— by Andrew Coyne —
Raised in Winnipeg, Mr. Coyne is a graduate of the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics. He is national affairs columnist for the National Post. He has previously worked for Maclean’s magazine, the National Post and the Globe and Mail, contributing as well to a wide range of other publications in Canada and abroad, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Time, Saturday Night, and the Walrus. He is also a weekly panelist on the CBC nightly news program The National.
The problem is that our democracy is not working as it should. We have a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system that was built for two-party politics. But we no longer have two-party politics. Result:
- It misrepresents voters’ true preferences.
- It discriminates against some voters, leaving others unrepresented.
- It denies some voters the right to vote for the party of their choice.
- The politics it encourages is corrosive, divisive, and driven by a winner-take-all mentality.
- The parliaments it elects present a distorted picture of the country, greatly exaggerating and exacerbating our differences.
The governments FPTP produces alternate between unstable minorities and wildly unrepresentative majorities. In sum, we do not live under the system we think we do.
We have the form of a parliamentary democracy, but in several respects not the substance.
What are the defining characteristics of democracy?
First: A system of majority rule. But ours is not such a system.In fact, it is a system of institutionalized minority rule. It only takes a plurality in each riding for a member to be elected. And it doesn’t even take a plurality for a party to form a government; governments are elected to “majority” governments not just with fewer votes than 50 percent – fewer even than 40 percent – but fewer votes than their nearest rivals.
This is not a trivial objection! Systems in which a minority rule over a majority are rightly denounced as tyrannies. Yet time and time again we elect governments that impose policies that are opposed by the majority.
Majority rule is ingrained in us. Try this thought experiment: suppose a minority of the Members of Parliament or the provincial legislature, say 39 percent, tried to pass legislation over the objections of the majority. There’d be riots. But there’s no particular significance to a majority of the men and women who happen to be sitting in that chamber. It’s only because they are supposed to represent the people. But if we’d object to a minority of MPs passing legislation, why would we not similarly object to MPs representing only a minority of the people doing so?
Yet that is happens, every day. We preserve the form of majority rule while ignoring it in substantive terms.
Second: A system in which everyone gets a vote and every vote is equal. But again, that does not describe our current FPTP system. The system is rightly called “winner take all.” Because we elect just one member per riding, the winning party and its supporters are awarded 100% of the representation. But they didn’t get 100% of the vote. In most cases, they got 40% or less; sometimes less than 30%. Aggregate that distortion across all the ridings and the number of seats a party gets bears no relationship to the number of votes it got.
Another way of saying it is that the weight of each vote varies wildly. Rather than every vote counting equally, some votes count for a lot more than others.At the riding level, some voters get their views represented in Parliament; others do not. Legally, they are all “represented,” in the sense that they have a member of Parliament. But they don’t get their views represented. (If it didn’t matter what their views were we wouldn’t have elections.) In the aggregate, the result is it takes many more votes to elect MPs from some parties than others.
For example, it took roughly 38,000 votes to elect each Liberal MP in the last election. By contrast, it took 57,000 votes to elect each Conservative; 79,000 to elect each New Democrat; 82,000 to elect each member of the Bloc Québécois. And, of course, the nearly 603,000 people who voted Green were rewarded with exactly one seat. And this was one of the less distorted recent results! In the 1993 election, you’ll recall, the Conservatives, with 16 percent of the vote, were reduced to a humiliating two seats. Meanwhile, the Bloc surged to 54 seats on the strength of… 13.5 percent of the vote, while the Reform Party, with less than 19 percent of the vote, got 51 seats.
The issue here is not fairness between the parties. Rather, it is the unequal treatment of different voters that represents a fundamental breach of the democratic promise. Nor are the inequities of first-past-the-post randomly distributed. Because only the candidate with the most votes in each riding is elected, first-past-the-post disproportionately rewards parties that can bunch their votes geographically. So parties that take an aggressively regional approach, like the Bloc Quebecois, typically benefit, at the expense of parties with a broader national outlook.
Election after election, the Bloc was allowed to pose as the voice of Quebec, though it never, ever, won a majority of the vote there. At one point, they even formed the Official Opposition. The system takes our existing regional differences, and exaggerates them.
This isn’t just a problem of avowedly regional parties: our national parties aren’t really national either, not at least in how they are represented in Parliament. Parties will typically be shut out of whole regions of the country, though they may have a quarter or more of the vote: the Liberals in the west, or the Tories in Quebec.
In 35 elections since 1896, the Conservatives have only carried Quebec three times: most elections, they have struggled to win more than a handful of seats. That record of futility is mirrored by the Liberals in the West, where they last won a majority of the seats in 1949: again, as often as not they have been held to single digits.
To look at the electoral map, you’d think there were no Tories in Quebec, and no Liberals in the West. But, in fact, the Tories have averaged more than 25 percent of the vote in Quebec, the Liberals the same in the West, throughout their respective droughts. It’s the electoral system, rather, that produces this funhouse image of Canada, since it rewards parties, not for “building the broadest possible coalitions,” but for clumping their support geographically.
