For as long as Canada has been a self-governing country, voters have always had to endure a flawed electoral system. And as more Canadians have noticed this, calls for electoral reform have come from the Green Party, New Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party. Prime Minister Trudeau even said that this would be last election held under a First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system.
But what is the FPTP system? Why does it need to change? And what sorts of alternatives exist? This short article will look to provide some quick answers to these questions.
Simply, FPTP is the long-running system here in Canada. Under it, we elect our 338 Members of Parliament (MPs) in elections all over the country. Each one of those elections is independent of the rest, and at the end, the party which won the most of these races gets to form the government. It doesn’t matter if the winning party has less than 50% support in the riding, and it doesn’t matter how much or little you win by.
Sometimes, the winning party might not have gotten the most total votes across the 338 elections, and often a party can get 40% of the vote, but more than 50% of the seats. This is what happened in the 2011 and 2015 federal elections, along with the 2014 Ontario election. And in the Canadian parliamentary system, with our strong parties, 51% of the seats means 100% of the power.
This often means that people are pressured into voting ‘strategically,’ because they feel the only choice is to stop the worst option, rather than choose what they feel is the best option. People sometimes feel they can’t vote for what they feel is the best future for their families and community, but rather choose the ‘lesser evil,’ lest their vote be ‘wasted.’
This negative process undermines millions of voters who chose other parties, and distorts the general will of the electorate. It is in this context that experts, labour unions, and many Canadians have called for a new system, which needs to be based on three overarching concepts.
The system needs to offer proportionality: This means that, if a party gets 30% of the overall vote, they should get about 30% of the seats. No longer should we have a system where 40% of the vote gives you absolute power, and where 10% of the vote might leave you without any seats at all.
The system needs be clear, and make choices positive: By this, I mean that people need to be able to understand the process and their ballot, and that the choice they make has to be straightforward. People shouldn’t have to worry about voting based on complicated strategic processes: if they want to support the NDP, then they should feel perfectly free to do so without any consequences
The system needs to retain geographic representation: The problem with some proportional seat distributions is that they leave out the local element of politics. But there are many proportional systems that ensure that you still have a local MP. In a country like Canada—with its geographic, cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity—having MPs from your community must be a mainstay.
As you might be able to tell, the current FPTP system only really hits the last of these three points. But there is a system that honours all three points, and has the support of the Canadian Labour Congress, the New Democratic Party, and Fair Vote Canada: Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). At its core, the MMP system gives every Canadian two votes per ballot, which might look something like this:
As you can see, the first vote is done as it always has been. You vote for your local MP, and the person with the most votes wins outright. But because these elections tend to have distorted results across wider regions, your second vote is made for the particular party you support. In this system, we give out two thirds of the seats using the first vote, and the rest using this proportional model, which means that the results from the second vote are used to balance out the distortion from the FPTP vote, all without taking away local representation. In fact, because the system’s proportional elections are done on a regional basis, you will have both your local MP, as well as many more regional MPs from your general area of the province.
This form of MMP is only a proposal, and there are potential modifications that can be made, but the system as proposed gives proportionality, clarity, and geographic presentation in a way our existing system does not. And unlike the current system, you can differentiate between your local choice, and your general one. As it stands, if you love your local Liberal candidate, but cannot stand the party leader, you have to choose one or the other. But here, you can vote for your local voice, and then choose a party that better represents your ideological preferences.
At the end of the day, if we adopt this system, or one like it, no longer will Canadians have to choose between voting their conscience, and picking a winner. You sometimes hear that Canadians are disengaged from politics, but if we have a system that makes their voice heard more consistently, and doesn’t treat voting like a complicated game, I trust that people will see greater value in the democratic process. And we will all be better off for that.
This article was originally published in the OPSEU Autumn View