Canadian Commentary: Constitution and Politics

Better Voting Next Time?

July 1997

In the wake of the unbalanced results of the last federal election, various pundits and editorial boards suggested that the time has come to reform Canada's first-past-the-post voting system. The Globe editorial board came down in favour of a version of the German system, in which there would be 60 additional seats distributed to the parties in proportion to their total vote.

As usual, these suggestions were greeted with resounding silence by both the politicians and the public. There are good reasons for this silence. Proportional representation has not been particularly successful in the various jurisdictions where it is practiced. Several nations have in fact moved away from it and towards first-past-the-post systems (notably Italy). Meanwhile, the first-past-the-post system continues to be used in all nations that inherited it from Britain with the exception of New Zealand. It is notable that many of these nations are very large and diverse (Canada, U.S., India, Australia). In such nations, single-member constituencies are very important as a way of representing all regions of the nation, and counteracting the tendency to centralize power and representation in the capital.

The primary problem with proportional representation is that it reduces the direct line of responsibility between the representatives and the voters. In Canada's system, you know exactly who your representative is, who to go to when you have a problem, and who you are voting for or against. Meanwhile, a representative knows there are a group of voters who are specifically watching him or her, and their future as a politician depends on these voters. In proportional representation systems, there may be several representatives from a particular group of voters, diluting this direct responsibility. Systems where representatives are chosen from party lists, as the Globe is suggesting, are even worse. Such representatives are responsible to their political party, not to the voters, and are chosen as a result of their skill in internal party politics. As a result, they will inevitably be party hacks, backroom operators and bagmen. These are the people who at the moment are relegated to the relatively powerless Senate. The "party list" system would effectively introduce Senators into the House of Commons! Thanks to their insider status, they would tend to push aside the directly elected representatives of the people, further alienating Canadians from their political system. It is no wonder that Canadians are not enthused by this prospect.

However, there is a election system which maintains the advantages of one-member constituencies, while introducing a greater element of fairness and balance. This system is know by various names, including the "alternate vote" and "majority vote". It is basically the system already used in Canada during party leadership conventions, and its purpose is to ensure that the winner in a constituency has the support of a clear majority of the voters (i.e. over 50%). It works like this:

1) Each voter numbers the candidates in order of preference on the ballot. (Voters can, of course, choose to only vote for their first choice, but if their candidate is dropped, their vote will no longer count).

2) The first-place votes are tallied. If no candidate received over 50% of the vote, the candidate(s) with the least number of votes are then struck off the ballot. Their votes are then allocated to their voter's second choice of candidate.

3) This continues until a candidate receives over 50% of the votes.

This system ensures that the winner is truly representative of the riding. It also addresses the problem of vote-splitting. If a riding had a right-wing majority split between Conservatives and Reform, the less successful would be dropped, and their votes would go to the more successful right-wing party.

Such a system would result in a broader, more accurate representation for all of the political parties, in numbers that were closer to the percentage of the vote that they received. In the last election, the Liberals would have gained a couple of seats in Nova Scotia; the Conservatives would have gained several more seats in Quebec; Reform and the Conservatives would each have gained a few seats in Ontario, while the Liberals and the NDP would have gained a few more seats in the West. Each party would have received a more accurate reflection of their regional strengths. The result would have been a close minority for the Liberals - an accurate reflection of their percentage of the vote.

Perhaps Canadians would respond more enthusiastically to voting reform if this system, which simply refines one-member, first-past-the-post voting, were proposed instead of the complex and unrepresentative schemes we've seen so far.

July 10, 1997

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