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Electoral reform

October 2016
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In the last year, electoral reform has been a frequent political topic. I think that this is a topic that should receive constant review, rather than the occasional consideration. I will throw in the fact that my ideas of electoral reform probably don’t match of lot of those who use the term.

For example, I personally have nothing against the First Past The Post (FPTP) system. We live in a country with a Westminster style parliament and the purpose of our federal and provincial/territorial elections is to select the candidate who will represent our riding. We don’t elect a prime minister or premier. Selection of that position lies with the party that holds the confidence of the house. In the case of a minority, that party does not necessarily even hold the most seats.

“Parliament” came from English common law, although the word is derived from the French verb “parler,” or to speak. (Upper middle and upper class people in England at the time would have spoken the language of court, Norman French.) It was a body of representatives who spoke among each other to determine laws that would benefit the people… although at the time, that would be upper middle and upper class people only.

From those early bodies came our current parliament, where we elect a person to represent our riding, and hence, our concerns.

The current concern with electoral reform stems largely from the increase in people voting for other than the two main parties, and that confidence in the house or winning a seat both lay in winning a plurality, rather than a majority, of either seats or votes. A rule of thumb commonly used is that a 40% popular vote total should win a majority government in a federal election.

With additional parties in the mix and garnering support, there has been some call to deal with so-called “false majorities” leading to “wasted votes.” For example, 3.45% of the popular vote went to the Green Party, yet this resulted in 1 seat in parliament, or 0.3% of the seats. In contrast, the Liberal Party gained 184 seats, 54.4%, with a popular vote of 39.47%. This has led many to call for Proportional Representation (PR) in one of several models, where seats are distributed on the basis of earning the popular vote.

I strongly disagree with this for three reasons. First, in my own opinion, there is only one type of vote wasted and that is one that is not made in the first place. I understand that many are dissatisfied with the system and the results and don’t feel the desire to vote. However, I have difficulty with the idea that your vote for a candidate that did not win is a “waste.” With every election, as with every hockey game, there will be winners and losers. With a multiparty system, there will be more losers than winners, and more potential for your vote to not be for the winner increased. I tend to view PR as the participation trophy of democracy.

Secondly, where do we cut off the percentage of popular vote that would qualify for a seat? There were 19 political parties in the last election. Should each one that had members receive votes get a seat, or should there be a minimum percentage of popular vote required to qualify? Some countries use a minimum of as high as 10% as a cutoff, meaning no seats would be given to those parties not reaching that percentage of the popular vote. Most use 5%, meaning that neither the Bloc Québécois nor the Green Party would be eligible for seats at all.

My biggest complaint, though, is through how we would have to distribute seats based upon the popular vote. Remember that we are supposed to be electing our representative who will carry the concerns of our riding to government. In a federal election, popular vote can easily be skewed by geography. People in Atlantic Canada may well vote substantially differently from another region. Should their choice for picking their representation be biased based upon the popular vote from another region? Should a preponderance of votes from there be overruled by a preponderance of votes for another party in Quebec or Ontario, where there is a higher population? Using this formula, by the way, would give the Bloc Québécois 16 seats in the commons, rather than the 10 they won.

I also suspect that, given the potential to shift the choice away from individual representation by a full version of PR, essentially changes the very nature of our parliament. Such a change should have to be dealt with using the formula for a major change to the constitution, itself. A shift to this form of election may result in a concerted challenge under the Constitution Act.

That’s not to totally write off electoral reform. There are other voting alternatives, such as preferential ballot. In this case, you would list first, second, third choice, etc., on your ballot and a when a candidate who did not get a clear majority, 2nd place ratings would also be used to determine an eventual winner. I could tolerate this since we would still be voting for our own representative; however, I would wonder how these would be reported. For example, does coverage list the alternative choice votes as well as the first choice ballots in ongoing coverage? Unless someone was winning with some of the margins John Crosby was used to in St. John’s West in the 1980s, it may be very hard to follow.

There is also the concept that this could work to the benefit of a centrist party over left or right wing ones. The line of logic behind that is that it is unlikely that someone who supports a far left party will list their second choice as a far right one. The alternative choice would tend to more support a centrist one, giving the advantage to them over the others. It is a viable worry.

There are other aspects that electoral reform could concern. For example, online voting would probably appeal to a broader range of voters. This might help cases where people may avoid voting due to the problems of mobility, or other aspects that prevent going to a poll. Younger voters may be more inclined to participate using a technology they are familiar with. There are security issues involved but this is mostly a case of details, rather than having the technology available. If you can be protected banking online, why not voting?

My biggest suggestion for electoral reform is the following. Maybe, to avoid your party losing, press them for policies that match the electorate. Insist they work together to achieve results, rather than partisan infighting. Make them recruit good candidates.

And remember, your vote may not win, but it does count…

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