Electoral reform remains a hot topic across the country as the federal election draws nearer
Just how democratic is our Canadian democracy? Read what David Johnson has to say.
As we get deeper into election campaign 2015 we’ll be hearing more about electoral reform. As mentioned in my last column the New Democrats officially support Canada moving to a form of proportional representation (PR) while the Liberals have spoken in favour of using ranked balloting to determine electoral victory in each riding. The Conservatives led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper have denounced both of these ideas, with Harper supporting the traditional single member plurality, “First Past the Post” system of voting.
Both Thomas Mulcair, leader of the federal New Democrats, and Justin Trudeau, head of the federal Liberals have promised that if they win power come this fall, this 2015 election will be the last one fought under the current electoral system that Canadians have used since before Confederation.
As mentioned in my last column, this existing system is noteworthy in that a party can win a majority of seats on a minority of the popular vote. Such results are actually commonplace under this traditional British approach to voting. In only two Canadian federal elections since 1921 has the party winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons won a majority of the popular vote – Diefenbaker’s Conservatives in 1958 and Mulroney’s Tories in 1984.
Every other federal majority government we have had since 1921 has been won on a minority of the popular vote. In 2011, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority of seats on 39.6 per cent of the popular vote. Results such as this, also seen with majority governments led by Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau, lead many critics to wonder just how democratic Canadian democracy is when a minority of voters get to create a majority government.
And it’s no surprise that both the NDP and the Liberals are pushing this idea now after nine years of Conservative rule with Stephen Harper leading the most ideologically right-wing and divisive government in Canadian history, with his party never having won more than 40 per cent of the vote.
The New Democrats call for PR, the electoral system found in most of the European democracies and New Zealand. While there are many ways to operationalize PR, the most common method is what’s called mixed member proportionality. Voters cast two ballots. One for their preferred candidate in their riding, the other for their preferred party. The riding election is decided in the traditional First Past the Post system.
But with the party vote there will be a set number of seats (3050 per cent of the total) in each province to be allocated to each party in light of the popular vote for each party in that province. It’s this allocation that introduces the factor of proportionality into the final seat totals in parliament. With a well-designed system of mixed member proportionality, the ultimate seat totals for each party represented in the House of Commons will reflect the popular vote for that party.
The system of ranked balloting favoured by the Liberal party can result in greater proportionality in electoral outcomes but it is not a pure system of PR. With ranked balloting, voters are called upon the list their preferences for candidates, ranking their favoured choice No. 1, the second choice No. 2, and so on. To win a riding, the winning candidate must take at least 50 per cent plus one of the vote.
If a candidate scores this winning number on the first count of the ballots he or she wins, and the counting is over. If no candidate garners more than 50 per cent of the votes, the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated and his or her ballots are recounted in light of the second choice preferences on these ballots. If, following this second count, a surviving candidate has gone over the top, victory is declared and the counting stops. But if no victor can be declared, the counting goes on, again with the next lowest candidate being dropped from contention and his or her voters’ second choice preferences being reallocated.
Eventually a successful candidate will be determined, with all winners demonstrating that they represent a majority of voter preferences in their riding. This is the system of voting currently found in Australia and France.
Both of these systems have their advantages and drawbacks. PR will guarantee greater proportionality in electoral outcomes, but will virtually ensure perpetual minority governments. Ranked balloting ensures that winning candidates represent a majority of their electors, but the system of voting and counting is more complicated.
One benefit of ranked balloting, however, is that it can be more easily grafted on to our existing electoral system without the need for additional parliamentary seats allocated according to party votes.
Either of these proposals represents a dire threat to the Conservative’s ability to win elections. Get ready to hear more about this in the months to come.