Elections, democracy, and doing it right

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.

Example of how your vote counts for much less than it should in FPTP system. Countries that have moved to forms of proportional representation have very different outcomes.  Image credit: Fair Vote Canada

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.

Image credit: unpublishedottawa.com


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16 Responses to Elections, democracy, and doing it right

  1. Excellent description of ‘first past the post’ and its consequences and alternatives. Why Justin championed electoral reform in 2015 when as a Liberal he clearly had to understand all you’ve said here, is beyond me. He could have kept his mouth shut and appeared less unscrupulous. Ah, politics.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent description of our system, thanks.


  3. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    Excellent description of our voting system and how it could be better.


  4. Indeed. Unimaginable amounts!

    This was really a helpful explanation of the election there. We’re so damn dominant here about ourselves that the network news rarely covers Canada (there’s barely a mention of Brexit, I’m noticing also). So thank G-d for the internet! – Marty


    • Jane Fritz says:

      You’re right, Marty. Canada very rarely makes the news in the U.S. for any reason whatsoever, unless some terrible calamity befalls us or if we get blamed for a winter cold front. And even then it’s pretty short-lived coverage. The current U.S. “administration” (as opposed to the large, beautiful, diverse country) consumes so much oxygen these days that the “news” being tweeted each day can hardly all be covered. But it’s too bad you’re missing out on the Brexit saga; it’s quite incredible in its own right. Glad you’re taking advantage of the Internet. Meanwhile, let’s hope that before too terribly long in all three countries citizens find themselves closer to having each vote count!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. barryh says:

    We have exactly the same problem in UK, and the two major parties have no incentive to change a system that works in their interest. Sadly, a referendum on the issue was screwed up a few years ago by a badly worded proposal that was rubbished by the lead party of the then coalition. PR is common across Europe. FPTP is a way for the established conservatives (small c) to have the best chance of staying in power.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You are so right. As more and more people become disenchanted with the self-serving nature of this arrangement, and as more people become disenchanted with the increasingly top-down approach of the governing leaders in both our countries (and the U.S.), hopefully the electorate will say enough is enough. Let’s bring back democracy, both in voting and in governing!


  6. iidorun says:

    Hello Jane! Just getting to reading this – I really appreciate the lesson on Canadian government. I honestly didn’t realize how it differed from the USA’s political system (we are too self focused to teach about how other governments work 🙄). I don’t think there is an easy solution. We are dealing with extreme gerrymandering here and like you said, the system works for those who are in power so there isn’t an incentive to change it for the purposes of fairness and equality.


    • Jane Fritz says:

      Sigh. Surely the only reason it’s so hard to change to make the electoral systems fairer is because there are so few politicians who have the courage and moral fortitude. The system seems to take them over. And in the US, the birthplace of modern day democracy, there’s gerrymandering, voter suppression, and virtually limitless amounts of money for campaigning. I guess that’s an example of what they mean by the expression “power corrupts”. 😥

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting. We have a system of preferences here in Australia.. so the voting card asks, if so and so doesn’t get enough votes, who’s your next choice? It can really sway elections and results in the occasional success of wildcards.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks so much for adding the option of preferential voting. That’s something that’s been discussed in Canada. I think it may be used in at least one province for their provincial elections, but otherwise so far just being used here in some Party leadership elections. It sounds like just adding that might open things up for us. I could imagine our “third parties” gaining from that approach. Boy, do we need that kind of balancing.


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