Why would we want to switch to a different voting system? The existing one has worked just fine for hundreds of years.
If you really look at what tends to happen in Canadian elections, it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly that First Past the Post isn't working very well at all. Representative democracy is about two things: one, every citizen has the right to representation, and two, the majority win the right to make decisions. Under the current system, it rarely works out that way--in the 2000 federal election, for example, the Liberals won only 41% of the vote, but more than 57% of the seats in Parliament. When we consistently have "majority" governments that weren't actually elected by a majority of voters, there's a huge problem for the basic concept of representative democracy. In Canada, First Past the Post has been neither representative nor democratic.
This is a simple principle, and it's the one and only reason to switch to a fairer system. But a look at how proportional systems function in practice across the world suggests that there might also be several desirable side effects. Proportional systems tend to lead to a larger voter turnout. They tend to produce legislatures with a greater proportion of women. They tend to be less likely to produce strategic voting, allowing people to vote for the people and/or parties they truly like best. They tend to promote more civility in the political process. Every country is different, of course, so there's no promise that these things would all happen in Canada, but comparative evidence suggests that at least some of them would be likely. And those would all just be bonuses on top of fixing the democracy problem.
Okay, the existing system isn't perfect, but isn't it the best we can do in practice?
It really isn't. I, too would find the status quo to be an acceptable situation if there were no decent alternatives--after all, nobody's ever died or had their lives ruined because Canada doesn't have real representative democracy. But there are better alternatives, and they've been working well in most of the democratic countries of the world for decades. Proportional representation isn't just for wide-eyed idealists; it's a pragmatic solution to the inherent failings of First Past the Post.
Admit it, don't you just want the system to change so that smaller parties like the NDP will do better in elections?
No. My interest in electoral reform in Canada didn't start with the NDP; it started with Germany. After growing up mostly in the U.S., the first parliamentary democracy I experienced "up close and personal" was Germany's Mixed Member Proportional system. When I first started paying attention to Canadian politics, my naive assumption was that things worked the same way here, but over the course of my attempts to understand the 1993 federal election (in which the Progressive Conservatives received 16% of the vote but only two seats), it became abundantly clear that this wasn't the case. I was shocked--why on earth would the otherwise oh-so-practical Canadians tolerate a voting system that produced such skewed results?
Years later I'm far more informed, but I'm still asking that question. So far, the only reasonable answer I've come up with is that while many people realize that the system is broken, they don't realize that there are viable ways of fixing it. That hardly sits well with an idealistic pragmatist. And while I'd be happy to see the NDP gain greater political clout, I only want that to happen if it's what Canadians actually vote for. Democracy should take precedence over ideology.
Okay, but be honest--it's still about giving more power to smaller parties, right? Wouldn't proportional representation hurt all the parties but the NDP and the Greens?
Proportional representation isn't about giving more power to smaller parties, it's about giving each party no more and no less clout than that given to them by the voters. That said, it's certainly the case that the NDP and the Greens would benefit most from an electoral system change, at least on the federal level. But the two big parties would benefit, as well. The existing system exaggerates regional differences in our federal politics, making it almost impossible for a Liberal to win a federal seat in Alberta, or for a Conservative to win one in Atlantic Canada or in urban areas like Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto--even though many people in those regions vote for those parties. This distortion regionalizes our politics in an extremely unhealthy way, and a proportional voting system would set that right. This may be part of why prominent Liberals like Alberta's Anne McLellan and prominent Conservatives like Ontario Conservative MP Scott Reid have come out in favour of proportional representation.
Aren't proportional voting systems really complicated? I like being able to go to the polls, check a single box with a pencil, and be done with it.
The math behind proportional voting systems is complicated, but the voting itself isn't. Pure party list systems are extremely simple--you just vote for a party rather than a person. Under a Single Transferable Vote system, you vote by ranking candidates, and who hasn't had the experience of making some sort of "top ten list"? Voting is easy under a Mixed Member Proportional system, too, because all you have to do is vote once for a person to represent your riding, and once for a party. Following the unification of East and West Germany, they even managed to explain that last system to lots of new citizens who'd never voted in a democratic election before at all. Canadians aren't somehow inherently less intelligent than the people living in the rest of the world's democracies, where proportional voting systems are the norm.
