Something strange always happens on an election night. In the weeks building up to it a barrage of stump speeches, photo-ops, and debates are accompanied by a series of polls which are meant to indicate who is winning, who is losing, and what the electorate is thinking.
But when voters come home from the polling stations and turn to their television sets to watch the live election coverage, the polls have become irrelevant. The rules have changed. The relative success of each party’s campaign performance is no longer measured by the overall amount of voters who support them, but by which ridings their supporters are concentrated in.
Occasionally, the popular vote will be displayed onscreen, but only when there is no new data to report, and the anchors get bored.
Every vote for every party that went to a second or third place candidate ceases to matter once the winner has been determined in our first-past-post system. Each riding is a winner take all contest, and if the leading party manages to win only a slim majority of seats, then they will have full control over the legislature.
Thus, we end up with scenarios such as the Ontario provincial election last month, where the ruling Liberals increased their share of the popular vote by 1%, and were declared champion because that net increase was distributed across Ontario in such a way as to garner an extra five seats, giving them a majority. The NDP also increased their voting share by 1%, but though they were able to hold on to the same number of seats held before the election, they lost the ability to affect the balance of power in a minority government.
For the next four years, Kathleen Wynne will have full control over the province’s legislative agenda, because the 38.7% of voters who chose her party were spread out enough to defeat the majority of voters in 58 of 107 ridings.
Numbers seem to dictate that there is something wrong with an electoral system where one political party can enact any legislation it desires, over the objection of 60% of voters who opposed them in the election, without having any need to negotiate or compromise with any other party.
Earlier this year, the Harper government also believed that our federal electoral system was in need of reform. However, since they themselves were elected into a majority with only 39.6% of the popular vote, unsurprisingly they had no desire to address the problem of underrepresented voters.
(Pic via Creekside)
In February, the federal government introduced the Fair Elections Act. The opposition parties could do nothing but complain from the sidelines as the rules of Canadian democracy were about to be unilaterally changed. They were not alone. The legislation was universally panned by the media, as well as Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, who was not consulted in its drafting, and the former head of Elections Canada. Even former Auditor General Sheila Frasier, who Harper once praised as “the mother of all accountants” when she called out the ruling Liberals for their own malfeasance in 2004, was critical of the bill for diminishing the elections commissioner’s ability to investigate misdeeds such as illegal overspending by the Conservatives in the 2006 election and deceitful robocalls sending voters to the wrong polling stations in 2011.
Meanwhile, fraudulent claims of rampant voter fraud were invoked to justify provisions which would disenfranchise thousands whose voting priorities likely did not include corporate tax cuts and oil pipelines.
Eventually, the Harper government passed the Fair Elections Act without its most controversial elements. If at first glance this seems like an affirmation of a robust democracy, it shouldn’t. It is possible that the Conservatives listened to their critics, realized the error of their ways, and decided to compromise on the bill; however, one has to consider the possibility that Conservative strategists underestimated the backlash, and later calculated they were likely to lose more by alienating voters with the unamended bill than they would gain by stacking the deck in their favour.
Yet the Conservatives have already benefitted from an unfair electoral system. In the 2011 federal election, they won one seat for every 35,135 votes. The NDP’s seats came at a slightly higher price, with one MP for every 43,771 votes. The third place Liberals’ seats came at almost twice that cost, at 81,858. Meanwhile, the Bloc Quebecois and Green Party barely made it into Parliament with their 222,447 and 576,221 respectively. This pattern is not partisan, but it distorts election results in favour of the front runner and demonstrates that though all votes are weighed equally, depending upon where they are cast, some of them happen to matter a whole lot more.
One way of correcting this problem with our electoral system would be to implement proportional representation. In such a system, seats in the legislature would be distributed based on a party’s share of the popular vote, giving a more accurate representation of the electorate’s will and eliminating the need for voters to sublimate their principles and engage in the perverse act of “strategic voting,” where one votes for a candidate other than the one they think should win.
Another alternative voting system is the use of ranked ballots where voters select candidates in order of preference, allowing one to comfortably vote for the long shot they prefer rather than the lesser of evils. Toronto is set to implement ranked ballots for its 2018 election, and it will be a positive step towards electoral reform. However, the system caters best to the municipal level of government where political parties do not exist. On the federal or provincial levels, ranked ballots would still leave voters unrepresented if their candidate or candidates didn’t win their riding.
Germany and New Zealand employ mixed member proportional representation where voters still elect local candidates to the legislature, and then candidates drawn from party lists are added to make the composition of the government reflect the popular vote. Under this system, independents could still be elected to office, and parliamentarians can still represent local and regional interests based on their ridings, both advantages of Canada’s current system.
Fair Vote Canada, which advocates for electoral reform, cites studies which have found an overwhelming number of benefits associated with proportional representation, including: higher voter turnouts, increased satisfaction with democracy, policies which are closer to the values of the average voter, more women in government, higher fiscal surpluses, more economic growth, less economic inequality, and better environmental policies. Though it should be noted that many of these benefits seem to be anathema to the Harper government.
It’s an impressive list, but regardless of its veracity, the overriding advantage of proportional representation is that every vote counts, and no vote counts for more than any other.