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
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.