More on Representation and Electoral Systems

Prompted by a comment on a previous post regarding how voter representation would be different if Canada had a proportional representation system, I decided to do some reading on the Fair Vote website and stumbled upon some interesting facts. The first is an illuminating quote regarding the difference between decision-making (rule) and representation by somebody named Ernest Haville:

 “In a democratic government, the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all.”

As we noted in class earlier today, many of the votes cast in our elections are wasted as a result of our first-past-the-post system. Below is a screenshot from the website wastedvotes.ca, which shows that in the 2008 federal election in Gatineau, QC, fully 70% of the voters were not represented. This is because the Bloc Quebecois candidate, Richard Nadeau, won a tight four-way battle, garnering a plurality of the vote at 29.2%.

This is just the most egregious example of wasted votes (and, thereby, of non-representation), but every Canadian election and electoral district sees wasted votes. Indeed, the folks at wastedvote.ca have calculated that of the more than 14 million votes cast during Canada’s last federal election (2011) only slightly more than half (50.4%) were effective, while 49.6% were wasted.

Why is this bad for democracy? Well, here is another excerpt from fairvote.ca:

Does Canada actually have representative democracy? In the 2008 federal election:

  • 940,000 voters supporting the Green Party elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs.
  • In the prairie provinces, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats.
  • Similar to the last election, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal.
  • New Democrats: The NDP attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats, the NDP 37.

What about majority rule? Canadians are usually ruled by majority governments that the majority voted against. In some provincial elections, parties coming in second in the popular vote have won majority control of the legislature.

In class, we noted the irony of the part above that is in bold font! The 1988 federal election was fought primarily on the basis of a pending free trade agreement amongst Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In Canada, the Progressive Conservatives (led by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney) were in favour of (what would become) NAFTA, while the NDP and the Liberal Party were against. In the end, a majority of Canadians voted for parties that were against NAFTA, yet the PCs won a majority of seats in parliament, enabling them to push through the necessary legislation.

John Cleese on Proportional Representation

There are generally two types of electoral system in use around the world–first-past-the-post (single-member district) and proporational representation (multi-member district).

As John Cleese explains in this public service announcement, the choice of which electoral system to implement in a democracy can have a dramatic impact on party politics and on the political system in general.  The idea behind proportional representation is that the composition of the legislative body is directly representative of the political opinions in the electorate.  So if, for example, 3% of the electorate votes for the Polish Beer-Lovers’ Party (PPPP–Polska Partia Przyjaciół Piwa), as happened in the Polish parliamentary elections of 1991, then that party will have 3% of the representatives in the legislative body (which it did).

In first-past-the-post systems, such as the USA, Canada, and the UK, the electorate is divided up into single-member-districts, from which a single representative is elected to represent that seat in the parliament.  The winner does not have to win a majority of the vote, only a plurality.  Thus, if there are 4 contenders for a particular seat, and three of them each garners 20% of the vote, the fourth candidate, with 40% of the vote, wins the seat, representing that district in parliament.  The rest of the votes (the 60% going to non-winning parties) is “wasted” as it is not used to determine representation in parliament.  These are the basics, but upon these foundations one can build a myriad of different types of systems, such as the “double-vote” system in Germany.