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Commentary | Toward democratic reform

Alienated Canadians need proportional representation

First-past-the-post (FPTP) – a plurality electoral system in which the candidate with the most votes wins in their district, regardless of the vote distribution – is the current mode of voting in Canada. It is increasingly being criticized for encouraging strategic voting over voting for one’s own beliefs, and for disincentivizing voting in general. Both the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals made it clear that they would push for electoral reform during this fall’s federal election, but they were rarely pressed on the topic. Rather, in the media and during the debates electoral reform was relegated to the shadows as the conversation was steered to election fodder – the state of the economy and purposefully vague generalizations about our political process. Most democratic countries have implemented an electoral system that involves some form of proportional representation, and it is reasonable to wonder when Canada will follow suit. To at least some degree, proportional representation must be a component of the new electoral system if a more fair, representative democracy is to be achieved.

Proportional representation systems are not universal; the system has been adopted in various formats in different countries. In some proportional representation systems, like Finland’s or Norway’s, each electoral district has multiple seats, with the representatives selected from ordered lists provided by parties in proportion to the number of votes received. Alternatively, the entire country can be a single electoral district. Sometimes, a portion of seats are allocated through proportional representation, while another is allocated through FPTP; this is known as a mixed-member proportional system.

In Canada, a multi-partisan grassroots movement known as Fair Vote Canada has been advocating for proportional representation since 2000 and has gained incredible momentum in the past year. Electoral reform is a complex procedural challenge, but we need to remind ourselves why the issue has surfaced nationwide: Canadians are frustrated that their vote is too often “wasted” in the current FPTP system. This simply adds insult to injury for all those who are already disenchanted with Canadian politics. It is no secret that voters too often behave strategically in the hope that they can influence the outcome of an election, sacrificing their right to vote for the representation they feel truly reflects their conscience.

Democracy was not designed to be a winner-takes-all contest where the ruling party gets to play monarch for four years.

History shows that proportional representation leads to a more equitable composition for legislative bodies, and it encourages voter turnout by eliminating “wasted” votes. According to accuratedemocracy.com, proportional representation often leads parties to nominate more women candidates – as unbalanced party candidate lists are more obvious than a disproportionate number of male nominees in scattered FPTP districts – which ultimately leads to more women being elected. Further, smaller parties representing other special interest or minority groups are more likely to succeed. For example, one study published in the Journal of Politics in 2004 showed that the introduction of proportional representation in New Zealand drastically improved Maori representation in parliament.

The Fair Vote Canada campaign alone is not sufficient to push the current Liberal government to act on its promise to introduce electoral reform legislation. Citizens should be having open discussions – at school, at work, on social networks, or in town hall meetings – on the way in which we vote in Canada. Political parties are less likely to put their full effort behind issues, like electoral reform, that may not lead to more votes for their party in particular. Indeed, the Liberals were only able to gain a majority government because of the distorting effects of FPTP on the popular vote. However, democracy advances through strong social pressure. A nationwide conversation is needed to encourage the Liberal government to put ‘business-as-usual’ politics aside and to act in good faith on its promise.

Democracy was not designed to be a winner-takes-all contest where the ruling party gets to play monarch for four years. Under a proportional representation system, the more diverse group of decision-makers in the House of Commons would need to cooperate and make concessions to enact policies, rather than operate on partisanship. As Swiss political scientist Ernest Naville said in 1865, “In a democratic government, the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all.”


Louis Warnock is a U2 Earth and Planetary Sciences student. To reach him, email louis.warnock@gmail.com.


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