Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Thoughts on Electoral Reform

Electoral reform has been a topic of debate for many years in Canada. I thought it was time that I weigh in with my "highly informed" opinion .

Canada currently uses the first past the post system (FPP) which we have inherited from the the British. The idea is that whoever gets the most votes win, even if they don't have a majority.

Andrew: 36%
Bob: 29%
Cathy: 35%

Andrew wins.

The problem with this system is that most time the winner doesn't have the support of the majority of voters. Andrew wasn't supported by 64% of those who cast their votes. If you think that's silly, you're probably right.

Over the years this has resulted in majority governments typically being formed with only around 35% of the popular vote. Only 2 federal governments have been formed with at least 50% of the popular vote since 1950. Despite what Harper may say; it is constitutionally possible for several parties to band together to form a coalition government.

Ex. Bob and Cathy agree that Andrew would make a bad leader and will use his twisted ideology to cause irreparable damage to the country. So they decide to work together to prevent Andrew from forming the government. But in this case Andrew whined and grossly misrepresented the constitution to the public.

Wait what was I talking about and why do I suddenly feel like perogies? Oh right... electoral reform!

So why don't we change to something better? Well there are two reasons: most politicians don't want to change it and we can't agree on what to change it to.

The first is fairly simple to understand. Political parties that typically win (the CPC and the Liberal party) like to be able to have a majority government, and FPP makes that easier to get that. But before NDP supporters go and pat themselves on the back it should be noted that when their party has held power on the provincial level, they have not carried through with the electoral reforms that they tout when they are out of office.

Combine this with the super majority that is needed to pass electoral reform -often 60% of the popular vote and a minimum number of ridings with at least 50% support- it is no wonder that change is virtually impossible without even knowing what the alternatives are.

Nonetheless, here are the two options that are frequently tossed around.

Single Transferable Vote (STV):

In this system voters rank their preference for candidates on a single ballot. If their first choice doesn't win the seat the lowest ranking candidate is dropped and their votes are transfered to the next valid candidate. This process is repeated until a candidate has a majority of the votes.

Round 1
Andrew: 36%
Bob: 29%
Cathy: 35%
Bob is dropped and his votes are transfered

Round 2
Andrew: 45%
Cathy: 55%
Cathy wins.

The advantages of this system are obvious: the winner will always have at least 50%+1 of the vote and will be more reflective of the voter's preference. The disadvantage is that some people will only get their second or third choice. The added costs of this type of system would be minimal since it would only involve changing the ballot.

Proportional Representation (PR):

This system awards a percentage of seats in the legislature based on the percentage of the votes they receive. So if Andrew's party gets 36% of the votes they get 36% of the seats. The advantage is that the result directly reflects the votes, which typically results in higher voter turnout and satisfaction with the government. The disadvantages will mean fewer majority governments (which most Canadians prefer) and that citizens can't vote for a local candidate to represent them in the legislature. In addition PR tends to encourage the creation of smaller, often more radical parties since they can and do often get seats in the legislatures, and many democracies require a minimum amount of the popular vote (3-5%) to be acquired before a party can receive any seats.

Either of these systems would be an improvement over what we have today, since they would both help to end the history of absurd election results that we've had in Canada. Most suggestions have pointed towards switching to PR or mixing some PR into our current system. The two biggest obstacles have been educating the people to the differences in the system and wording the ballot in a simple, self evident manner. Each of these can easily have been corrected: the government ought to have provided equal and sufficient funding to educate the public to the strengths and weaknesses of each system in an unbiased manner. The ballot problem is stupid and could be solved if it looked something like this:

1. Do you think electoral reform is necessary in Canada? (Yes/No)

2. Which of the following do you most agree with?
a. The candidate should need 50% + 1 of the vote to win
b. A party that gets 30% of the vote should get 30% of the seats in the legislature

At the end of the day the only thing that's certain is that electoral reform can only happen if enough people want it and if they can elect a government that will allow it.

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