Saving Canada’s wasted votes

Volume 52, Issue 19 | March 4 – 10, 2010

Proportional representation is a perennial issue in Canadian politics. Widely discussed but often ignored,  it tends to be unpopular among those who have secured political power and hope to secure it against outsiders. However, as Dennis Pilon argues, it may be one of the best ways to save Canada’s ailing democracy.

Dr. Pilon is a University of Victoria political science professor and author of The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System. His talk Feb. 23, which had a fair turnout of roughly 25 people despite URSU’s ban on nonelection posters, was hosted by the University of Regina’s Public Interest Research Group (RPIRG).

Pilon argued that Canada’s first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system, in which each riding elects a single member, is undemocratic. “It violates some basic ideas about democracy,” he said. “The core of representative democracy … is that you should represent the full range of a community’s opinions.

“Our system creates an enormous number of wasted votes, people who find themselves orphaned on Election Day. They cannot find common cause with people who agree with them, and instead are left without any effective representation from their local member … In the case of the Green party, federally, nearly a million voters, many of them youth, received no representation in the last election.”

Instead, Pilon said, Canada should adopt proportional representation (PR), which is a system of voting that aims at matching the proportion of votes cast for each party with the number of seats that each party holds in Parliament. For instance, if applied to the results of Canada’s last election, the Conservatives would hold 116 seats instead of 143, and the Greens would hold 21 seats instead of none. The existing FPP system rests on the fallacy that everyone in a district can be represented by a single person, Pilon said. “It’s very hard to argue that one person can represent all the differences of opinion that exist [in a riding]. Who is the local member accountable to? The 40 per cent who elected them? The 60 per cent who voted for someone else?”

Opponents of proportional representation often argue that it would produce chronic instability and a succession of weak minority governments. However, Pilon argued that these arguments were beside the point. “If you wanted stability, why have democracy at all?” he said. “Stability cuts both ways. On one hand, sure, we need government to be able to accomplish things … but on the other hand, to have governments that do not have to be accountable to voters … they can pretty much ignore everyone, they can ram their policies through the Parliament.”

Another key crisis of the current voting model is the strategic voting dilemma, said Pilon. “Because we award representation all or nothing, you get it all or you get nothing at all. That acts as a serious barrier to people making a decision on the basis of what they would like to see.” This barrier makes it difficult for alternative parties and policies to ascend and entrenches existing interests.

Proportional representation would provoke systemic changes, force parties to take account of suppressed constituencies, and lessen the urban/rural divide. “A PR system would treat individuals of all parties better, because it’s not just left-wingers who are getting the shaft,” Pilon argued. “You’ve got a ton of conservative voters in urban Canada who are not seeing the results that they voted for. That denies the Conservative Party an important constituency.” The same applies, he said, to rural New Democrats.

However, with an overwhelming rejection of PR by B.C. voters during a referendum in May 2009, a powerful  blow has been delivered to the PR movement in Canada that will likely take years to heal. “Four losses in a row really make the issue look dead, so we may be looking at a long-term strategy of public education, rather than the short-term approach,” said Pilon. “Right now we’re in a bit of a trench situation where we’ve got to dig in for the long haul.”

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