Over the past session, Parliament has witnessed some of the first legal wranglings over the electoral reform issue, with Opposition parties fearing the implications that any radical changes to the system might mean for the strength of their party ranks.
And they should well be worried. Electoral reform has the potential to fundamentally alter bedrock ideological strongholds for any party in any region, lessen the impact of geographical divisions in achieving power and could potentially vastly enhance the importance of frustrated voters who often complain they are simply “throwing away” their votes on an unsuccessful candidate in our current first-past-the-post system.
A clever observer might conclude that almost all of our current political parties are masters (to a greater or lesser degree) at navigating Canada’s murky electoral waters through manipulation of geography and regional ideological splits. Pulling out the proverbial carpet from under this intricate patchwork quilt of political intrigue has some running scared about the implications of a new system that could feature unpredictable results and unfamiliar territory for Canada’s long-standing and established parties.
Ever the whipping boy of many a disgruntled and unsuccessful candidate over the years, the ponderous first-past-the-post system has always been more begrudgingly accepted than universally loved. And while oft maligned, it is still a popular system, used by Canada for the past 149 years, and in 80 other countries worldwide including the U.S. and the U.K. Simply, the candidate that garners the most votes wins. But unfortunately, winners don’t need an absolute majority, and candidates often win with less than 50 per cent of votes. The majority of a constituency may not vote for the eventual winner, and winning parties rarely win a majority of votes nationally — all powerful arguments for electoral reform.
A popular alternative, proportional representation ensures a party’s representation is proportional to its share of votes — say 30 seats for 30 per cent of the vote — and allows more and smaller parties to win seats, but is often criticized for necessitating omnibus coalitions to achieve results, and has created a foothold for extremist parties in several European nations. Another criticism, since seats are filled from a party list, is that voters may have no geographic connection to their representatives.
In a ranked ballot system, sometimes known as preferential voting, voters list candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of votes, a series of runoff counts follow, where second and third preference votes are allocated until there’s a winner. Candidates in these systems are known to participate less in attack campaigning, as second-and third-choice votes can be valuable.
Through a complex system of ranked voting, a single transferable vote system can also be used to achieve proportional representation through ranked ballots in constituencies with multiple seats. The system was offered to B.C. voters in 2005 and 2009 but rejected by a majority. Fewer votes are “wasted”, and most voters can point to a representative they helped elect, but the system is difficult to explain and understand.
Another complex electoral system, mixed member proportional offers a hybrid voting method that incorporates parts of both proportional representation and first-past-the-post, and has found recent success in Germany and New Zealand but was rejected by Ontario provincial voters in 2007. The system attempts to be the best of both worlds — allowing smaller parties a chance to obtain representation, and achieving proportional representation while maintaining geographic constituencies.
Much recent criticism has been leveled at the Liberals by factions of the Opposition, namely that that they are attempting to manipulate the electoral system to preserve their status as Canada’s pre-eminent party for all eternity. And while these kinds of criticisms should largely be taken with a grain of salt — whatever the system, we’re still a democracy and people still vote — the Liberal’s reluctance to accept that electoral reform is a constitutional issue and should be put to the people through a national referendum has only added fuel to these allegations.
National governments in Canada have been reluctant to discuss constitutional issues for decades, following hot on the heels of the dismal failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.
Referendums tend to be fraught with peril for a ruling government, which can view the results as a plebiscite on the mid-term popularity of their government, as well as leading to significant egg blowing back on their face over the abject failure of one their own initiatives.
That being said, this is one case where a Parliamentary resolution by a majority government in the House of Commons will simply not cut the mustard for Canadians, who should be given the chance to choose for themselves what system best suits the needs of the nation and her people through a national referendum.
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