Again, there are real-world consequences to this. Does anyone think the Liberals would have brought in the National Energy Program if they’d had more than two seats in the West?
In some provincial elections, the same phenomenon can result in one party winning all of the seats, or nearly all, in the legislature. How does a legislature with only one party, with no opposition, fit anyone’s definition of democracy? Again, if ballots were issued to some voters but not others, or in packs of two or nine or 29 depending on which party you voted for and what riding you lived in, there’d be riots in the streets. We have the form of one person, one vote, but not the substance, just as we have the form of majority rule but not the substance. But because the forms are maintained, we lose sight of how undemocratic the system really is.
Third: in a democracy, you get to vote for the party of your choice. But in our system, people are constantly being told they can’t vote for the party of their choice. Because only one MP from each riding gets elected, and because it only takes a plurality to win, voters live in constant fear of “splitting the vote” – letting the party favoured by the minority get in, because the majority was divided up amongst two or more parties.
So voters are herded into pens, told they must vote “strategically.” How often have you been told you can’t vote for the party you prefer, but must vote for a party you dislike, to prevent a party you detest from getting in? How often have you been told not to “waste” your vote on a party that can’t win?
You’ll know all about that if you live in one of the many “safe” ridings or indeed regions where the result is such a forgone conclusion it’s hardly worth campaigning, or voting, as opposed to the “battleground” ridings, the ones the parties actually contest, where how you vote might actually matter. The notion that every riding ought to be a battleground, with parties competing hard for every vote everywhere, does not seem to occur to us.
But in any riding, half or more of the votes might as well be tossed in the trash: the ones cast for any but the winning candidate. No, the others’ votes aren’t “wasted” in the sense that they were legally cast and counted. But it is true in the sense that only the winning party’s votes contribute to electing someone. Remember: first-past-the-post is a “winner take all” system.
But, of course, I’m only describing its effects on the election results. The real indictment of first-past-the-post isn’t so much what happens on election day, but what happens every day in between: in how we are governed, in the style of our politics. The electoral system is how we keep score; it sets out the rewards and penalties for different types of behaviour. If you change the scoring system, you change the way the players play the game. Ours is a highly leveraged system; two points in the polls can means dozens of seats won or lost.
One consequence of a system of institutionalized minority rule is exaggerated swings in government policy, based on nothing but the luck of how the vote splits. In Ontario, for example, we swung from the David Peterson Liberals to Bob Rae’s NDP to the Mike Harris Tories in the space of a few years, all based on the shift of a few percentage points in the popular vote. That’s at election time. The same leverage often means prolonged periods of stasis between elections, everyone hugging the middle, the status quo and each other rather than take any chances by, say, proposing new ideas.
At the same time, because a cohesive, motivated minority can prevail over a disparate majority, FPTP rewards the kind of narrow, nasty politics we’ve seen all too often, where the aim is to rile up your supporters, to impress upon them that they are a besieged minority who must stick together no matter what. And, increasingly, we’re seeing it result in minority governments. That’s not supposed to happen. FPTP is supposed to produce stable majority governments. That’s true, under two-party systems. But we haven’t had two party politics in Canada since 1917.
Once the mould is broken, it’s very hard to put it back. Political identities are increasingly fluid. We’re seeing more new parties, not fewer: the Bloc, the Greens, now Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party. Nine of the last 20 federal elections have resulted in hung parliaments. There are now seven parties represented in Parliament. Minorities at the provincial level are increasingly frequent. In recent years: Ontario, Quebec, BC, New Brunswick. Yet we keep treating it as if it were an aberration. One party or another will try and nerve its way through on sheer brinkmanship.
So the choice with FPTP is between unrepresentative “majorities” and unstable minorities. In sum, the present system allows the minority to rule over the majority. It gives some voters many times the voting power of others. It denies many voters the right to vote for the party of their choice, and wastes the votes of the rest. Oh, and it nearly killed the country a couple of times.
There is an alternative
First of all, stipulate that no system of PR that is being proposed, or that is ever likely to be proposed in Canada, would ever do away with local representation. That is, indeed, the essence of our system. Here, rather, is the big, radical shift entailed under proportional representation. Here’s what it all boils down to. Instead of one party getting 100 percent of the representation in each riding, you divide it up among the parties, in proportion to their share of the vote.
Benefits of reform
Would this, as claimed by the FPTP side, mean “the end of majority governments”? No, it would mean the start. Under first-past-the-post, parties can win a majority of the seats with less than 40 percent of the vote: under proportional representation, a majority means a majority. It’s just not necessarily a single-party majority. More typically, it’s made up of coalitions of parties.
We associate “minority governments” with instability. But again, that’s a product of our highly leveraged system. When two points in the polls make all the difference, everyone has their finger perpetually suspended over the button: We’re up in the polls? Let’s go: let’s force an election. In a less leveraged system, when two percentage points in the polls only means two percent more seats, there’s no point.
Rather than some votes counting for more than others, as under first-past-the-post, under PR every vote counts equally. Well, not every vote, but a whole lot closer to it. Rather than focus their efforts on a few “battleground” ridings, then, parties must campaign hard in every part of the country/province because every vote, or nearly so, helps to elect someone.
