Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | May 4, 2011

Canada needs proportional representation

It’s time again for the perennial post-mortem on the failing voter turnout in Canadian federal elections. Despite perhaps the most exciting election in decades, the percentage of Canadians who bothered to vote remained in the basement compared to peer countries, at 62%. Only France, at 60%, and the US, at 49% were lower in their most recent general elections – and both those countries had much higher turnouts for their presidential elections.

Many a tooth is gnashed over this disturbing figure, yet few seem to offer any explanations, and fewer solutions. There is the vague explaination in the air that there is something wrong with the personalities of the current crop of politicians. But what if the disease is more institutional?

Allow me to hazard a guess at one major reason for the low voter turnout in Canada: many people don’t vote because they see no point. They see no point because unless their vote goes to the winning candidate in their riding, their vote is essentially “wasted” and elects no one. Their vote – and voice – goes unrepresented in parliament. Worse still, the system is rigged to favour majorities (with 40% of the popular vote easily translating to over 50% of the seats), so even if your vote did elect an MP, unless they are part of the party that forms the majority, they are effectively shut out of power. Taking the recent election as an example, out of a total of 14.7 million votes, and 24 million eligible voters, 5.8 million votes were cast for the Conservatives. That means that the Conservatives will now wield absolute power for the next four years with a mandate from 39% of those who voted, and only 24% of the total population of eligible voters. The NDP received 4.5 million votes on May 2 – only 1.3 million less than the Conservatives – yet will hold zero power in the next parliament.

As final insults to Canadian democracy and the incentive to vote, take these facts to the polling station: power is concentrated in the party leaders, who usually enforce rigid party discipline; the PM has powers to make a dictator envious; and then there’s the small matter of the unelected Senate. Oh yeah, and our head of state is a representative of the Queen of England. Little wonder so many Canadians see so little point in voting.

But what to do about it? Obviously, the problem is deep-seated and, I would argue, institutional. Low voter turnout is but a symptom of an array of sicknesses besetting Canadian democracy. A multifaceted problem requires multifaceted solutions. Yet one solution I believe would go further, faster, and easier than most, is to change the electoral system to something more representative of the popular vote than our antique “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) system. FPTP was designed for a two-party state. Perhaps that worked well for people in the 19th century, but most in the 21st century feel a truer expression of their national will requires more options than white or black. The problem is that as soon as more than two parties vie for seats in a FPTP system, they start winning with far less than majorities.

Furthermore, if a party manages to coalesce on one side of the political spectrum, as the Conservatives have done, they will have a far better chance of forming majorities than the other side of the political spectrum, if they remain divided into different parties. So the FPTP system is constantly asserting pressure on our diverse political landscape to reconsolidate into two homogenous blocks once again. Since I doubt many Canadians would prefer only two choices on their ballots, the only other solution is electoral reform. Either Canadians’ voting choices shrink to accommodate FPTP, or FPTP changes to fit Canadians’ preferences.

The vast majority of democracies use some form of proportional representation (PR), where at least a portion of seats are assigned based on the popular vote. Only three countries still use FPTP: the UK, the US, and Canada. The US only has two main parties, and the UK just held a national referendum on an alternative to FPTP. That leaves Canada as the only country in the world with a multi-party FPTP system and no national debate about its validity.

There is reason to believe that a switch to some form of proportional representation may revive voter turnout. The countries with FPTP have lower voter turnouts than those with PR; the UK, at 66%, fairs little better than the US and Canada. Meanwhile, Germany is at 71%, New Zealand at 79%, Italy at 81%, and Denmark sets the gold standard (among countries that don’t enforce mandatory voting) at 87%.

Logically, it just makes sense that more people vote when they know that every vote cast goes towards electing someone they believe in to parliament. That’s why I believe that PR for Canada is a logical, and necessary, first step towards reengaging the electorate and fixing our broken democracy.


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