The Liberals have promised a new electoral system before the next election, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to favour a preferential ballot. Critics have pounced, arguing that such a change would benefit the Liberals.
Our current system, known as First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), has both strengths and weaknesses. To have a healthy public debate, there must be a basic understanding of electoral systems. Today, I’ll focus on FPTP, which is also called the Single-Member Plurality system (SMP), and examine alternatives in another column.
In assessing which system we end up using, we need to first establish what we want to achieve through reform.
Is it “proportionality” – that is a strong relationship between the share of the popular vote and seats in the legislature? Is it representation – seeing a cross-section of the population in the House that reflects Canadian diversity, including ideological diversity? Is it stability, which we associate with a majority government?
The current FPTP process chronically misrepresents voter support. In the 2006 election, for example, the NDP and Green parties won 29 and 0 seats respectively. Had there been a pure proportional system (reflecting the percentage of voter support each party earned), the result would have been 54 and 14 seats.
The reason for this discrepancy is that candidates in each riding don’t need a majority of the votes, just more votes than any competitor (a plurality) to win the seat. Typically, a majority of voters in a constituency does not vote for the winner. A single-member plurality system works well in a two-party system, but that hasn’t existed in Canada since 1921. In most ridings, we have three or more parties contesting seats and, as a consequence, the party that forms government does not generally have the support of a majority of voters.
Why do we cling to something that does such a poor job of reflecting voter preferences? Because it has its advantages. The process is:
- stable, often producing a majority government
These strengths should not be underestimated because voters have become accustomed to a simple ballot which can be counted quickly. Knowing which party has won before going to bed is also appreciated! Such a system, however, also has weaknesses:
- It is a poor reflection of voter preferences.
- It encourages parties to focus on certain regions.
- It discourages the emergence of parties with different world views.
- It mutes some voices (women, First Nations, visible minorities).
- It casts doubt on the legitimacy of government because it has an artificial majority.
As the 2015 election demonstrated, the votes people cast didn’t necessarily go to their preferred party. Determined to defeat the Conservatives, a large segment of the electorate voted strategically, throwing their support behind the Liberals. Strategic voting wouldn’t be necessary under a process that reflects voter preferences faithfully.
FPTP supports the status quo, freezing out different ideas and different groups from their place at the table. However, in the Canadian context, there is also significant damage from the way FPTP exacerbates regionalism.
The Bloc Quebecois was recently an example of this tendency. A few decades ago, the Reform Party was established as a result of western alienation.
The Westminster-style parliamentary system reinforces the impact of the electoral system because a government with an artificial majority has unimpeded access to the levers of power. It does not need to pay attention to opposition parties even when they have good ideas or are expressing the wishes of citizens.
The winner takes all in Canada, and it would require a cultural shift for parties to learn to compromise and cooperate instead of engaging in tactics designed to annihilate opponents. Other electoral systems would require parties to put a little water in their wine but are they ready for this?
Doreen Barrie is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary.