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A Vote is a Vote: A Plea for Proportional Representation
Step back and observe the configurations, compositions and driving cogs of today’s democratic societies, and one will find that there is one repeating theme; the sharing of power. Corporations, religious sects, universities, unions, and hospitals make decisions through committees, conferences and compromises. Why is it then that when it comes to running our country we still entrust power to a single select group and expect them to make the most auspicious decisions for Canadians every time? The Canadian government is a concentrated power structure out of step with other aspects of society. For our democracy to keep pace with the developing world, Canadian citizens must face these facts, as citizens in other countries have, and restore our political structures to mirror the broad range of political dispositions in today’s diverse communities. This goal can only be achieved by abolishing the current electoral system of plurality and implementing proportional representation.
The current political electoral system in place in Canada today is called the plurality system or first past the post. Under this system adopted from the British, the country is divided up into 301 single member districts. In each riding the party who wins the most votes, regardless if it’s a majority or not, elects an MP to the House of Commons. A party may win by one vote, yet those who finish second and third receive no reward whatsoever. As a result their votes are wasted. Under this system there have been endless examples of unfair party representation. For example, in Prince Edward Island in 1993, Catherine Callbeck’s Liberal party won 97% of seats (31 of 32) with a mere 55% of the vote. This left 40 % of the voters who voted for Tory with one MLA and 5% of the voters who voted NDP with none. In the 1979 federal election the Conservatives formed the government with 36% of the votes and earned 136 seats while the liberals won 40 % of votes but only 114 seats. This is an obvious injustice and a blunt indication that our current electoral system is ineffective at producing a government that is a reflection of the desires of the populace.
One of the weaknesses of the plurality system is that it hurts small national parties with support dispersed across the country and it favors those whose supporters are concentrated in one area. The NDP, for example, won more votes than the Bloc Quebecois in the 1997 federal election, but earned less than half as many seats in the House. An even more ridiculous delineation of the plurality system’s ineffectiveness occurred in 1968, when the Social Credit party in Quebec won a mere 4.6% of the votes but took 20% of the seats. To put the numbers in more lucid terms; it took on average “31,233 votes to elect a Bloc Quebecois MP; 31,817 votes to elect a Liberal MP; 41,501 votes to elect a Reform MP; 67,733 votes to elect a New Democrat MP; and a preposterous 121,287 votes to elect a Conservative MP.” How can we call ourselves a true democracy if votes are not treated equally? Parties that appeal nationally to voters are punished and regional parties are rewarded. In the most recent federal election the Progressive Conservative Party had almost as many votes (2,425,748) as the Reform Party (2,490,078) yet had 40 fewer seats because their votes were not concentrated in one region of the country. The Bloc Quebecois continues to be over represented in Parliament as they have the third largest number of seats even though they had the lowest amount of votes of the five main parties. We are living in a “benign dictatorship” where the voices of the majority are not being heard. The liberal party once again has control of the governing of the entire nation even though only 38% of Canadians that voted for them. If you factor in the low voter turnout, you realize that the liberals only had 25% of the countries support. Proportional representation is the only solution; it would give electoral due without giving any party an unfair amount of seats.
The most commonly accepted rule of democracy is that government should make decisions according to majority rule. However, under the plurality system, the Progressive Conservative Party was able to pass the Goods and Services tax (GST) while it’s MP’s were only representing 43% of Canadian voters. Another bias of the first past the post system is that some parties have promoted separatism and plurality gives them more power than the electoral support wants. The Bloc Quebecois won 72% of the seats in the 1993 Quebec provincial election, with only 49.2% of the votes. Once again we see evidence of one of the plurality system’s major flaws, inequity. It makes one person’s vote count for less than another’s. In the 1997 federal election, 886,000 voters in Ontario supported the Reform party, however, they did not earn one seat. Conversely, in Alberta 577,000 voters for Reform earned 24 seats which meant that a vote in Alberta is worth more than a vote in Ontario.
Third party minorities are as important to a democratic society as are those who form the government because they represent the voices of the few being heard by the many. However, under plurality the small number of votes that a minority party may get is not sufficient to earn seats in the House. Therefore their potential supporters do not want to waste their vote on a sure loser, since they would be taking away votes from their “less of two evils”. Proportional representation would prevent people from having to vote for a party that they do not support in order to prevent a party that they feel strongly against from winning. People would be sure that their vote for a minority party would make a difference in how many seats they get in the House and hence they would vote for the party whose principles they truly believe in. People would vote with their heart not fears. Proportional representation allows the public to be free to decide which values or principles they want represented in the House by giving the voters the power to decide. For example, “if 7 percent of Canadians support the Green parties approach to environmental issues, PR will give it 7 percent of the seats, no more and no less.”
