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Lerer: Canada’s Single Member Problem

March 25, 2012

Canadian democracy is in shambles. Concerns about an unelected Senate, centralization of power in the hands of the Prime Minister (and away from parliament), Canada’s outdated first-past-the-post electoral system, and the post-charter judicialization of politics have all undermined contemporary notions of representative democracy. Unfortunately, many problems are too difficult to change: shifts in Prime Ministerial Power would require constitutional amendment – initiated by the PM himself; even when this problem is addressed, as Paul Martin did in his declaration of Canada’s ‘democratic deficit’ in 2002, it resists change.

The ‘judicialization of politics’ is arduously debated, especially in the academic realm; any proposed change would both put Canadians’ rights at risk and be political suicide for any politician ambitious enough to address the issue. Other representational issues are in fact today’s hot topics: Stephen Harper’s ‘Triple-E’ Senate is testament to that fact. However, one important facet of Canada’s ‘democratic deficit’ has been lost in the scramble. Indeed, Canada’s electoral system is akin to a thorn on Canada’s democratic rose. Moreover, because this thorn has not yet drawn blood, electoral reform has fallen to the wayside. This is not to say that electoral reform has never been debated – only that it has never been central to a national Canadian political agenda.

Adopting a mixture of American Federalism and British Westminster government in 1867, Canada has taken its electoral system for granted, and has not addressed whether it is appropriate given facets of Canadian society, such as its distinct regionalism. Indeed, Canada’s SMP system is unsuitable to Canadian society, if only for the disparity between democratic values held by Canadians and the political realities of Canada’s electoral system. The disparity here can be reduced to the difference between two terms: majority and plurality. Many Canadians would certainly be surprised to learn that a political party may win all 308 seats in parliament having received a small minority of the electorate’s votes! Theoretically, in most federal elections, parties may win each seat with only 34% of the vote share. This results from Canada’s ‘Single Member Plurality’ or ‘First-Past-the-Post’ electoral system. The SMP system divides the country into ridings – geographical segmentations of relatively equal population – which each are represented by a single member in Parliament. This member is elected by receiving the plurality of votes in a riding’s election, not a majority. In this way, Canada’s SMP system leaves electoral fortunes up to the number of parties which put forth a candidate in a given election.

Canadian regionalism further emphasizes the foibles of the SMP system. Canada’s electoral system rewards geographically and territorially concentrated support, thereby exacerbating territorially defined politics – by creating incentives for parties to play on those cleavages. This aspect of the system both undermines notions of Canadian democracy, and damages national unity. By rewarding those parties which concentrated, regional support and punishing small parties with widespread support (as they are rarely elected in concentrated ridings), the SMP system hurts Canadian democracy. It  plainly distorts the representation of views held by populations of Canadians dispersed throughout the country, instead of concentrated regionally. Worse still, is that when parties win a majority of seats in one region but few in another, they are incentivised to cater to one region, thus weakening the government’s national unity.

Not only does regionalism exacerbate flaws of the SMP system, but the recent centralization of power in Canadian government does as well. I daresay that in Canada, power is vested in the minority! South of our border, the SMP system is somewhat more suitable. This is due to the fact that citizens may vote for the executive and judicial branches separately from those of the legislature, thus providing some legitimacy to their power; their two-party system for the most part ensures that one candidate receives a majority of the vote; moreover, the absence of hard party lines makes for a less powerful executive and legislative majority. However, in Canada, our fused executive/legislative ministerial government, combined with hard party lines puts enormous power in the hands of the ruling party in Parliament. Any party who achieves the majority of seats in Parliament in effect takes up the reigns of Canadian government – as bills are passed by a majority of parliamentarians, and all parliamentarians are in reality required to tow the party line.

Now, think back to the previous theoretical example of a Canadian political party winning all 308 seats with 34% of the vote. We must now take into consideration that Canadian political parties must only win 155 seats in Canada to rule – a majority of seats. Further, in recent elections voter participation in federal elections have been sitting at around 60%. Last, if we take into consideration that all electoral districts in Canada are not equal – they vary by a margin of 25% – this further aggravates the disparity. So, theoretically, a party could achieve only 8% of the total Canadian voting bloc (100% x .34 of the vote x 155/308 districts x .60 of the eligible voting population x .75 to account for differences in riding population), and in effect, govern the country unopposed. Certainly, Canadian democracy is in a perilous state if such a small minority of Canadians can gain rule over the majority! Canadian political realities make such a victory almost impossible; however, examples such as the 2000 federal election, in which the Liberal Party won the majority of seats with less than a majority of the popular vote highlight this problem.

