Po­lit­i­cal In­sights

Elec­toral re­form re­mains a hot topic across the coun­try as the fed­eral elec­tion draws nearer

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

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.

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