Offering voters more choices would also encourage higher levels of voting. People would have more reason to vote because they could more easily find a candidate or party they could support enthusiastically. This would force political parties to define how they are distinct from others to attract votes. In order to compete effectively parties would need to develop clearer principles and to define their policy platforms. A multi-party system would also ensure that parliament represented the variety of political perspectives that exist in the electorate. Our society is becoming more politically heterogeneous, and yet our government has been redundantly Liberal for the last hundred years with the odd Conservative win emerging every so often. We may be relieved of our ubiquitous political despair if we had a governing body that reflected the diverse perspectives of the electorate. More representative legislatures would breed more exciting, creative and wide-ranging political debate and thrust new ideas and attitudes into the limelight.
Proportional representation also carries other significant political advantages. Under PR, women would have a much fairer chance of being elected. The under representation of women in municipal, provincial and federal legislatures is an ongoing problem in our political system. Despite recent gains for women, they occupied a mere 17 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons in the ‘93 election and a mere 11 per cent of the seats in the U.S. Congress. “PR countries typically have much higher rates of female elected officials in their national legislature – 41 per cent in Sweden, and 39 per cent in Finland” , for example. This dramatic difference is primarily due to women being nominated in much higher numbers as part of the party lists of candidates used in PR systems. Parties cannot leave women off their lists of candidates for fear of being accused of sexism, therefore, more women are nominated and more are elected. Some European parties also establish gender quotas that require that at least 40% of nominations go to women.
However, electing more women to legislatures is not only a matter of fairness. The increasing presence of women in legislatures makes a substantial difference in the types of legislation that are proposed and passed into law. In a study comparing legislation in major democracies, Dr. Arend Lijphart, professor of political science and president of the American Political Science Association, found that “countries with proportional representation — which generally elect a much higher percentage of women than Canada — have enacted more laws that benefit women and children” . His research shows that “the number one predictor of women’s success in national legislative elections, when tested with other political and socio-economic variables, is the presence of proportional representation (PR) voting systems” . One could argue then that plurality should be abolished if not for the many reasons listed thus far, than simply because it impedes the progression of women’s rights and prevents them from being equally represented in the governing of our nation.
Many people in favor of the plurality system are quick to criticize proportional representation because it provides a greater opportunity for a minority government to be formed because it allows more parties to get seats in the House. They argue that PR is “ineffective and unstable because, government must govern as well as represent.” The plurality system is thought by its advocates to increase the chances of a majority government being elected, which is important to the governing process. However, between the years 1962 to 1992, Canada has had a majority government six times and a minority government six times and they have all been generally effective. Those in favor of the plurality system would argue that minority governments have fallen more quickly than majority ones which is true. However, it must be pointed out that it is not because minority governments are unstable that they fell fast, but rather because of “incentives that the plurality system gives large parties to collapse the government because a small change in votes could give them a majority government”.
Proportional representation’s record in other countries also serves to erase the misconceptions that adopting such a system would result in legislatures suspended in conflict and unable to make decisions because of political deadlock. Most legislatures in countries using proportional representation are ruled by a coalition of parties, and some fear that these coalitions are prone to be unstable and to lead to weak and unproductive government. In reality, however, almost all PR countries have enjoyed stable coalition governments. In Scandinavia, for instance, some of these multi- party coalitions have lasted for decades and these large coalitions have commonly passed legislation far more efficiently than our government does.
Admittedly, a few countries, notably Italy and Israel, have had trouble with unstable coalitions. But both of these countries have used extreme forms of proportional representation. Israel, for example, allows any party that gets more than about 1 per cent of the vote to win seats in their parliament. At times this low threshold has resulted in over a dozen parties in the Knesset, which has complicated the task of governing. However, most other PR countries use more moderate forms of PR that have a higher threshold and fewer parties. Germany has a five per cent threshold that results in a workable legislature of 3-5 parties. This moderate PR is what supporters are advocating for the Canada and the U.S.
