very similar to other countries that use some form of the British parliamentary system of government.
One person, one vote. Not too much concern about voter suppression; in fact, I’ve never heard it mentioned. And at the citizenship ceremony I attended this past week, held 13 days before our election day of October 21, a representative of Elections Canada actually gave a welcome address to the new Canadians and told them what they should do so that they can exercise their new right to vote immediately. How good is that? So what’s the issue?
In Canada we use a voting system called first past the post (FPTP), as do the UK, India, the U.S. in some instances, and some others. It is about as simple as it gets. You get a ballot with the names of everyone running for the office for which you are voting, in our case at the moment the MP (Member of Parliament) for our riding (called districts in the U.S., I think). In Canada, all you do is mark an X next to the candidate of your choice, after which they all get counted and the candidate who wins the most votes in the riding – the plurality – becomes your MP. You are only voting for your MP, not for the Prime Minister. The leader of the party who gains the most MPs (the most seats) is the person who becomes the Prime Minister, if that party wins a majority of the seats.
If no party wins a majority of the seats, which is what seems very likely to be the case for us at the conclusion of voting in a week’s time, then that’s another story! Of course, if you only have two parties, that can’t happen, but I’m not sure that there’s another country aside from the U.S. that falls in that category. For the rest of us, the parties closest to having a majority try to build support from other minority parties to form a government. To be honest, although the major parties don’t like it this kind of government can be in the best interests of the citizens, because the parties actually have to work together and build consensus in order for anything to happen. Imagine!
So far I’ve used up a lot of words to explain what most of you already knew, but I thought it would be useful to let any American readers in on how things work elsewhere. An issue of increasing concern to many Canadians, and one that many, many people thought was going to be tackled by the current Trudeau government, is electoral reform. Unfortunately for our Prime Minister, his oft repeated words in the 2015 campaign that “this would be the last election that uses First Past The Post” have come back to haunt him. The new government did undertake a House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform that held consultations throughout the country. They apparently concluded that it simply was not popular enough to push through and dropped it. “There was no consensus.”
To be clear, electoral reform is shorthand for moving from our first-past-the-post system of voting to one of proportional representation. There are several forms of proportional representation, which are used in all countries across Europe except for the UK, as well as most other democracies. In a proportional representation system, every vote is meant to count. If a political party wins 35% of the vote, the party will be represented in Parliament by approximately 35% of the seats. If a party wins 10% of the vote, the party will be represented in Parliament by 10% of the seats. Wouldn’t that be something!
We’ll never know just how unpopular or controversial it really was. There is no doubt that it is difficult to create a proportional representation model that will satisfy everyone. And it is difficult to develop a model that is straightforward to explain, especially when what we’re doing now is about as straightforward as it gets. It’s straightforward, but is it as fair as it could be? It’s also easy to understand that the two major parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, would pretty well have nothing to gain and everything to lose by changing the current system. So surely, it has to depend to some extent on who attended the Commission consultations and who had the loudest voices.
The underlying issue is one of fairness and true representation. In Canada we currently have 5 Parties that have traction with some percentage of the population, plus a few others with very little traction and a few independents. Here are some of the concerns:
- In ridings that heavily favour one party, the other voters feel – with some justification – that they have no vote. If 70% of your riding always votes Conservative – or Liberal or NDP, say – then why go vote when you’d vote for another candidate? Why bother? You’re effectively disenfranchised.
- In trying to read the tea leaves of how the votes are falling across the country and in order to try to keep your riding from helping the major party you least want to form government, you hold your nose and vote “strategically” for the major party you’d be less upset about forming government, even though you’d really rather be voting for another candidate and his or her platform.
- Because in Canada we have three viable progressive parties and because there is some discontent with the major party among those, the progressive vote ends up being split between two or three of those parties and the candidate for the major non-progressive party comes sliding up the middle of the split. As a hypothetical example, and there are MANY ridings in similar situations this election cycle, let’s take: Conservatives – 31%, Liberals – 30%, Greens – 20%, NDP – 19%. In this very realistic scenario, the riding ends up represented by a Conservative MP, helping increase the number of Conservatives in the House and therefore the possibility of a Conservative government, even though 69% of the voters in that riding voted for progressive agendas.
Needless to say, this inequity works to the advantage of both major parties over so-called third parties, because it dissuades voters from choosing a third party that really has something to offer. Think about it; whichever of the two major parties gets the most votes and forms government this year, they aren’t likely to have received more than 35% of the national vote.
Voters are becoming increasingly frustrated by this reality, which is perpetuating a system that doesn’t give voters the voice they deserve and results they wish. It’s time for this to change. It’s time for all votes to count. It’s time for Canada to endorse a path forward for proportional representation.