The ramblings of a giant squid…

Make electoral reform a priority

Current Events, Friends-Romans-Countrymen, Politics and Activism

Government is back in session and that means the polls are out again. The recent Ekos poll has the Conservatives in a slim lead over the Liberals – probably enough to make the PM say “neener neener” in parliament, but not quite enough to guarantee a majority win if an election was called today. Similarly the results aren’t going to imbue the other parties with much enthusiasm for an election, either, so expect political business as usual.


But the poll shows something else that I think is worth pointing out. First, a look at the results on page 3 of that Ekos report…

Right off the bat, most people look at that and say “wow, the Libs and Tories are neck and neck”.

Because if an election were held today, and the polling results panned out just like that, we’d still have a Conservative minority with a Liberal and Bloc Quebecois opposition, with some sprinkling of NDP and no Greens. That’s right… 1/4 of the voters would have little or no say in parliament. We persist in tolerating an electoral system that generates governments that have no relationship to the actual will of the people who elect them. Why bother even having elections if the results don’t reflect the polls in even a cursory way? Given how few people actually vote, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that plenty of people see this problem and just don’t understand what to do about it.

On the other hand, less than 10% of the voters would get a huge number of seats to represent their country-breaking separatist interests. The Bloc currently holds 48 seats… that’s just shy of 16% of parliament. The NDP, with more than 1.5 times the voter support, hold 12% of the seats. That means that if you’re a separatist Quebecker, your voice counts a lot more than if you’re a Canadian lefty. If you have a Green bent, apparently, nobody cares… even though you outnumber the separatists on the ground, you are seemingly unworthy to hold office.

Now, I’m not a fan of NDP or Green politics. But I can’t look at these results and see fairness. It is absolutely wrong that a regional separatist party gets to fight above its weight class in government while >25% of the voters across the country are largely ignored. And that, dear readers, is why we desperately need electoral reform in this country.

Our “first past the post” (FPTP) system worked well when there were only two parties, and passably when there were only three. Now there are four in most of Canada and five in Quebec. FPTP doesn’t work, and anyone with any sense of non-partisan fairness and two working brain cells can see that simply by looking at poll or election results and how it plays out in parliament.

And before anyone says “it’s too complicated to have another system” I want to say right up front that saying that voting is too complicated is like looking in the mirror and saying “wow, there’s an idiot in the mirror”… seriously. If you can’t be arsed to figure out how the government is elected, the problem is largely personal and you should be ashamed of yourself. Even the most complex system I’ve seen presented in Canada is less complicated than the US system, and they are held up as the archetype of freedom.

What Canada probably needs is some kind of proportional representation. That would fairly give most people a voice without lopsidedly handing the keys to the car to Quebec.

It would create minority governments much more often, although let’s be honest… other than having an election hanging overhead, has the government really done that bad a job compared to past governments? You might not like everything they’ve done (nobody does), but our country isn’t doomed and life is generally OK. So the argument that minority governments are sucky is demonstrably incorrect.

One argument against proportional representation is that “I won’t know who my MP is… I won’t get to vote for him directly.” This is a common complaint from the “it’s too complicated” people. There is a shred of validity to it. Many proportional representation systems don’t have a 1:1 mapping between candidates and electoral districts. Canadians love to have a personal MP to bitch to, and that’s fair enough.

So how can voter opinion be better matched to electoral outcome without going full-bore into proportional representation and eliminating the personal MP service that people want to imagine they have? Well, we could use the single transferable vote system (STV).

In this system, when people actually go vote (remember kids, if you don’t vote, nobody cares what you have to say about how the government turns out), you can rank candidates from your first choice down to your n-th choice. The Wiki article talks about slates of candidates being elected to collections of seats, but we wouldn’t need to do that here because we want, in each riding, to choose 1 candidate for 1 seat. With only 1 seat to win, a candidate would need 50%+1 votes. Here’s how it would work.

Round 1: the polls close and the polls are counted with the following result:

Conservative: 8,  Liberal: 6,  NDP: 3,  BQ:  2,  Green/Independent: 1

There were 20 ballots cast, but no candidate made the total of 11 needed to be elected. Note that under the FPTP system, the Conservative candidate would be elected despite 2/3 of the votes cast not supporting him.

Since no candidate has achieved 50%+1 votes, the lowest candidate is dropped off, and the votes for that candidate are redistributed according to their second choice. In this case the independent ballot is given to the voter’s second choice, with the following result:

Conservative: 8, Liberal: 7, NDP: 3,  BQ: 2

Again, the votes are tabulated. Again, no candidate has the requisite 11 votes necessary. Since no candidate has achieved 50%+1, then the lowest candidate is dropped off again, and the votes for that candidate redistributed according to their next choice:

Conservative: 8, Liberal: 8, NDP: 4

Still no candidate has achieved a majority, so it goes one more round. The candidate with the lowest number of votes is dropped, and their ballots redistributed by the next choice that each voter has made:

Conservative: 9, Liberal: 11

With this final count, the Liberal candidate would win with 11 votes. Contrast this with the Conservative win in a FPTP system. Note also that every single ballot was important all the way through the process. Every voter had a voice.

STV is not rocket science, people. It would mean that every person would get to vote for their individual MP in a riding, and it would mean that nearly every ballot cast would count for something. It likely wouldn’t totally rock parliament, but you can bet it would reduce Bloc representation a bit while increasing NDP and Green representation (particularly NDP). There could still be majority governments elected, although it might be slightly harder to do so… a party would actually have to convince around half or more of Canadians that they should be in power, vice the 37 to 40 percent they have to convince now.

The only obvious downside is that an election wouldn’t be fully decided within a few hours of poll close on election night. It might take a couple of days to tabulate the results in each riding. Is a few days wait really too high a price to pay for electing a government that the people actually want?

If you read this blog much, you know that my general political leanings are Conservative… but what I really want is an electoral system that is fair. Fairness leads to voter satisfaction and to good government. And isn’t fairness and good government what all Canadians want, irrespective of their political stripe?

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