Canadians want greater congruence between votes and legislative seats. And we want better representation of women, minority groups and ideas in the houses of government. Those powerful incentives make proportional representation attractive.
The main draw of proportional representation (PR) is that the seats that parties receive in elections correlate roughly with their share of the popular vote.
The degree of proportionality and other variables differ greatly among the numerous countries using some form of PR. The feature they do share is multi-member districts or constituencies that vary in size. In some cases, like Holland, one district encompasses the entire country.
So let’s look briefly at how PR systems work, focusing on those using party lists (the set of names each party offers on the ballot) and the single transferrable vote. The emphasis will be less on the mechanics of these alternatives than on their implications.
There are two types of list PR systems: the closed list and the open list. In closed list PR, candidates are ranked by the party and voters must accept the party rankings. Parties receive seats proportionate to their share of the vote in that electoral district. If a party wins, say, three of seven seats, the top three candidates on its list are declared winners.
In open list PR systems, voters are not bound by the party’s preferred order. They can express a preference for one or more candidates or re-order the entire list.
The single transferrable vote (STV) is rarely used for lower house elections but it was recommended by the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. This model reduces the influence of political parties even further: voters are free to rank candidates, ignoring party wish lists and even spreading their support across party lines. This provides opportunities that do not exist in other systems, for small parties and independents.
Marking ballots in PR systems is certainly more onerous than marking a single X. But it is in the counting of votes that PR gets complicated. The complexity of various methods of allocating seats cannot be explained in a short column, but there is a wealth of material available on the Elections Canada website, among dozens of others.
So, what’s not to love about PR?
Perhaps the strongest objection is to what happens post-election. Although one party can get a majority, more often one of the major parties must approach smaller parties to form a coalition. Negotiations take place behind closed doors to determine who will form government. Discussions might drag on for days or weeks, and the resulting arrangements may be disappointing and cause resentment among voters.
In addition to uncertainty regarding the policy direction the new government will pursue, coalitions may also be unstable.
In closed list PR, critics point out that the link between voters and their representatives is weak. Because MPs are beholden to the party, they may neglect constituents.
Although open list PR strengthens the role of voters, the intra-party competition for a favourable rank on the list is an unhealthy byproduct of this process.
However, STV is the most problematic. A majority government is unlikely in this system and very small parties can wield a disproportionate amount of power. Major parties have to bargain with other parties and independents to reach majority status in the legislature.
Australia uses STV in its Senate and in recent years the success of a number of micro-parties and independents has made life difficult for the government. Two such parties, the Motoring Enthusiast Party and Family First, each have a single seat in the upper house. And the balance of power was held briefly by the Palmer United Party led by Trump-like leader Clive Palmer. The Australian government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott suffered humiliating defeats because of the dynamics in the upper house.
As PR systems vary so greatly, it would be possible to custom design one that addresses concerns the Canadian electorate might have. Perhaps a hybrid system that combines our current system with some elements of PR?
However, no matter which model is chosen, even some elements of proportional representation will represent a sea change from our current winner-takes-all system. One-party governments will not be the norm and it will require a cultural shift to cope with the new political reality.
Doreen Barrie is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary.