Wednesday, January 25, 2006

And NOW magazine

Op-ed in NOW magazine:

ELECTORAL DYSFUNCTION: THERE IS A CURE

2006 election results show first-past-the-post has to go

By Larry Gordon

Did we really need to suffer yet another train wreck for democracy before realizing that first-past-the-post voting is a hazard to the very life of our country?

Voters should take a close look at the smoking ruins of this latest electoral disaster. It’s not a pretty sight—for example, seeing the NDP win one million more votes than the Bloc, but gain 22 fewer seats, or watching a growing host of Green Party supporters denied even a single MP in Ottawa.

The electoral system imposed on Canadians—it was never chosen by voters—simply doesn’t work, at least not as advertised. Every Canadian child is taught that we live in a democracy, with equal votes for everyone and majority rule. In fact, our government proudly sends advisors to developing nations to preach these democratic principles, which is rich, given that we don’t apply them to our own elections.

The lesson from January 23 is the same lesson from every prior election in Canadian history. Our antiquated winner-take-all voting system makes a complete hash of representative democracy. By design, only one party’s supporters in each riding can send an MP to Ottawa. Tough luck to everyone else.

Multiply that inequity by 308 ridings, with more than six million voters casting wasted votes that elect no one, and the resulting Parliament is a democratic farce.

Just how far have we drifted from the cherished principle of equal votes for all? Consider the following outcomes in this election.

More than 650,000 Canadians voted for the Green Party, but were not able to send a single MP to Parliament. Meanwhile, 475,000 Liberal voters in Atlantic Canada elected 20 MPs.

In the prairie provinces, Conservatives got three times as many votes as the Liberals, but won nearly ten times as many seats. In Alberta, the half million people who voted other than Conservative elected no one to Parliament.

Toronto will not have a single MP in the governing caucus, let along cabinet, even though a quarter-million Torontonians voted for the winning party. Neither will Montreal or Vancouver. Talk about a new deal for cities!

If our voting system treated voters equally, regardless of partisanship or place of residence, then every party would need about the same number of votes to elect an MP. That would be democracy, but this is what our system actually coughed up:

Bloc: 1 MP per 30,432 votes
Conservatives: 1 MP per 43,305 votes
Liberals: 1 MP per 43,457 votes
NDP: 1 MP per 89,333 votes
Greens: 0 MPs for 665,876 votes

These twisted results defy common sense, let alone democratic principles.

Let’s look at another part of the wreckage. Because of the huge portion of wasted votes that elect no one, some parties gain far more seats than deserved, while others get too few or none at all. The effect of these distorted results is that Canadians very rarely experience legitimate majority government, in fact only four times since World War One.

Had the same votes been cast under a fair voting system, based on proportional representation, Fair Vote Canada projected that the seat allocation would have been approximately as follows:

Conservatives (36.3% of the popular vote): 113 seats (not 124)
Liberals (30.1% of the popular vote): 93 seats (not 102)
NDP (17.5% of the popular vote): 59 seats (not 29)
Bloc (10.5% of the popular vote): 31 seats (not 51)
Greens: (4.5% of the popular vote): 12 seats (not 0)

Would fair results matter? This projection indicates that a Liberal, NDP, and Green coalition would have held a majority of seats. But keep in mind, with a different voting system, people will vote differently. Had Canadians actually used a fair voting system, voting patterns would have been different. The need for strategic voting would disappear and very likely more people would vote.

Does Canada have a terminal case of electoral dysfunction?

No, there is a cure—the introduction of a fair voting system, a Canadian version of proportional representation (PR)—and that cure is within reach.

Jack Layton could choose to be the electorate’s champion, put electoral reform at the top of his negotiation agenda with the Conservatives, and play hardball. He could hardly be expected to wring a concession to simply introduce a PR system, but there may be an opening—one that should be seized—to set up a citizen-driven reform process. In past years, the Alliance supported a national referendum on a new voting system. At one point, the current Conservative Party was prepared to support a national citizens’ assembly and referendum process for electoral reform. Stephen Harper has shown no recent indication of going that direction of his own volition. It remains to be seen whether Jack Layton is ready to give it a strong push.

Another scenario is unfolding right here in Ontario. The McGuinty government has promised an independent citizens’ assembly and referendum process for provincial voting reform. Very likely, that assembly will be sitting before the year is out, and Ontarians will have a referendum on a new voting system with the next provincial election in October 2007.

As the dust settles on the federal electoral disaster, Ontarians should turn their full attention this year to ensuring this province becomes the birthplace of Canadian PR and fair voting. That means watchdogging the provincial government in the coming months to ensure a fair, citizen-driven process. Once that process is secured, it’s up to us to press for a strong PR alternative and then win the expected 2007 referendum.

Despite the dismal and undemocratic results on Monday night, we now have an unprecedented opportunity. Democracy has always been a do-it-yourself project, and those who want it to happen must make electoral reform our number one project in the coming year.

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