Canada’s voting system has the potential to distort electoral outcomes, expert saysMONTREAL - Canada’s future hinged on just a few percentage points Tuesday.
With just under 32 per cent of votes cast, the Parti Québécois eked out a narrow victory, winning 54 seats, to 50 for the Liberals, 19 for Coalition Avenir Québec 19 and two for Québec solidaire. The difference between the PQ and the Liberals was 0.7 of a percentage point.
But what if the PQ had won 34 per cent?
The result likely would have been a majority government, giving Premier-elect Pauline Marois a free hand to pursue her party’s sovereignist goals, said Harold Chorney, a professor of political science at Concordia University.
“They could have gone ahead with a referendum, could have gone ahead with trying to wreck the country and they would have had what democratic basis for this? Essentially, a third of the electorate would be enough to justify such radical policies,” Chorney said.
That scenario illustrates why Chorney and many other experts say Canada should adopt a form of proportional representation.
Canada’s first-past-the-post voting system, a legacy of the British parliamentary tradition, has the potential to distort electoral outcomes and leave entire provinces, regions and minority groups out in the cold, with little influence on government, Chorney says.
“It would have been much better to have a mixed proportional system in place, like they do in Germany,” he said.
Proportional representation is a system where the number of seats won by each party reflects the number of votes it gets. If seats were attributed purely according to the popular vote, the PQ would have 40 seats, the Liberals 39, the CAQ 34, Québec solidaire eight and the Option nationale two.
But most countries with PR actually follow a more complicated formula.
“Virtually everybody who advocates proportional representation, including myself, is talking about a mixed or hybrid system, where you reserve some of the seats as first-past-the post, constituency-based seats and you have an additional number of seats that are based on proportional representation, according to the standing of the parties,” Chorney said.
More than 80 countries, including the Scandinavian nations, Spain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Ireland, have proportional representation, or PR.
Under the German model, also used in Scotland and Wales, voters have two votes, one for a local members of parliament and the other for a regional MP.
The system provides a more accurate reflection of popular support for the different parties in each region.
Even Britain, Canada’s political model, has moved toward PR, Chorney noted.
“It’s much better. It’s much more democratic and people feel less alienated. Their votes aren’t wasted no matter who they’re voting for,” he said.
In Quebec, the distortions caused by the current winner-take-all voting system have sometime resulted in a government taking power with fewer votes than its nearest rival, said Matthew Hayday, an associate professor of history at the University of Guelph.
“Quebec is one of the worst provinces in how the first-past-the-post system distorts the popular vote,” he said.
One reason for that is that anglophones and allophones overwhelmingly support the Liberals. Because those groups are concentrated in the Montreal area, their overwhelmingly pro-Liberal vote is under-represented in the overall outcome.
“I think that the fact there is the concentration of linguistic minorities in Quebec in certain regions accentuates and drives home the inequalities and the flaws in our current electoral system, which has an impact on democracy,” Hayday said.
“I think Quebec is the case that really shows just how inequitable it can be because you see just how wide the gap can be between the popular vote and seats in the legislature,” he added.
The big loser in this week’s election was the CAQ, which won only 19 seats even though it was not far behind the other two parties in the popular vote, with 27.06 per cent, Hayday noted. In past elections, the first-past-the post system has put the Liberals at a disadvantage.
In 1994, the PQ swept to power with a 77-seat majority government under Jacques Parizeau, with one-third of a percentage point more votes than the Liberals, Hayday noted.
In 1998, the PQ won a majority under Lucien Bouchard even though the Liberals won the popular vote by one per cent.
One reason Canada has not reformed its voting system either at the provincial or federal level is that winning parties welcome the distortions the system produces, Chorney said.
“Because they’re able to get into power with just 40 per cent of the vote, or 38 per cent sometimes, they like that, obviously,” Chorney said. (He was referring to past federal elections. In this week’s tight three-way race in Quebec, the PQ won with less than 32 per cent.)
“But they have to understand, when it works for them, it’s great, but when it doesn’t, they can be devastated and they can be reduced to a very weak little group of representatives in the assembly or parliament,” he said.
Proportional representation encourages coalitions where adherents to different political ideologies must learn to cooperate, Chorney said.
“It forces politicians who are ‘pur and dur,’ who are very ideologically inclined and stubborn, to accept that they don’t have all the right answers. You have to compromise and listen to other citizens,” he said.
The New Democratic Party and Québec solidaire are strong proponents of PR, also promoted by Fair Vote Canada, a citizen’s group.
In 2005, more than 57 per cent of voters in British Columbia voted in favour of PR in a referendum, but the proposal was defeated because approval required a 60-per-cent “supermajority.”
What are the chances Quebec will move toward a more representative voting system?
“Well, my old friend John Hotson, a brilliant economist at the University of Waterloo, used to say if you can think about it, then you can bring it into reality. What can be thought about coherently can become real,” Chorney said. “And it’s true.”
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Friday, September 7, 2012
Proportional Representation - Common Sense
Minorities governments which require mature cooperation and negotiation through coalition forming, forming shifting majorities are how democracies are supposed to work. Unchanging majorities composed of single ideologies are dictatorial and disable the government's flexibility and ability to represent and respond to the needs of everyone, not just the supporters of one party and the elite. Democracy is a collection of minorities of one, banding together for various purposes. The more voices that are represented, with proportional influence, the better the society. It fosters equality and participation when no vote is wasted or has to be cast strategically to prevent the worse evil from winning, when every vote should be for the one that closest represents you. We silence more than half of the population so they've given up on voting.