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First-Past-the-Post is Past its Prime

October 16, 2008

Forget about the fate of leaders and strengthened minorities, the real winners of this election are the advocates for proportional representation. Let’s look at the numbers:

  • Only 59% of eligible voters bothered to vote (a new low for Canada);
  • The Conservative Party only garnered the support of 37.6% of these diehard supporters of democracy, meaning that 22% of eligible voters got to select our country’s leadership;
  • 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party sent exactly nobody to Parliament, beating their own record for the most votes cast for any party that gained no parliamentary representation;
  • According to Fair Vote Canada, a straight up proportional allocation of the votes tallied on election night would produce the following number of seats:

Conservatives – 38% of the popular vote: 117 seats (not 143)
Liberals – 26% of the popular vote: 81 seats (not 76)
NDP – 18% of the popular vote: 57 seats (not 37)
Bloc – 10% of the popular vote: 28 seats (not 50)
Greens – 7% of the popular vote: 23 seats (not 0)

(Of course, having some sort of proportional representation in place would have changed both how many people voted and how people voted, so the actual seat distribution that would truly represent Canadians remains unknown.)

Even if you are not mathematically inclined, these numbers don’t bode well for any hope you may have that representative democracy is actually representative. The system, it is fair to say, is broken.

But if that is the case, then why did the recent referendums on electoral reform in BC and Ontario both fail? Although most Ontarians probably didn’t really know what they were voting for, many of those that did seemed to think that a system that promotes strong leadership is more important than one that ensures fair representation. That majority governments elected by a plurality are better than minority governments that do nothing but bicker. Fair enough, but now that we are on our third minority government in a row even these voters must be disappointed right now.

I have argued in a previous post that collaboration is the new competitiveness. That today’s complex problems can only be adequately addressed by all of us working together. Maybe this could help explain why minority governments are becoming the new normal? We realize that no one leader and their particular brand of doctrine is up to the task of charting a clear course through our country’s choppy future. That we need a motley crew that brings all their divergent opinions to the table at once. It may not be pretty, but it may be better than having to find our way back after 4-8 years of being led in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, our current minorities still leave many opinions off the table. A system based on geographic communities does not allow for the communities of interest that are scattered across our land to elect their representatives. As the communications revolution breaks down the traditional physical barriers that have shaped how things work, it will become increasingly bizarre to have a Parliamentary system still constrained by the tyranny of geography. Unless British Columbians decide to change things up on May 12, 2009 when they give their referendum on electoral reform another try, I have a sad feeling that fewer and fewer Canadians are going to find a trip to the ballot box as a fruitful use of their time.


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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Rory Rickwood permalink
    May 13, 2009 11:06 am

    A Two-Vote Electoral System Proposed

    The need for electoral reform resonated with me. While the Single Transferable Vote concept was not acceptable to BC Voters, I believe it would be a mistake to give up on electoral reform. I believe first-past-the-post voting system is wrong because it allows disenfranchisement and encourages voter apathy.

    I would support a simpler electoral reform, such as a Two-Vote electoral system. The province would be divided into 43 constituencies which would elect two representatives. The ballot would allow a Voter to choose their top candidate using the traditional “first-past-the-post” method, and allow a second vote for Voter’s alternative choice of a political party or identified independents. Simple rule, between your two votes, you can’t vote for the same party twice (unless you wish to register an abstention).

    This simple binary voting system would not be as perfect as STV, but would result in a legislature that is more representative. Knowing you have two representatives to choose from in your constituency would encourage greater voter turnout because their votes would matter and result in increased representation.

    Could you support simpler Two-Vote electoral system?

  2. November 21, 2008 12:34 am

    Great post. You’re right, the only good thing to come out of this election is the focussed awareness of how bad our current system really is. Hopefully we can get everyone out in BC this time to vote for STV and make a difference. Once people see how a proportional system, any proportional system really works they’ll start to really discuss fixing up our system across the country.

  3. Joe permalink
    November 11, 2008 10:01 pm

    While this site is geared more towards Americans, I can’t help but think that you’d like what it has to say about proportional representation:

  4. adamfritz permalink*
    October 17, 2008 6:19 pm

    Thanks! Very good question.

    From my experience, those who are truly engaged tend to be part of the slim majority who still bother to vote. They definitely find other outlets to channel their energies more productively (e.g., blogging, working with NGOs, volunteering overseas, spending way too much time as a student, joining the public service, etc), but they also still care enough and believe in the possibility of change enough to cast their ballots in whatever system they are allowed to be a part of.

    Some of the younger non-voters may be interested in global issues, but just don’t see the point of being part of a system that doesn’t provide the same instant gratification that they can get from online, real time engagement with others around the world (Taking IT Global, discussion boards, massive multi-player games, etc). But the sad reality is that many, many Canadians are just not engaged at all.

    The irony of new communications technologies is that they can both liberate you to explore beyond your reach, or insulate you inside a self-imposed bubble of customized reality. The question is how do you lead people out of these bubbles without having to resort to negative advertising scare tactics?

    Allowing people to vote with their hearts without having to think twice about possible repercussions, and actually having their first preferences have a voice at the political table is a good start. I believe it is called democracy.

  5. October 17, 2008 1:28 pm

    great post adam. i (obviously very naively) sort of thought that we might see higher turnout in this election, partly because of the election frenzy down south.

    the fact that i was so very wrong definitely does raise questions about disillusionment with the system. i am in agreement with you that FPTP has a lot to do with that.

    another thing i really wonder about FPTP is the effect it has on people who do actually care about policy – and from Canada’s World’s perspective, particularly about foreign policy. as you’ve said, communities of interest are not well represented in an FPTP system. so what effect does this have on people who truly ARE interested and engaged, but in issues (tne environment, global poverty) that aren’t being addressed by their leaders? do they find other outlets, or does that energy just dissipate?

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