Push for elec­toral re­form gain­ing mo­men­tum

Lib­er­als and New Democrats have said they are com­mit­ted to re­form­ing the way fed­eral elec­tions get run and how vic­tors get de­ter­mined

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL - David John­son David John­son, PhD, is a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Cape Bre­ton Univer­sity. He can be reached at David_John­son@cbu.ca.

This long­est fed­eral elec­tion cam­paign in history has been on­go­ing since the bud­get came down in March and we still have three-and-a-half months to go be­fore elec­tion day on Oct. 19.

While there will be much talk and de­bate about public pol­icy is­sues and the lead­er­ship qual­i­ties of the var­i­ous can­di­dates, we do know that there will be one is­sue that we will hear much more about as the cam­paign heats up in the fall.

That is­sue is elec­toral re­form. Now, usu­ally peo­ple’s eyes be­gin to glaze over when the words 'elec­toral re­form' get men­tioned. This is viewed as an is­sue only of con­cern to pol­icy wonks so, at the risk of sound­ing 'wonk­ish,' let me try to ex­plain why this mat­ter will rise to promi­nence in the months to come.

First off, both the fed­eral New Democrats and the Lib­er­als have listed elec­toral re­form as key parts of their party plat­forms for this elec­tion. Both par­ties have said they are com­mit­ted to re­form­ing the way Cana­dian fed­eral elec­tions get run and how vic­tors get de­ter­mined. Both op­po­si­tion par­ties have pledged that, if they get elected, 2015 will be the last time we elect a fed­eral gov­ern­ment un­der the cur­rent 'First-Past-The-Post' sys­tem of elec­toral vic­tory.

The way fed­eral elec­tions have al­ways been man­aged in Canada is that can­di­dates run for elec­tion in given con­stituen­cies, or 'rid­ings,' and the can­di­date who garn­ers the sin­gle largest num­ber of votes is de­clared the win­ner, be­com­ing that rid­ing’s Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment.

Now, if there were only ever just two can­di­dates run­ning for elec­tion in any rid­ing there would be no prob­lem in that the win­ner would al­ways be that per­son who gained a ma­jor­ity of votes. But this is not how elec­tions have worked in this coun­try since the early 1920s. It’s com­mon for there to be mul­ti­ple can­di­dates run­ning in each rid- ing rep­re­sent­ing such par­ties as the Con­ser­va­tives, the NDP, the Lib­er­als, some­times the Greens, and, in Que­bec, the Bloc Que­be­cois.

With mul­ti­ple can­di­dates, it’s usu­ally the case that the even­tual win­ner in each rid­ing has won with only a plu­ral­ity, not a ma­jor­ity of the vote. What tends to hap­pen is that most rid­ings get won with the vic­tor gain­ing be­tween 40-49 per cent of the vote. But this means that most MPs get into Par­lia­ment not hav­ing won ma­jor­ity sup­port from their con­stituents be­cause these peo­ple have di­vided their sup­port be­tween a va­ri­ety of can­di­dates.

The broader prob­lem here is that a party can win a ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment with­out ever com­ing close to hav­ing won a ma­jor­ity of votes cast na­tion-wide. In 2011, the Con­ser­va­tives led by Stephen Harper won a ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment on just 40 per cent of the vote.

This type of re­sult is com­mon in Cana­dian elec­toral history. Most ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ments in this coun­try have been elected on a mi­nor­ity of votes. Only twice since 1921 has a win­ning party won at least 50 per cent of the vote in Canada – Diefen­baker’s Tories did it in 1958, as did Mul­roney’s Con­ser­va­tives in 1984.

But now, things may be chang­ing. Both the fed­eral New Democrats and the Lib­er­als are tired of see­ing the Harper Con­ser­va­tive’s push through their poli­cies and pro­grams even though some 60 per cent or more of Cana­di­ans are op­posed to the di­rec­tion in which Prime Min­is­ter Harper is lead­ing to coun­try.

The New Democrats have long sup­ported the idea of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion (PR), in which par­ties win gain seats in Par­lia­ment is rough cor­re­la­tion to their pro­por­tion of the pop­u­lar vote. If a party can only win 40 per cent of the vote, it will only get 40 per cent of the seats. Most western democ­ra­cies base their elec­tions on PR sys­tems, with their elec­tions re­sult­ing in mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ments be­cause its rare for any party to ever win more than 50 per cent of the vote.

The Lib­er­als now sup­port ranked bal­lot­ing, a vari­a­tion on PR. In this sys­tem, vot­ers rank their pre­ferred can­di­dates, with vic­tory re­quir­ing that a can­di­date win at least 50 per cent plus one of the vote. If no can­di­date can achieve that feat on the first count, the low­est ranked can­di­date gets dropped from fur­ther count­ing and his/her bal­lots gets re­al­lo­cated in ac­cor­dance with their sec­ond pref­er­ences. If this re­count re­sults in a can­di­date se­cur­ing the needed mar­gin of vic­tory, he or she wins.

But if no can­di­date crosses the thresh­old on this count, the count­ing must go on, again with the low­est ranked can­di­date be­ing dropped from the next round of count­ing, and his/her bal­lots be­ing re­al­lo­cated ac­cord­ing to their sec­ond pref­er­ences. Even­tu­ally, some­body al­ways wins, with the as­sur­ance that the vic­tor can right­fully claim to rep­re­sent a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers in his/her rid­ing.

I’ll come back to the pol­i­tics of all this in my next col­umn. Rest as­sured Stephen Harper hates these re­form ideas.

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