Don't proportional voting systems mean that we wouldn't have ridings anymore? I wouldn't want a system that meant MPs would no longer be accountable to a particular riding.
In general, I agree that Canada would be better off with an electoral system that retains the function of small local areas being represented by an MP or MLA/MPP. Fortunately, it's possible to keep that aspect of the existing system and still have proportionality. One option that would retain ridings and direct representation would be the Single Transferable Vote system as proposed in the B.C. referendum. Under that system, voters would rank their preferred candidates, and ballots would help several people get elected. The urban areas would retain single-member ridings, while the rural areas would have large, multi-member ridings.
Another possibility would be the Mixed Member Proportional system as used in Germany, which retains the concept of single-member ridings across the country. Under MMP, you get two votes. In the first vote--the riding vote--you vote for the person who you think can best represent your riding in parliament. In the second vote--the party vote--you vote for the party whose policies are most closely aligned with your preferences. Approximately half of the seats in parliament are then filled through the riding vote and half are filled through the party vote, by candidates from party lists. This might be a good model for Canada on the federal level because Germany is another country with very diverse region-specific issues--after all, they were actually two separate countries until fifteen years ago.
Don't proportional systems distort the vote and allow tiny regional or ethnic parties to gain huge amounts of power?
This can sometimes be an issue with certain kinds of proportional systems, such as the pure party list system used in Israel. On the other hand, there are other countries that use that system (such as the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands) which haven't had these kinds of problems. Also, our existing First Past the Post system distorts the vote in precisely these ways already--in the 2004 federal election, for example, the Bloc Québecois received 54 seats with only 12.4% of the vote. So even if Canada did go with a pure party list system, there's every reason to believe that this aspect of things would still be better than it is now.
In general, though, I agree that it's a good idea to prevent tiny, single-issue parties from gaining too much power, which is why it's a good thing that there are proportional systems that prevent these problems. Under Mixed Member Proportional, each party is required to surpass a threshold of 5% in order to assume seats. Single Transferable Vote also has a built-in threshold that functions similarly.
I'm not crazy about this whole "party list" concept. If parties got to choose who went on their lists, wouldn't that end up turning into a patronage factory, giving us a bunch of lousy MPs?
It could happen that way, but it wouldn't have to. A look at the world's electoral systems provides us with a whole bunch of different ways of compiling party lists without backroom jockeying. An "open list" would allow voters to arrange the order of list candidates. A "zippered list" would require every other candidate to be a woman, and serve to make Parliament more gender-representative. A list could be assembled through primary elections, or be composed of those who ran in riding elections but lost by a tiny portion of the vote. It could be assembled at the regional or even the local level, perhaps by riding associations instead of by those at the top. With so many choices, surely we'd be able to find something that would be right for Canada.
Wouldn't proportional representation produce minority governments forever and ever, though? That sounds incredibly unstable.
It's certainly the case that minority governments (in which the governing party or parties fail to attain a majority of the voices in parliament) have been historically unstable across the board. On the other hand, proportional systems don't tend to produce them any more frequently than First Past the Post does. In the entire post-war history of Germany, for example, there have been only three minority governments on the national level (Ludwig Erhard's 1963 government, Willy Brandt's 1972 government, and Helmut Schmidt's 1982 government). Each was very short-lived.
What proportional voting systems do tend to produce is coalition governments, which are about as similar to minority governments as apples are to kumquats. I'm not talking about informal agreements such as the one we saw between the federal Liberals and the NDP in 2005, but formal coalitions, where the involved parties agree to divide up cabinet positions among them, and work together as a single government to make and implement their common policy. Coalitions are formed precisely to do away with the kind of instability inherent in minority governments, and in practice, they have been extremely effective at doing just that. Again, look at Germany. The recently defeated coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens was stable enough not only to last out its term, but to be reelected in 2002. Extremely stable coalition governments of the conservative Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats have also existed under chancellors Adenauer, Erhard, and the seemingly undefeatable Helmut Kohl, who was reelected a total of five times.
Wouldn't coalitions mean that a party with only 5% of the vote could end up with 50% of the power, though? That doesn't sound any more democratic than First Past the Post.
