It’s not enough just to vote

Why Canada’s democracy needs an upgrade

by Paul H. LeMay

In the last federal election, a stunning 41 percent of eligible voters – or 5,382,130 Canadians – abstained from voting. In fact, more Canadians abstained from voting in the general election of 2008 than the number of Canadians who cast a ballot for the Conservative Party that came to form government, in fact about 170,800 more! Yet what is even more alarming is that voter apathy has grown by more than two million people over the course of the three previous federal elections held since 2000. Not good.

Why are more and more people getting turned off from voting? Well, there are a variety of inter-locking reasons. One reason is attack ads. Pollster Angus Reid Strategies found that 10 percent of all eligible voters, regardless of age, said they were turned-off from voting because of attack ads. Yet these aren’t just any voters. They’re mostly swinging voters.

Swing voters are the traditional king-makers in our democracy and they tend to be moderate centrists. Moreover, they generally don’t see themselves as belonging to any one ideological tribe. What’s more, swing voters generally vote for the ideas and people they like, based on a basket of both rational and emotional impressions. So it’s not surprising politicians and their handlers will go to inordinate lengths to find out what swing voters want. It is one reason why they hire silver-tongued devils to write their speeches, and image consultants who tell them how to dress and comb their hair (assuming they have any) and who remind them to smile as much as possible so as to always seem friendly. If the voters like tinsel, talk about tinsel even if the politician doesn’t give a damn about the stuff. It’s what they want to hear.

But when verbal flowers and chocolaty promises fail to do the trick, politicians resort to another tactic, the attack ad. Attack ads are tattle-tale narratives designed to highlight the nastier side of one’s opponents. The goal, of course, is to turn swing voters off from considering the merits of their rivals. Yet rather than helping to woo “temperamental” swing voters their way, the vitriol of attack ads so offends their sensibilities it turns them off from voting altogether. And the more swing voters disengage from voting, the worse the attack ads can become, creating a vicious negative feedback loop that’s hard to break.

But that’s not the worst of it. Eventually, strategists use this ‘voter suppression effect’ as a deliberate psychological-warfare tactic. The goal is to so demoralize those who support one’s opponents that it even causes some of a party’s traditional soft-supporters to leave the voting field as well. It’s a tactic the Conservative Party used to such great effect in the 2008 federal election. An estimated one million “soft-Liberals” stayed at home largely because of the Conservative’s attack ad strategy aimed at Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion.

The baby-rattle effect

Unfortunately, one of the larger psycho-social side effects of the attack ad strategy is that it polarizes political discussions to such an extent that other important social issues are blown off the political map. Call it a variant of the baby-rattle effect. Shake a rattle in front of a crying baby and, more often than not, it’s enough to distract the baby from crying. A similar thing happens in the political context. When citizens start talking about things that really matter to them, matters that detract from the agenda the political party in power or seeking power wants to advance, one way to derail the people’s original conversation is to introduce an attack ad. Like a baby rattle, it quickly shifts attention to a topic other than the one originally being talked about.

One example is the longstanding need for democratic reforms to our electoral system. It’s an issue that first came to prominence in the mid-90s thanks largely to the distortive effects caused by our first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system to representative democracy across Canada.

Few people realize FPTP only works well in a two-party system, as is found in the US. But start adding parties and the system begins to behave in very new ways, ways that begin to distort electoral outcomes and disenfranchise large swaths of the voting population because it leads to vote splitting. For example, vote splitting between the former Progressive Conservative Party and the former Reform Party is what allowed the Liberal Party under Jean Chrétien to win a “majority” in the 1997 federal election with only 38.5 percent of the popular vote. Similarly, during the election of 2000, the Liberals won another majority with only 40 percent of the popular vote.* (See the website version of this article for more numerical detail.)

Yet despite the appearances of democratic propriety, our current democratic system of government is anything but representative. In fact, it fails one of the key tests in what makes a democracy healthy: numerically fair representation. For example, in Ontario, despite the fact 32 percent of eligible voters cast ballots for the Tories in 2004, they only received 23 percent of the seats, all thanks to our FPTP system. And in western Canada, the distortions were even greater. Conservatives took a whopping 74 percent of the available seats with only 45 percent of the popular vote.

