Democracy and Voting, Dr. Joyce Green
The 42nd General Election, the longest and most expensive election in over a century, has produced the majority Liberal government, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the Conservative party, and Parliamentary representation with a sizeable number of NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Green MPs.
Elections are held to produce a Parliament (federally) or a Legislative Assembly (provincially and territorially). They are the vital democratic link between citizens and government. The constitutional obligation of each elected body is to represent the people by forming a government and an opposition.
The role of government is to make policy, pass legislation, and maintain the confidence of Parliament; the role of opposition is to hold government accountable and, if that government loses the confidence of the House of Commons, provide an alternative government. All parties are to be dedicated to the integrity of Parliament and the Constitution, represented by the Crown: this is why the Official Opposition is called Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
So how did the system work in the 2015 election? It depends on the criteria applied. Using the existing formula of the Plurality or First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, the election produced a majority Liberal government with 184 seats and 39.5% of the popular vote and an Official Opposition (the Conservatives) holding 99 seats with 31.9% of the popular vote. The other opposition hold the balance of the seats in Parliament. The NDP got 44 seats with 19.7% of the vote. The Bloc Quebecois hold 10 seats with 4.7% of the nation-wide popular vote – but note that the Bloc does not run nationally; it runs only in Quebec. The Green party holds a single seat with 3.5% of the popular vote. The new Parliamentary total is 338 MPs.
Anyone can see that the electoral system – First Past the Post, or plurality – produces false majorities and odd anomalies. It also discounts small parties with a significant chunk of support spread thinly across the country (the Greens) and over-rewards small parties with regionally concentrated support (the Bloc).
Electors vote for a candidate for MP in each riding; the party with the most votes wins the riding. The votes for other parties are effectively lost because they do not count toward an elected representative. The winner wins with a plurality – that is, more votes than the nearest competitor – even if the winner does not have a majority of support. Often the other parties have more support in total than does the winner – as was the case in Kootenay-Columbia. Thus, this system is both unrepresentative and undemocratic.
The Kootenay Columbia result demonstrates the way the plurality electoral system works to produce a single winner with a minority of votes. The NDP’s Wayne Stetski edged out Conservative David Wilks by about 285 votes. That’s not anywhere near a majority and in fact is a minority when you consider the votes given to the Conservative, Liberal and Green candidates. The Cranbrook Townsman reported that Stetski received 23,529 votes, Wilks, 23,244; Liberal candidate Don Johnston got 12,315 and Green Party candidate Bill Green, 4,115 votes. The total non-NDP vote was 39,674. In our winner-takes-all system, however, the NDP counts Kootenay Columbia as a win and the other candidates all lose. Dozens of other ridings produced similarly unrepresentative results and led to the over-representation of the Liberals and the under-representation of all other parties in the House of Commons.
The electoral system also produces highly partisan Parliaments and discourages collaboration, as each party wants to win ridings and beat the competition rather than make a Parliament work. However, the seats that each party holds as a result of the plurality system are not a very good reflection of the parties’ share of the popular vote.
What would the 2015 Parliament look like if Canada had used proportional representation (PR), a system which aggregates votes for each party and then produces seats in Parliament directly proportional to this share of the popular vote? We’d be looking at a different Parliament. With PR, the Liberals would have had 133 seats – directly proportional to their share of the vote. The Conservatives would have 108 seats, NDP would have 67 seats, the Greens would have 12 seats and the Bloc would hold 16 seats. Other small parties not presently in Parliament would hold 2 seats (numbers are rounded so the total is not exact).
The results under PR are more accurate and thus more democratic. Moreover, our votes would not be ‘wasted’ because every vote is counted toward the total seats of the party. Under our present system, folks who voted for anyone other than the winning candidate get no political representation for their political choice.
Research shows that PR reduces partisanship in favour of collaboration among parties, because PR is structured to make Parliament work, not to secure partisan advantage. The electoral outcome more accurately reflects the wishes of voters. Parties are more inclined to listen to all voters, not just to their own voters, because every vote counts in the next election and voters can change their choices. Interested readers can consult the Law Commission of Canada’s study of electoral systems Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada (http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/J31-61-2004E.pdf ), and Dennis Pilon’s 2007 book The Politics of Voting. Fair Vote Canada (http://campaign2015.fairvote.ca) is an excellent online source of information about PR. And with this calibre of information we don’t need more studies.
Clearly the Liberals benefited this time from the plurality system. However, during the election the party promised democratic reforms, saying “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system”. The NDP -- which was hurt the most by the plurality system -- and the Green Party promised to immediately adopt proportional representation if they formed government. The Conservatives said they would keep the current system. The Liberal government, strangely, seems to be opposed to proportional representation and leaning toward a ranked run-off ballot.
The ranked run-off ballot would allow parties to ‘game’ the system and would produce results similar to our current system. Here’s why: voters choose their first, second, third and other choices. The party with the smallest number of votes drops off the ballot, and their ballots are re-distributed to other parties on the basis of the voters’ second choice. This process continues until one party has a clear majority. Thus, parties that are the second choice of most people can count on a win. The Liberals are most likely to benefit from this system, as they are the second choice of many Conservatives and some Greens and NDs. Murray Dobbin recently ran a good article on this in The Tyee; read it at http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2016/01/08/Does-Trudeau-Want-Fair-Elections/
Citizens can always write to their MPs and other members of parliament – the Prime Minister comes to mind – to demand PR now. And people can always sign the Fair Vote Canada online petition that FVC has been promoting for years - the Declaration of Voters' Rights, at www.fairvote.ca/declaration. Fair Vote Canada will be finding a way to present those 63,000 (and growing) names to the federal Minister for Democratic Reform Maryam Monsef.
And for great information about the electoral system and why it should be changed, hit the Fair Vote Canada website. The Law Commission of Canada also did an excellent study of various electoral systems in 2004 -- the report should be in the library -- and it is an easy and compelling read. Finally, Denis Pilon wrote "The Politics of Voting" -- a really good study of how partisan and undemocratic our system is. Again, you should be able to get this in the library.
Will Canadians get a more democratic electoral system before the next election? Governments tend to lose their appetite for change when the status quo serves their partisan interests well. But democracy is not served well by our electoral system, and surely democracy is more important than narrow partisan interests.
Joyce Green is Professor of Political Science on faculty at the University of Regina, currently living in Cranbrook.