February 17, 2014

Why the Electoral System Matters

One issue that is getting considerable media attention as of late is the electoral system, which is the way people vote. At all three levels of government in Canada, the current electoral system is called first past the post, in which the candidate with the most votes wins the position he/she is running for. While simplicity may be the primary advantage of the current system, there are many drawbacks.

Drawbacks of Current System

The most significant drawback is candidates do not need a majority to win should three or more candidates run. For example, a conservative candidate for mayor gets 45% of the vote, but there are two progressive candidates who get 35% and 20% of the vote. Even though a majority (55%) wanted a progressive candidate, the conservative candidate won because of vote splitting between the progressive candidates. When applied to political parties at the provincial and federal levels, it becomes possible for a party to win a majority of the seats with less than a majority of the votes. In extreme cases such as the 1987 New Brunswick provincial election, the Liberal Party won all 58 seats with only 60% of the vote, which left 40% of the province whose interests were not represented in the provincial legislature.[1]

Given the issues of false majorities, vote splitting, and under-represented interests, there are two electoral reform proposals which are currently being debated. In Toronto, the focus is on the Ranked Ballot Initiative, while Fair Vote Canada is currently promoting proportional representation at the federal level.

Ranked Ballot Initiative

The Ranked Ballot Initiative promotes a form of instant runoff vote, in which voters rank the candidates on their ballots. If on the first ballot no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes, the candidate with the lowest number of votes gets dropped and the next preference gets counted. This continues until one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote in order to ensure the choice truly reflects the will of voters. Currently, all major federal and provincial political parties use runoff voting to elect their leader. This form of electoral reform works best for governments without political parties, which makes this a viable option for Toronto. Toronto City Council approved ranked ballots in June 2013, but must get approval from the Ontario government prior to implementation.[2]

Proportional Representation

For governments with political parties, a form of proportional representation may be more appropriate, given a runoff vote could compound the false majority issue. Proportional representation (PR) is a system where seats are awarded based on the proportion of votes won by each party, as well as lists provided by each political party. Germany uses a variant of this system called mixed member proportional, in which voters cast two votes; one for the candidate and one for the party. Half of the seats are awarded based on the candidate vote, and the other half are awarded based on party lists. This allows for local and national interests to be properly represented.

Another form of PR is called the Single Transferrable Vote (STV), which involves multiple elected officials in fewer ridings and voting via ranked ballot. This 1980’s clip of John Cleese discussing proportional representation is similar to the STV system.
Closing Remarks

By implementing much needed electoral reform, all three levels of government will be able to ensure the interests of its residents are more fairly represented and future false majorities can be avoided, which in turn can boost voter turnout. It can also prevent controversial legislation such as the so-called Fair Elections Act from being rushed through parliament, the consequences of which would require a separate post altogether.

Rob Z (e-mail)

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