Many political scientists concluded outcomes like these not only caused immense region-based frustrations, they were also causing many to lose faith in the fairness of our democratic system. And nowhere is this more evident than with the youth vote. During the 2008 general election, only 37.4 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 25 even bothered to vote, a figure that also held true during the 2004 election. Why bother voting, they say, if your vote doesn’t actually count for anything?

On December 9, 2010, the CBC released the results of an EKOS poll that looked at the voting intentions of people younger than 25-years-old. In a hypothetical parliament where only they were permitted to cast a vote in a general election, the Green Party scored in the upper 30 percent range, which would equate to about 150 to 160 seats in the House of Commons. A majority currently requires 155 seats. The Conservative Party, on the other hand, scored about 15 percent, which would translate into the equivalent of 12 seats if our current multi-party FPTP electoral system were used. Talk about the shoe suddenly being on the younger generation’s foot.

The poll also looked at a hypothetical parliament where only seniors were permitted to vote in a general election. Under this scenario, nearly half of all seniors would vote for the Conservative Party and because seniors have such a high voter turnout (about 68 percent), they would win a 250 seat majority. The Green Party would win no seats. (See the website version of this article for even more detail.)

The sad fact is people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the inequities built into our FPTP voting system. And it’s not hard to see why, especially when it comes to the Green Party. During the 2008 election, the Greens received nearly one million votes – 6.8 percent of the overall popular vote – but did not win a single seat in the House of Commons. If ours were a purely proportional representation system, the Green Party would likely have won 21 seats in the House of Commons, not zero! It’s no wonder so many Canadians are livid over the exclusion of the Green Party’s Elizabeth May from the National Leaders’ debates during the current election campaign period.

This problem hasn’t gone unnoticed in technical circles. To resolve the problem, in 2004, the Law Commission of Canada released a report entitled Voting Counts. It called on all parties to replace our FPTP system with a mixed-member proportional system (or MMPR), akin to what’s found in New Zealand and Germany. It would blend our current FPTP system with a proportional representation system in the lower House. (See

To date, none of the currently elected federal parties have taken any significant action to reform our existing electoral system – for a range of self-serving reasons, some would say. For example, proportional representation (or PR) would undermine the political headlock each of the two dominant mainstream parties has on one region or another in the country. Take Alberta for example. There, the Conservative Party now holds all but one of its seats in the House of Commons, a virtual monopoly. Under PR, however, this would likely come to an end. Not exactly reassuring news for Alberta’s oil industry, which can still make sizeable corporate donations to Alberta’s provincial Conservative Party, as permitted under provincial law. We’ll let you connect the rest of the dots.

As Gordon Gibson succinctly put it in the April 13 edition of the Globe and Mail, the “iron rule of politics says no one ever voluntarily gives up power.” In other words, behind-the-scenes, the corporate bottom line will almost always trump equitable representation in a democracy. And when people refrain from voting, they help ensure this remains the case. So what’s to be done?

Some believe the next national census and the likely augmentation in House seats this could bring would, from a timing point of view anyway, provide Parliament with a realistic opportunity to bring in some measure of proportional representation to the House of Commons. One problem is it is doubtful the relatively small number of seats involved would be anywhere near enough to resolve the significant representational distortions found across the country. If anything, it would be little more than a band-aid solution, and a pretty small one at that. What’s the alternative?

Enter the Canadian Senate

Bringing an elected Senate into being may be one of our best chances to get proportional representation in Parliament within the foreseeable future. Few people realize that 73 percent of Canadians surveyed want a new approach to the Senate; 69 percent want a national referendum on the subject; 67 percent want to be able to elect our Senators; and 65 percent feel that Mr. Harper was being hypocritical about reforming the senate in view of his appointment of 18 senators in December of 2008, nine in August of 2009 and another six in January of 2010. (Source: Angus Reid survey issued February 4, 2010.)

