Electoral Reform

201104_Issues_ElectoralReform

Originally published October 7, 2015 written by Peter Williamson

The Greens, the NDP and the Liberals, are all promising to review our electoral system if any form a government in the upcoming election. I hope that it happens. However, what “it” will be is not decided, and electoral reform can be complicated. It all depends on which system is chosen. A among industrialized nations, only Canada, the USA, and Britain still retain “first past the post”.

Let’s start with the problems we would like to fix. Many of us are torn between voting for the candidate we most like and the candidate most likely to beat the candidate we least like (but are afraid might get in). We call this voting “with our hearts” versus “strategic voting”, and voters should not be faced with such a choice.

The second problem is that in the last Canadian federal election the Greens got 3.9% of the vote and one seat, while the Conservatives got 39% of the vote and 166 seats. So, the Conservatives got about 16 times as many seats per vote as the Greens. This seems unfair, but without a different system this disproportional representation will continue. I’ll deal with this problem first.

The simple solution, and some countries do this, is to tally all the votes across the country, and then allocate seats in the parliament in proportion to each party’s level of support. So, 20% of the votes get you 20% of the seats.

The problem with this is that it requires each party to rank their preferred candidates; if they are allocated 20 seats, say, then those go to the first 20 names on the list. So, the places near the top of the list go to party hacks and the electorate has no direct say in which particular people represent them. It also means that we’d have to do away with ridings, which means not having our own local member. There are a lot of benefits to having a local member. Some members are quite popular in their own right, rather than as representatives of a particular party. And we have a long tradition of being able to address concerns to our local member. I’d hate to lose that.

There are numerous ways that various countries have tried to get around these problems. Some have super-ridings with up to five members elected from each. Others elect local members, but then allocate additional seats to parties that are under-represented. This creates two classes of members – those elected locally and those added from party lists. I don’t particularly like that, but I think it’s the lesser of two evils.

Now back to the first problem. The head versus heart dilemma is a new one for me. I moved here from Australia where voters in each riding rank candidates in order of preference. If your first choice does not prevail on first count, then your vote is allocated to your second preference. If that candidate has little support, it is passed on to your third, and so on. So your vote is passed down the line until it ends up with one of the two most supported candidates.

In effect, this system allows a voter to support the candidate they like most, while at the same time ensuring that they don’t inadvertently help elect the one they like least.  It’s not particularly complicated, and I never heard any Australian say that they didn’t understand it. It is known as the single transferable vote, or preferential voting, and was the choice in 2009 among members of the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, but rejected in a province-wide referendum.

We could elect local members using a preferential system and then supplement each party’s total numbers of members from a party list. That way we could vote with our hearts, knowing that we will never have that awful feeling that we have wasted our votes on a candidate who was never going to win anyway. And what’s more, we’ll end up with a parliament that reflects the true level of support for each party across the country.

At this juncture in Canada, a change away from the first past the post system would disadvantage the Conservatives. But, that is only now. In ten years’ time, it might be the Conservatives who benefit from the changes. The Greens, who find it hard to win a riding, but have solid support right across Canada, have the most to gain right now.

In general, these changes would make for a Parliament that requires more cooperation between the parties, and that seldom gives any party an absolute majority. Coalitions would become the norm. That is not a problem; many countries always have coalition governments. Most importantly, it will bring new legitimacy to government, and an end to governments being elected with barely one third of the vote. That is bound to be a good thing.

The time has come for a system that reflects the values of a wider range of Canadians. I hope that you will think about electoral reform as part of your voting decision.

– Peter Williamson

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