Electoral reform

More than a classroom experiment

Illustration of a voting box

A favourite lesson in a Civics or Politics class is to hold simulations of multiple concurrent elections. Candidates, ridings and parties are quickly identified. Students maintain particular voter profiles while indicating their preferences using several different sets of ballots. Ballots are sent to separate ‘Elections Canada’ offices. Confusion invariably ensues as each group announces a different set of results to the class. Student chief electoral officers soon discover that their instructions, identified as ranked ballots, proportional representation (PR) or single member plurality, are different from the others.

Students learn that both the methods of casting and the methods of counting ballots determine results at least as much as voter preference does. When they dig deeper, they become particularly interested in the peculiarities of the single-member plurality or first past the post (FPTP) system currently used in Canadian provincial and federal elections.

In a riding with four viable candidates or parties, it is possible to win with less than 30 per cent of the vote, as Xavier Barsalou-Duval in the Quebec riding of PierreBoucher—Les Patriotes—Verchères did in the 2015 federal election.

It is also possible for a party to win 100 per cent of the seats with only 60 per cent of the vote, as occurred in the New Brunswick legislature in the 1987 provincial election.

In fact, at the federal level, of the 13 majority governments of the last 70 years, only four had support of more than half of Canadian voters.

Students see how difficult it is for new parties with significantly scattered support across the country, such as the Greens, to get noticed and are shocked to hear that a party with seats in only one province, such as the Bloc Québécois, can be the official opposition.

They test out potential results of various other electoral systems and weigh which ones seem more accurate, fairer or more reflective of voter intensions. It is important to be clear that none of the systems intrinsically help one party over another. All parties (and many voters) will adjust their behaviour according to whatever electoral system changes are made.

Debates and discussions about electoral reform become all the more important in 2016 and must occur in union halls, staffrooms and family dining rooms. As a candidate in the federal election, newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that “the next federal election should be the last conducted under the current first-past-the post electoral system.” Maryam Monsef, Minister of Democratic Institutions and MP Peterborough—Kawartha, has now been instructed to “bring forward a proposal to establish a special parliamentary committee to consult on electoral reform, including preferential ballots and proportional representation.”

And Canada appears to be ready for the consultation. In December 2015, the Broadbent Institute found that the vast majority of Canadians think that Canada’s system for electing members of Parliament needs to change. Almost half thought those changes needed to be significant.

During the campaign, the New Democratic Party, the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois supported proportional representation. The Liberals were less clear on reform preferences. Liberal Party policy favours ranked ballots and a previous caucus was split on proportional representation. The Conservatives have opposed PR and are currently distracting from the necessary substantive debate by focusing instead on a national referendum.

Among the grassroots organizations seeking electoral change, Fair Vote Canada has taken the lead. It describes itself as a grassroots multi-partisan citizens’ campaign for voting system reform and promotes the introduction of an element of proportional representation into elections for all levels of government and throughout civil society. OSSTF/FEESO formally supported its campaign during the 2015 federal election. Fair Vote is currently actively lobbying MPs to ensure that positive reform occurs.

Despite its commonly cited criticism of being complicated, a popular PR system among electoral reformers is the Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP). However, focusing on confusion is a false criticism.

First, it assumes that our current electoral system is simple. While the average citizen may be able to answer with ease and accuracy that under FPTP the winning candidate in a riding is the one who received the most votes on election day. However, many Canadians have difficulty explaining how one becomes Prime Minister and most would be hard pressed to describe a typical leadership race. Interestingly enough, no Canadian political party uses FPTP to choose its leader. Explaining the intricacies and vagrancies of the nomination process, generally considered to be the key barrier to women and other underrepresented groups of citizens, requires significant effort.

While there are many forms of proportional representation, Canadian discussions have focused on mixed member proportional systems. The essence of MMP is certainly simple enough. The descriptor ”mixed” indicates that votes are counted in two ways. Local ridings continue to have a representative chosen by the most number of votes in that riding. But additional top-up seats are allocated in proportion to popular vote.

For people who like simplicity, the number of seats for each party proportionally matches the percentage of popular vote.

There are 181 countries around the world that currently use some variation of proportional representation at different levels of government. New Zealand, Germany, Mexico and Venezuela all use a form of MMP for national elections. Canada will be able to choose among tried and tested possibilities, each of which would result in slightly different results. Instead of looking for a perfect consensus on the perfect electoral system, Canadians must acknowledge that FPTP must finally be replaced, and rally around one proportional representation system to take us into the future.

About Susan Rab
Susan Rab is a teacher in District 25, Ottawa-Carleton and is on the provincial Communications/Political Action Committee.

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