The mixed PR system has become increasingly popular during the last decade. It was first used in Germany, and variations of it are now being used by many of the new democracies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, such as Russia, Lithuania, and Hungary. This system also was chosen by voters in New Zealand in 1994 to replace their traditional American-style, winner-take-all system. The mixed member system is a combination a single-member district system with another form of PR called the party-list system. Voters would be given a double ballot on which one part of the ballot is very much like what we have in Canada, where single candidates from each party vie to become the one representative to the legislature from a small geographic district. On the other part of the ballot, voters then vote for the party of their choice. The rationale behind this ballot is to allow voters to choose an individual local representative, and also to ensure that all parties get their proportional share of legislative seats. To do this, the winners of the district elections are given one half of the seats in the legislature. If there are 200 seats in the legislature, 100 are filled by these district winners. The party list portions of the ballots are then counted to calculate the percentage of seats each party deserves. Members of the parties are then added from regional party lists until those proportions are achieved in the legislatures. Therefore, if for example the Chimpanzee Party were to win 25% of the party votes in a 200 seat legislature, they would be entitled to a total of 50 seats. If they already elected 30 of their candidates in district elections, then they would add 20 more from their party lists to come up to the percentage of seats they deserve.
Adopting mixed PR would be a giant leap forward for Canadian democracy. It is apparently obvious to everyone that something must be done to resurrect our current political attrition. In a federally commissioned study, obtained by The Citizen under the Access to Information Act, it says Canada must “overhaul its system of government, especially the Senate and electoral process, or face the risk of disintegration .at present Canada seems to be sleepwalking toward disaster.” The candidly worded paper by C.E.S. Franks, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston also said that “the Canadian government seems to be paralyzed, a cobra hypnotized by the mongoose of disunity and unable to arouse itself to positive action.” Mr. Franks, a veteran analyst of politics and government, completed the study last May for the federal Privy Council Office.
The vast majority of Western democracies see British-style elections as outmoded and unfair and have rejected them in favor of proportional representation. Most of Western Europe uses PR and, with the exception of Ukraine and Belarus, all the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have chosen PR over our form of elections. The United States, Canada, and Great Britain are the only Western democracies that refuse to let go of their archaic winner-takes-all electoral systems. Support for the plurality system has deteriorated worldwide because it has a number of serious drawbacks. It routinely denies representation to large numbers of voters, produces legislatures that fail to accurately reflect the views of the public, discriminates against third parties, and discourages voter turnout. All of these problems can be traced to a fundamental flaw in our system: only those who vote for the winning candidate get any representation. Everyone else, who may make up 49% of the electorate in a district, gets no representation. Whether you are a Conservative in a predominately Liberal district or an African-American in a white district, then you are shut out by our current election system. You might cast your vote, but it will be wasted on a candidate that can not win. Every year millions of Canadians waste their votes on losing candidates and therefore come away from the voting booth with no representation. Under single-member district rules we may have the right to vote, but we don’t have the equally important right to be represented. Proportional representation would shift power from the prime minister’s office to the Parliament and from the premier’s office to provincial legislatures, in doing so, there would be less emphasis on images, style, and promises and more importance placed on parties, principles, platforms, and the people.
1) Richie, Rob and Steven Hill. “Are Winner Take All Elections Fair?” Social Policy vol.24 (summer 1996): 25-37
2) Zimmerman, Joseph. “A Fair Voting System for Local Governments.”National Civic Review. October 1979: 481-487
3) Felsenthal, Dan S. Topics In Social Choice: sophisticated voting, efficacy and proportional representation.New York: Praegar, 1990.
4) CPB Web Publishing “Canadians for Proportional Representation” http://www.ualberta.ca/ dbailie/C4PR/ (October 27,1999)
5) Harper, Steven and Tom Flanagan.”Our Benign Dictatorship” http://www.nextcity.com/main/town/6dictat.htm#first (October 22,1999)
6) Bronskill, Jim. “Sleepwalking Toward Disaster” The Ottawa Citizen http://www.ottawacitizen.com/national/980519/1720161.html
7) Amy, Douglas “What is Proportional Representation?”( January 12, 1996) http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/polit/damy/whatispr.html (October 24, 1999)
8) Wilma, Rule and Steven Hill.”Ain’t I A Voter?” (October 1996) http://www.igc.apc.org/enVISION/women.html
9) Cassidy, Michael. “How Proportinal Representation Would Improve Canada’s Electoral System”, Paul Fox and Graham White, Politics Canada, 8th ed.McGraw-Hill Ryerson pp. 398-412.
10) Irvine, William. “Does Canada Need a New Electoral System?”, Kingston: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, 1979.
11) Barker, Paul and Mark Charlton. (eds.), Crosscurrents: Contemporary Political Issues, Vol.III, pp. 428-451.
12) Milner, Henry. (ed.) “Making Every Vote Count: Reassessing Canada’s Electoral System”, Broadview Press, 1999.
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