Talking democracy: Canada deserves a better electoral system

Julie Maclellan

The more I read about how this election is shaping up to be a real, honest-to-goodness three-way race, the more I get annoyed.

Not about the fact of the real, honest-to-goodness three-way race – that part’s actually pretty cool – but about the fact that it likely means that any one of three men (sorry, Ms. May, I’m discounting your chances here) will be leading this country come Oct. 20 with the support of only about a third of Canadians.

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I could be wrong, of course. Any one of the three could presumably charge ahead and wind up actually earning the support of a majority of voters.

It just seems unlikely.

Take the result of the 2011 election. Stephen Harper earned his majority Conservative government (166 of 308 seats, or about 53.9 per cent of seats) with 39.6 per cent of the vote. The NDP, meanwhile, won some 33 per cent of the seats with 30.6 per cent of the vote. The Liberals earned 11 per cent of the seats with 18.9 per cent of the vote, while the Greens earned 3.9 per cent of the vote and one seat (well under one per cent of the seats). The Bloc Quebecois earned some six per cent of the vote and four seats (a little over one per cent).

And let’s not forget that those percentages only reflect the people who actually voted. Take into account that the federal election turnout was 61.1 per cent, and the percentage of eligible voters who actually wanted Harper in charge plummets to somewhere around 24 per cent.

None of that was new, of course. Canada has seen election after election in which the number of seats and the percentage of the popular vote simply didn’t align.

It’s not a partisan issue, by the way: Most British Columbians will recall one of the more famous inequities – when Glen Clark’s NDP won a majority government (albeit a slim one) with 39 per cent of the popular vote in 1996, beating out Gordon Campbell’s Liberals despite their 41.8 per cent of the vote.

The point is, the makeup of our Parliament and legislature (and city councils, when it comes to that) should do a better job of reflecting what people actually want.

Here’s the catch: Our tired old first-past-the-post voting method really only works in a two-party system (or, flip that, and suggest that first-past-the-post will inevitably cause a two-party system to emerge eventually). In a two-party system, it’s pretty cut-and-dried: either you vote for A, or you vote for B.

There’s no in-between, no speculation about whether you should vote strategically because although A is your first choice, you’d prefer C over B, and perhaps if C has a better shot of beating B then you should vote for C instead.

In a multi-party system, the result inevitably gets muddled up by just that sort of thinking. Even those popular vote percentages I quoted above may have little to do with the reality of what people actually wanted in their hearts when they went to the polls in 2011. How many voters would have chosen the Greens but voted NDP instead because they didn’t want the Conservatives to win? Or how many voters would have gone Liberal but chose the Conservative candidate in their riding because they had a clearer shot at beating the NDP?

And so on, and so on. Whoever won or lost in those calculations, any system that encourages so-called “strategic” voting is a messed-up system.

There’s a reason it’s not a system that’s in favour in the vast majority of Western democracies – take out Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., and you’ll find the rest using some form of proportional representation.

It just makes sense. Why wouldn’t we want to switch to a system that – gasp! – actually creates governments that reflect the wishes of voters?

If we could just pigeonhole Canadians into two neat boxes labelled “left” and “right,” we could just leave it there. We could have a two-party system, stick with first-past-the-post, and everyone could feel well represented.

But that’s just not reality. The citizens of a country as vast and as diverse as Canada deserve more voices, not fewer, to represent them.

And we deserve to be able to vote for someone whom we truly in our heart believe to be the best choice – not the person we think stands the best chance of beating the guy we really don’t want to win.

Switch to proportional representation, and that problem goes away.

As an added bonus, proportional representation also encourages people to vote. The existing system feeds into voters’ apathy by creating a “what-difference-will-it-make-anyway” mindset – why should I go to the polls if it doesn’t seem to matter what I want? Not that I buy into that mindset (ask anyone who has to listen to me harp about the need to vote every single time an election is called), but change the electoral system and you give people more incentive to get to the polls and have their say. And the more people who actually have their say – and see that it make a difference in the result – the more effectively democracy works.

Probably not surprisingly, in this federal campaign, you’ll find a promise to switch to proportional representation from three of the four major parties in the Canadian race – the exception being the one party that’s doing a good job holding onto power by winning favour with about a quarter of Canadians.

Let’s hope they mean it. And let’s hope that, if one of those parties happens to take power come Oct. 20, they make that promise a top priority.

Because I, for one, would love to see what this country looks like after an election in which all Canadians feel empowered to vote for the person they really want to win – and an election in which the result actually reflects what the people wanted.

That’s not so terribly much to ask, is it?

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