Under PR, voters who now trudge to the polls feeling the whole exercise is pointless because their candidate is unlikely to win, or switch their vote to some other party for fear of “splitting the vote,” can vote for the party they actually prefer. No policy lurch. Make your gains by the earned increments of persuasion, not the accidents of split votes.
A stabler, more representative government.
The thing about fringe parties is that they’re fringe. The reason so few Canadians vote for the Nazis isn’t because we’ve rigged the electoral system to keep them out. It’s because we don’t like Nazis. We’re Canadian! We don’t vote for Nazis, we liberate Europe from them! The notion that just because you change the electoral system, Canadians would suddenly start voting Nazi en masse is just … well, it’s just embarrassing, frankly. I’m embarrassed for the people making it.
Of course, the definition is a bit tautological; some of today’s mainstream parties were once considered fringe. The Reform party, the Bloc Québécois, and the Greens all started out on the fringe. Is the present system too “risky,” for failing to keep them out?
And who are the parties that now populate the margins? The largest, by far, are the free-market Libertarians and the social-conservative Christian Heritage party – maybe not your cup of tea, but neither one is remotely threatening to our democracy. The rest, Communists, Animal Alliance, etc., not one of them fits the dark, alt-right fantasy the prime minister imagines.
Such parties exist in Europe, to be sure: but we are not Europe, a continent with little experience of immigration suddenly coping with the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from a war-zone. And even if extreme or crazy parties got in, they would have only as much leverage as their number of seats allowed. Whereas, under first-past-the-post, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination with 43% of the vote, and won the presidency with 46%.
How does it actually work in other countries?
People tend to discuss all this as if we were the only country on Earth, or the first to jump into proportional representation. First, it’s the system in use in most of the world’s democracies. Not just Israel. Absolutely no one is going to propose any sort of system for Canada that does not include local representation. So if you’ve been told that PR means we get the system in Israel, you’re being fed a line. In Israel, the whole country is one electoral district; the 120 members of the Knesset are all elected at large, from the same pool of voters. So it only takes tiny fraction of the vote to get elected. The whole country is one district because it’s a tiny country. We’re not tiny. And we’re not Israel.
How well governed
Look at any list of the world’s most successful countries, by whatever metric you prefer – GDP per capita, say, or median incomes, or triple-A credit ratings, or if you find those too limiting, the UN’s Human Development Index – and you find the same names appearing. Yes, you’ll see the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. But near the top of every list are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, all of whose parliaments are wholly or partially elected by proportional representation.
How many parties does one find in the typical PR-based legislature? There’s a range, depending (in part) on the size of the electoral districts from which they are elected.
Remember: what distinguishes PR is the use of multi-member, rather than single-member districts. The more members per district, the more closely you can match the number of seats a party gets to its proportion of the vote.
So at one end you have countries like Austria, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg and Sweden, all with six to eight parties represented in their legislatures, or about one to three more than Canada’s, with five. At the other, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland, with 10 to 12. On average, studies show FPTP systems tend to have about two or three parties, PR countries three or four.
How unstable are these systems? Since 1945, Canada has held 22 elections. In only one of the PR countries mentioned has there been more: Denmark, with 26. The average is 20. It is true that the governments that result are rarely, if ever, one-party majorities. But, as you may have noticed, that is not unknown here. Nine of Canada’s 22 federal elections since 1945 have resulted in minority parliament
What about the argument that FPTP makes it easier for voters to “throw the bums out”? Where’s the evidence? Under first-past-the-post, Canada has had some of the longest-lasting dynasties in the democratic, or indeed the undemocratic world: the 42-year reign of the Conservatives in Ontario, the 43 straight years under their counterparts in Alberta, or the dominance of the federal Liberals for most of the past century: from 1896 to 2006, they governed nearly three years in four.
Was that 110-year period of dominance a reflection of a broadly-shared national preference for Liberal government? Not so much; on average, their share of the popular vote exceeded that of the Tories by just three percentage points, 42 to 39. Rather, it was on the strength of their ability to cluster their support in one province – Quebec – until 1984, Ontario after that. Again, FPTP at work.
Compare: Since 1945, Canada has changed governments eight times (counting the Joe Clark interregnum as two). Looking at countries of comparable levels of development in the proportional representation world, you find some, indeed, that have had fewer clear changes of power: Austria (three) Germany (four), Sweden (six). But you find as many with more. The citizens of Norway have thrown the bums out nine times in the same period; the Danes, 12 times; the Irish, 13.
A change of philosophy
What is the purpose of elections? Is it just to find out who won? Or is it to find out what people think? Is the only possible form of parliamentary democracy single-member plurality? Or can we elect several members per riding? Must we only allow a slice of the electorate to be represented in Parliament, or can we have a broader representation, based on the actual range of views in the country? Struck by the fact we’re deciding this by a referendum. What right does a party with a mere majority of the legislature have to impose its views on the country? Implicitly, they’re acknowledging they want a real majority, a vote of all the people.
First-past-the-post is broke, let’s fix it. Vote for Proportional Representation.