Certainly the situation in Canada in 2005--in which the minority Liberal government was propped up by the NDP--made it look like that's how a coalition might work. That's how things work in a minority government, though. A coalition functions quite differently, as a look at proportional systems across the world can tell us. A coalition government tends to allot cabinet positions to the involved parties depending on how well each did in the election, and then they sit down as a single government and develop policy together. In Germany's last coalition between the centre-left SPD and the left-wing Greens, for example, the Greens had to give a lot more than the SPD did initially because the SPD had received more votes and therefore more political clout. The ideas of the dominant party carry more weight, because they have more members in cabinet and more people sitting on the government side of the aisle. Then the parties act as a team to implement this jointly-made policy.
Compromise is inherent in a system like this, but you don't get the kind of "do this, or I'll stop propping you up" maneuvering that you saw in the informal Liberal-NDP agreement in 2005, because nobody's propping anybody up--the government consists of the whole coalition. Once the government parties agree on a political direction in the weeks following the election, it's in everybody's best interest to stick to the policies that have been devised and actually see them through to completion.
You keep going on about Germany, but didn't you talk here in this very blog about how crazy it was that they were having so much trouble forming a government after their last election? And didn't the same thing happen in New Zealand?
It's easy to try and blame the 2005 German and New Zealand election results on proportional representation (both countries use Mixed Member Proportional), but those who do that are misinformed. The problem wasn't the way the Germans and New Zealanders elect MPs, but the positively miserable performance of the two major parties in both countries.
Under proportional systems, it's typical for the major parties to have plans for potential coalition partners before going into an election. Once the result is known, then, the winning party can establish a working government right away. But in both Germany and New Zealand, the two major parties did much worse than they'd expected, making either of their preferred coalitions impossible. The blame for that muddle needs to rest with the current unpopularity of those parties, not with an electoral system that has worked perfectly well for decades. Close elections where the dominant parties perform badly are problematic under any electoral system, not just under proportional ones.
I don't know. If all these things were really true, then wouldn't we have already switched to a fairer system? There's got to be a catch somewhere.
It's really all true. Don't take my word for it, though--educate yourself. Read a book or two on electoral systems--they can be a little dry, but check one out from the library and page through it; it might surprise you. Canada-specific resources are unfortunately pretty scarce, but if you can get your hands on Steps Toward Making Every Vote Count edited by Henry Milner, it's new, well written, and very much worth your time.
As for the reason why we haven't already switched, well, there are two major ones. The benign reason is that there's so much misinformation out there about proportional representation that people don't realize what a good, practical solution it would be to the problems with our current electoral system. It can be very hard to educate an entire population without a lot of help from the people in power. Which brings me to the more sinister reason we haven't already switched--the fact that the people who have the power to change the system were elected by it, so it's in their best interests to make sure that the misinformation persists.
But this is why electoral reformers in Canada are starting out with local and regional grassroots initiatives, educating people and getting them interested in the issue. We do have a few allies among federal politicians, such as Ed Broadbent and Scott Reid, but for the most part, most of the work so far has been done in the provinces. And it's working. Despite the razor-edged failure of the referendum in B.C. and the probable failure of the one in PEI today, the movement is growing. A lot of people know more of the facts than they did a few years ago. There are a lot more of us than there were last year, or the year before, or the year before that. We stretch across all parties and all political movements. This idea isn't going away.
But what can I do about this? I don't have any special talents to offer an electoral reform movement. I didn't even know the answers to these questions until I read this FAQ.
Talk to people, both through electronic media and in person. Write letters to the editor. Argue with people who spread misinformation, whether it's deliberate or just out of ignorance. Link to this FAQ--or even crib ideas from it and write your own piece on the subject (I won't mind). Join Fair Vote Canada, a multipartisan, citizen-based campaign for voting system reform (at $10 a year, it's a bargain). Attend one of their local meetings and see what they're up to, and ask what you can do to help.
Let me put it this way: if you were patient enough to slog through this whole FAQ and smart enough to understand it, then you're one of the people electoral reformers need most.
Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.
Monday, November 28, 2005
Why would we want to switch to a different voting system? The existing one has worked just fine for hundreds of years.