Thursday, October 16, 2008

Politics: Time for Proportional Representation

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The biggest story coming out of the Canada's 40th Federal Election on Tuesday does not seem to have been the results obtained by any of the political parties or candidates, but low voter turnout. With more than 99% of the vote counted as of this morning, just 13,832,972 of 23,401,064 registered voters actually cast a ballot. That's only 59.1%, the lowest national participation rate ever in Canada. While there are a variety of reasons why people may not have turned out, the single thing that could be done that would help the most would be electoral reform to a Proportional Representation system.

Probably my most graphic memory of Election Day 2008 as an "outside scrutineer," reminding voters known to support my favored candidate to vote, occurred after dinner hours, as I did what would be one of my final passes through the neighborhood. Looking for a voter who turned out to be at the polls right at that time, I discovered her husband sitting on their porch, enjoying an ice cream bar. I asked him if he had voted yet. "No, I didn't do it this time." I reminded him that he still had an hour to go the polls. "No, I'm not interested." Why? "My vote never counts anyway. If you don't vote for the winner, it doesn't count for anything."

There is a counter-argument to that perspective (one can't change the winner unless enough people vote for a desired alternative), but fundamentally he had a point. In Canada's first-past-the-post system, effectively all votes that do not go to the winning candidate in a riding might as well have gone to any other candidate. All the voters that I encouraged to vote in the poll I was assigned to on Tuesday might as well have voted for Radical Marijuana candidate Terry Parker--their presumed votes for second-place finisher Peggy Nash from the NDP made no difference in the makeup of parliament. Presumably, the man I encountered was a supporter of a small party, perhaps the Greens, perhaps Christian Heritage, in that riding perhaps even the Conservatives, who never come close to winning in the riding, and he was tired of making an effort only to be represented by someone he fundamentally disagreed with.

The effects of the first-past-the-post system get more perverse the more broadly the results are viewed. On the provincial level, in Saskatchewan, the NDP actually received 25% of the vote and received no seats in parliament, while the Liberals received only one from 15%, and the Conservatives won the rest of the seats (92.9%) from just 54% of the vote. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it was the Conservatives that were shut out despite earning 15% of the vote, with the NDP at least winning one seat from 33% of the vote and the Liberals winning the other six (85%) with just 47% of the popular vote. How well-represented can a NDP voter in Saskatechewan or a Conservative in Newfoundland feel?

Nationally, the picture looks even worse. The NDP earned almost half as many votes Canada-wide as the Conservatives (2.5 million versus 5.2 million), yet they have less than one-third as many seats, 37 versus 143. The NDP actually earned nearly double the votes of the Bloc Quebecois, at 2.5 million to 1.3 million. Yet, the NDP has fewer seats, 37 versus 50. And, of course, there's the biggest travesty of all--the Green Party's 940,747 voters, 6.8% of those that bothered to cast a ballot, have no representation in parliament, anywhere in the country.

In a proportional representation system, every vote would count in at least some way. There are different ways to set up the particulars in a system, but beyond the specific winners in geographically-defined ridings, there are floating members to ensure that all voters are represented. Every party above a threshold of votes, based on the number of seats available, would be represented. In Saskatchewan, the NDP would have ended up with at least a pair of seats. Nationwide, the Greens would have earned somewhere between ten and twenty.

One bizarre phenomenon that apparently had little or no impact on the elections, vote swapping, would not be necessary under Proportional Representation. Because every vote would count toward the proportional seats, the location where it was cast geographically would no longer be nearly as important. A NDP voter from Saskatechewan, a Green voter anywhere, or a Conservative from Toronto would help elect an at-large representative.

Furthermore, all of the current scare tactics, mostly by the more centrist parties, that voters who really support a less mainstream party need to vote for a more centrist party to stop another party from forming a government would be diminished. Voting for a lesser evil would no longer be necessary--and one would expect that the Green party would not be the only beneficiary of that change. The Progressive Canadian Party, for example, in trying to recreate the old Progressive Conservative perspective in contrast to the current Conservative Party, would be more likely to be considered by an anti-Liberal voter. Even the Conservatives and the Liberals could actually end up benefiting if they find ways to broaden their appeal by adopting the policies of (and making irrelevant) the smaller parties, much as they do today. The biggest winner in the short term from Proportional Representation--the NDP--might be the biggest long term loser if they bled votes to the Liberals and new smaller parties.

If the voters sent a national message on Tuesday, it was not about the policies of any of the parties. It was that they do not feel like it is worthwhile voting. To change that, we need proportional representation.

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