The recent debates regarding electoral reform have risen in the context of Canada’s abysmal voter turnout in the second millennium. Indeed, those countries which have adopted proportional or semi-proportional electoral systems tend to have higher voter turnout than those who adhere to plurality systems – on average, 7% higher voter turnout. Critics accuse this relationship as being a dubious one, but it certainly cannot hurt Canada’s perilous trend of decreasing voter turnout, as swaths of Canadians avoid the polls on election day. Clearly something must be done.

Brought up time and again by those opposed to electoral reform, two central criticisms of a proportional electoral system are raised. First, that proportional systems fragment electoral outcomes – leading to unstable coalition governments. Yes, fragmentation may occur, yet this is not necessarily a negative outcome. For decades, Canada’s SMP system has tried to coalesce diverse interests into big tent parties; there is in fact no one majority which represents the electorate. Maybe what Canada does need is a more accurate representation in Parliament of the diversities among its population. Additionally, safeguards embedded within a reformed electoral system could significantly reduce fragmentation in the party system. Implementing minimum threshold percentages could reduce the appearance of small, extremist or single-issue parties; Mixed-Member Proportional systems also offer relief of these concerns. This MMP system has been adopted on varying levels by Germany, the UK and New Zealand, and involves having a portion of Parliamentarians proportionally elected through party lists, while others remain tied as single members to ridings or districts. Voters would in effect vote twice: first for the candidate which they think best represents their riding in Parliament, and second for the party list they prefer. In this way, the MMP system combats both the fragmentation issue and the criticism that proportional systems do away with direct accountability of parliamentarians to certain district populations.

With regard to those who argue that minority governments would be unstable, my response is thus: because electoral fortunes in a proportional electoral system are unlikely to see great change upon a forced election, parties would be encouraged to cooperate more efficiently, and the strict partisanship, so characteristic of Canadian politics today, would be eased.

The second concern which arises with proportional electoral systems is that proportional voting systems are complex – for both the government and the voter. These naysayers think too little of the competency of the Canadian voter. In fact, experiences from countries such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom or Germany do not provide evidence in support of this claim. Indeed, upon adoption, a period of voter adaptation would certainly take place, but there is no reason to believe that Canadians would have any more difficulty understanding a MMP electoral system than any other citizens. The same argument may be applied reforms to Elections Canada.

The SMP system plainly distorts the preferences of voters. In a democracy, the electoral system should attempt, wherever possible, to best represent the intentions of voters, and Canada’s electoral system fails to do so. The question which then comes to mind is: Is electoral reform even possible in Canada? For, the political party with the power to reform will no doubt have benefited from the peculiarities of Canada’s current SMP system. Although it seems unlikely, conventional wisdom would present evidence for the contrary: New Zealand, Japan and the United Kingdom at both national and sub-national levels have reformed their electoral system to more proportional models. Maybe change is possible? Recently, referenda have been brought to bear in provincial electorates regarding the introduction of the MMP system – most notably in Ontario and British Columbia. Both of these referenda did not pass – however, as noted above, turnout in these referenda were low, and the electorate were not well enough informed. Living in Ontario at the time, I witnessed firsthand the apathy which characterized this referendum. Not only is change to a MMP system a moderate reform, but it would accomplish myriad goals: making every vote count, strengthening national unity, and make government more representative of the population. Canadian democracy is flawed; the disparity between common beliefs in majoritarianism and the political reality of pluralities is assuredly large. It is about time we, as Canadians, do something about it.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 1, 2012 7:25 am

    FPTP is a rotten electoral system for choosing a Government.

    However it has its defenders and it has some aspects that are attractive – for example the single member riding (district/constituency) and the simplicity of both voting and counting.

    Most PR system reformers are forced to argue the merits of a larger constituency, and that more complicated voting and counting is not a significant problem, but this fails to convince. Most PR systems require constituency boundaries to be redrawn, and therefore MPs have to go through the process of finding a new constituency, ie PR threatens them with personal upheaval.

    Can I draw your attention to Direct Party and Representative Voting (DPR Voting)?
    This is a form of PR that is based on the single member constituency – no changes to the number of MPs, constituencies, or their boundaries are necessary. It is intended as a simple and straightforward replacement for FPTP.

    Voting is simple, and counting is simple and quick – comparable with FPTP.

    It is similar to MMP in some respects but all MPs are constituency MPs. There are no Party List MPs.

    For more see http://www.dprvoting.org

    Could this be of interest in Canada?

    (I tried, and failed, to post a similar comment earlier – apologies if this looks like duplication)

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