To give credit where it is due, the Conservative Party made some effort to move in this direction with the introduction of Senate Bill S-8, a bill that would legally permit provinces to hold elections for Senators, and which would oblige the Prime Minister to recommend them to the Crown. In the short term, the bill alleviates the need to seek a constitutional amendment, which is usually a bumpy ride at best. However, there are a few stipulations that must be added to Bill S-8. Senate elections need to be held concurrently across a given province with a PR intent outcome and they should ideally fall under federal election funding laws, not provincial laws which would allow corporate contributions to campaigns.

Unfortunately, so far, neither the Liberals nor the NDP or the Bloc Québecois have offered any better democratic alternative. Both the Liberals and the Bloc have a vested political interest in seeing the Conservatives mired in a constitutional amendment crisis. It would be like watching a dinosaur trying to escape the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. By comparison, the Liberal Party’s proposal for an independent third-party Senate appointments commission is dismally unimaginative. It not only fails to fix the flaws of our current FPTP system, but it actually helps to perpetuate the existence of an unelected chamber overseeing the affairs of an elected one no less; it’s not what most people want.

I was of the impression that, in democratic societies, one non-partisan idea above all others was supposed to rule supreme: those who govern derive their moral authority to do so only with the consent of the governed and such consent only comes through free and fair elections. An appointments commission completely ignores the need for a democratically-legitimate process, which makes Mr. Ignatieff’s denunciation of Stephen Harper’s abuse of democracy appear rather hypocritical.

Sadly, many politicians still think Senate reform is a back-burner issue of such low priority that it’s unworthy of discussion in the current election. They assume the public simply doesn’t care. Yet when you look at the matter through the lens of Canada’s need for major democratic reforms, it suddenly takes on far more importance, if not urgency.


Ensuring reforms to our democratic system

There is only one way to exit from the political alienation vortex we now find ourselves in and that’s to vote. Vote strategically where you feel it’s justified, but be sure you are voting for a candidate whose past actions have demonstrated a clear and emphatic commitment to electoral reform because deeds always speak louder than words. And if you find yourself in a place where such evidence is scant, be sure you only vote for a candidate willing to make a very public declaration that he or she pledges to reform our current FPTP system with one that incorporates a reasonable measure of proportional representation, and who, if elected, will demand it is made a top priority during the next session of Parliament.

Public pressure is great. But only votes will help to change things. And don’t let politicians distract you with the baby-rattle effect of attack ads. And where aspiring candidates refuse to go on the public record in this regard, register your protest by voting for one of the opponents you think stands the best chance of beating them. If you make democratic reform your highest voting issue priority, politicians who fail to heed the message will pay the ultimate democratic price: defeat come polling day.

It’s time. Time for the 41 percent of eligible voters who chose not vote in the last election to do so on May 2. If they do, our lives and our country will be the better for it for many years to come.

*On the turnout decline in recent elections, see André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, Richard Nadeau and Neil NevitteAnatomy of a Liberal Victory: Making Sense of the Vote in the 2000 Canadian Election (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002), pp. 45–63; andJon H. Pammett, The People’s Verdict in Jon H. Pammett and Christopher Dornan, eds., The Canadian General Election of 2000, Chapter 13 (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2001), pp. 293–317.

Paul LeMay is a Vancouver-based independent science writer, with an academic background in psychology. He is currently co-writing a book on the victimization process with an Ottawa-based psychiatrist. A former special assistant to the late Liberal Senator Sheila Finestone, PC, and a blood-relation of former Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Paul made a conscious choice not to renew his membership in the Liberal Party of Canada after 2009. While he remains very supportive of many individual Liberal candidates in BC’s lower mainland, like Joyce Murray in Vancouver Quadra and Ujjal Dosanjh in Vancouver South, in his own electoral district of Vancouver Centre, he has recently decided he will be voting for the Green Party candidate, Adriane Carr, in the upcoming election, in large part because of that party’s commitment to proportional representation and his own desire for real democracy.

For more about what is wrong with the FPTP electoral system or

illustration © Stephen Finn

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