Electoral reform: Make haste, cautiously
Two weeks ago in this space it was suggested that since the Island’s four federal electoral districts are fairly evenly divided in terms of the number of people per riding, they could be the basis for determining the number of MLAs in the legislature. If each federal riding had an equal number of MLAs this would at least give a nod to the concept of representation by population.
The days of two-party contests are long gone. Given the paucity of support the Liberals got in the spring election it hardly seems fair that the three parties in opposition with 60 per cent of the votes got only 33 per cent of the seats in the legislature.
Many will argue that the only way to assure a proper seat alignment is to go to some form of proportional representation (PR). And there in lies the rub, which form?
One form is where each party creates a list of, say 27, since there are currently 27 MLAs, and electors would then vote for the party they favour. If the Liberals got 40.8 per cent of the vote, they get the top 40.8 per cent from their list chosen.
Using this system and the last election results, the standings in the legislature would be; 11 Liberals, 10 Conservatives, 3 NDP and 3 Green.
In order to govern one of the two main parties would have to form an alliance with one or both of the minor parties. For some, this tendency for coalitions is one of the main problems with PR.
But there are other more serious problems. There is no district representation. The top few names of each list could all be from one area - there would be no regional MLAs. Also, who selects the names for the list? And, just as importantly, who determines the order of the names on the list?
For these and other reasons, a modified form of PR is suggested. Again using the present 27 seats in the legislature; make 17 of them district seats, ridings, where electors would vote for individuals, plus 10 seats from party lists to be chosen by PR.
The PR element of the vote might be based on the percentage of vote each party got in the district elections, or it could be a separate ballot where each voter indicates the party they prefer. This overcomes the regional representation problem, but, does nothing with regards to who selects the lists or determines the priority of the names.
Another form of voting that ensures each candidate is selected with a majority, but doesn’t necessarily ensure proportional representation, is the use of preferential ballots.
Using the preferential ballot system no one can be elected until they have achieved support from more than 50 per cent of the voters. This system is not dramatically different from what is presently in use, there are no lists and no determining seats by percentages.
The difference is in the ballot itself. Instead of each voter picking the one person they want to be their representative, each voter has to select who their first choice is, their second choice, third choice, etc. depending on how many candidates there are.
If there is no clear winner when all the first choices are counted, then the second choices of the candidate who finished last are distributed. If there is still no winner, the ballots of the candidate who came second-last are distributed, and so on until someone gets 50 per cent of the votes.
There are many different ways used to elect people in democracies around the world. The first-past-the-post system we use is quite rare. Some form of PR is the most common. And while many Islanders feel there’s a need for change they should keep in mind a couple of old adages; perfection is often the enemy of progress, and incremental change is usually the most successful.
Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached