Electoral reform action on the agenda in three provinces


OUR ELECTIONS ARE ONE BIG CHEAT. Getting the most votes should be what matters most. It isn’t. Winning the most seats is. It’s a difference that cheats us out of the democracy we all want.

The problem is winning a seat has no connection to the overall popular vote—to the combined “will of the people.” Winning a seat depends only on who comes first in a particular geographic area (riding)—who is the “first-past-the-post”. One vote is good enough; 1000 votes more changes nothing.

It is a distortion that gave the Doug Ford PCs the government in Ontario in June with 63% of the seats in legislature, with just 40.5% of the popular vote.

Worse still, first-past-the-post voting introduces gross inequality between the value of votes. For example, the PCs only needed 30,589 votes on average to win a seat; the NDP needed 48,138 votes. So, a PC vote was worth about 1.6 times a vote for the NDP.

Such a disregard for the popular vote in the federal election in 1993 resulted in the most lopsided defeat for a Canadian governing party ever at the federal level—and one of the worst ever suffered by a governing party in the Western world.

The PCs only won two seats—even though 2,186,422 Canadians voted for them. That is, for every 1.09 million votes they got the PCs were awarded one seat. On the other hand, the winning Liberals got 83 seats—one seat for every 68,047 votes they got.

Everyone agrees none of this is democratic. Everyone also agrees all of it is in need of real reform. Exactly how to get that reform, and what kind of reform it needs to be, is as open to debate and division as politics itself.

Can’t risk a truly free vote

Retired teacher, Thom Corner, doesn’t vote for the party he wants. He votes for the party he needs to block the one he doesn’t want. He doesn’t like doing it. But he feels our present first-past-the-post electoral system leaves him no choice.

“I feel that I am a permanent strategic voter. In the most recent Ontario election I did not want the Liberals to win, but desperately wanted to stop Doug Ford from becoming premier. I planned to vote NDP because of its platform, but considered voting Liberal locally because…. I wanted to prevent the Conservatives from winning one more seat.

“In a proportional representation system I would not have to over-think it. I would just vote for the party I wanted, knowing that the proportion of votes it won would be reflected in the parliamentary allocation.”

This desire to vote for what you want, instead of having to vote against what you don’t want, is growing. More and more Canadians are considering transforming their electoral systems from the first-past-the-post method to a more democratic system, such as the mixed-member proportional representation system presently operating in Germany, New Zealand and in Scotland’s parliament.

British Columbia, Quebec and Prince Edward Island have all put the possibility of change on their calendars.  And after the recent Ontario election handed Doug Ford a majority government without a majority of the votes, many in Ontario want Ontario to do the same.

Talking about electoral reform is not new

Electoral reform is certainly not a new idea, nor is it an idea that appeals only to the disenfranchised. Pierre Elliot Trudeau thought it was a great idea in 1979. So did his son Justin, at least until he won a majority government with the old first-past-the-post and then promptly decided that the country really didn’t need change after all.

Even Stephen Harper called electoral reform “the key to Canada’s survival as a nation.” That is until he got his own majority government through first-past-the-post. Funny how that works. But many Canadians are getting tired of parties being able to seize all the power with majority governments when a majority of the electorate voted for someone else.

A system of proportional representation would keep that from happening. It would also likely give us more minority governments. For some this is a bad thing. Others, like Thom Corner, think it would give us more of the good government we all really want.

“Fewer majority governments and more coalitions or collaborative governments would be good. I prefer to see minority parliaments work together for a fixed period of time passing legislation that reflects input from all the parties in parliament.”

Provinces ready to test the waters

Doctoral student Sean Fleming, who has been researching electoral systems for the past decade, believes that small jurisdictions like P.E.I. have the best chance of actually implementing proportional representation. Because of their diminutive size, the inequities are more blatantly obvious. As an example, in 1935, the Liberals won every single seat in P.E.I.’s legislature with only 58 per cent of the vote. There was not even one person left to form the opposition.

“Most of the debate focuses on the fairness of the system,” Fleming explained. “I think the more compelling argument is that first-past-the-post doesn’t work. It gives us one or two member oppositions that just can’t function.”

In 2019, islanders will have the chance to change things as they head to the polls to both elect the government and to vote on how elections will be carried out in the future.

In P.E.I., the government plans to provide $150,000, split equally between the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ sides on the issue of electoral reform. Neither side will be allowed to solicit additional funds for advertising or promotion.  In order for a group to qualify as a registered advertiser, they must not be associated with a political party, they must be non-profit with all staff working on a volunteer basis, and they can’t have “principle members” who plan to run in the next election.  

Another B.C. referendum this fall

For voters in British Columbia, the chance to change the system could come even sooner with a referendum scheduled for this fall. The BC electorate will also get more options. Instead of a simple ‘Yes’/’No’ division, they’ll have the opportunity to choose from three forms of proportional representation.   The ballot will include mixed-member PR, which is already in use in several countries, and two made-in-Canada systems that have never been tried anywhere, dual-member PR and rural-urban PR.

The BC NDP and Green Party alliance has committed to a referendum that would start with a campaign launching on July 1st and mail-in voting occurring from Oct. 22 to Nov. 30. But BC has already had two failed referendums on electoral reform, one in 2005 followed by another in 2009. So what makes this referendum different?

One difference is the choice. Having three choices, including mixed-member PR, gives voters options that weren’t available in previous referendums.

Another problem with previous referendums was the 60% threshold for success. So returning to a 50% threshold gives electoral reform levels the playing field.  And, as an added safeguard, if voters decide in favour of electoral reform, another referendum will be held after two general elections, giving them a chance to return to first-past-the-post should they wish.   

Quebec ready to move this fall

The question of electoral reform in Quebec is on an entirely different footing. The leaders of the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), Parti-Quebecois (PQ), Quebec Solidaire (QS) and Green Party of Quebec have all promised to put electoral reform on the table within a year of taking power. And, moreover, it won’t require a referendum. So despite being the only plan without a hard and fast date, it could happen quite quickly depending upon the results of this fall’s election.

Ontario previously held a referendum on electoral reform in 2007 in which voters in favour of keeping first-past-the-post in place solidly outnumbered those who voted for change. But the result was highly suspect. Some even said the McGuinty Liberal’s legislation actually rigged the referendum to give them the answer they wanted—to keep things as they are.

The government made no attempt to assist voters in understanding what was under debate. The government failed so badly at educating the electorate that many people were completely unaware that a referendum was taking place.

In the end, the Liberals’ referendum win paid off when Kathleen Wynne led them to a majority government in 2014 with only 38.7 per cent of the popular vote.

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