The Liberal government is pushing ahead with its campaign commitment to ensure that “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post [FPTP] voting system.”
It claims that FPTP, where the candidate with the most votes in a riding becomes the MP, is bad. But it doesn’t pretend to know what would be better. In pursuit of a promised “national engagement process,” a committee of MPs is trying to find a better way.
Although all kinds of methods have been tried since the 19th century in Europe and elsewhere, most of the democratic world votes by FPTP.
Voting is a procedure for making decisions. When people who want to do something together have talked it over, someone will likely say “Let’s put it to a vote,” by which they mean “Let’s decide.”
When there are more than two options, there may not be a majority for one. We all accept majority rule. But many people are disturbed when an MP is elected with only 31 percent of the vote. Or when a party wins 54 percent of the seats in the House of Commons with only 39 percent of the popular vote, as the Liberals did last October.
We shouldn’t be disturbed by these numbers. Plurality rule is just as valid a basis of democratic decision-making as majority rule. Schemes to produce a majority where there is none or give every theory or interest championed by a party a proportionate share in government prevent voters from deciding and holding those they elect accountable.
In a recent essay for the Fraser Institute, I outlined the two broad categories of alternative electoral systems: preferential voting, where voters list their preferences amongst candidates; and proportional representation (PR), where parties present a list of candidates and get seats in proportion to their vote.
Preferential voting may seem simple to voters. You just mark the candidates 1, 2, 3 and so on. But while that system may be only slightly more complicated than voting now, what may happen to the votes is anything but simple. Candidates who lose might have won had they received fewer votes. And candidates who win might have lost had they received more votes.
Electoral reform can get very technical and complicated. Its advocates imagine this is all a matter of getting it right.
However, the fundamental flaws in preferential voting and other schemes are well-known but ignored by the advocates.
The PR scheme most talked about is mixed member proportional voting. It looks like it offers the best of both worlds, with most MPs still elected by plurality in ridings and the rest taken from party lists. Voters get two votes – one for their MP and one for a party. What voters may not realize is that the party vote rules. Parties that can’t elect an MP in a riding or elect fewer than their proportion of the party vote get seats to assure they’re proportionately represented. If your riding vote elects an MP, your party vote may count for nothing.
Generally under PR, no party can form a government by itself. Coalitions rule. No party can do what it said it would do and be held accountable. Who governs is not decided by the election but in negotiations after the election, beyond voters’ control. Some parties are permanently in power. Some are permanently excluded. Bums are never thrown out. In Germany, what looks like a choice between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats ends with them both in a grand coalition.
Under PR, voters effectively provide a sample of their opinions and the parties decide who will govern on a basis that might only be explained by game theory. Even the parties don’t know how to play the game. The voters lose control.
If 2015 is the last election when Canadians vote as we have since before Confederation, it may also be the last in which voters decide who governs them.
John T. Pepall is a writer on politics, law and history of Canada, and contributor to a book on electoral reform published by the Fraser Institute.