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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Power and Electoral Systems

We live in a representative democracy. That is to say the government of the society is entrusted to elected representatives. Most of us assume, because it usually occurs, that these representatives will reflect the different viewpoints present among the electorate. Ironically, almost absurdly, we use a system to elect representatives that is not designed to produce a group of representatives that reflects the diversity of opinion in Canada. Indeed, if it were not for regional variation in voting patterns, all the representatives would represent the single most popular viewpoint. Were there no such variation, then our present House of Commons would contain 308 Conservatives, each of them declared the winner with about 40% of the votes cast. None of the New Democrats (each with about 30%) or Liberals (20%) or anybody else would have been elected. In fact, as recently as 1987, New Brunswick elected a single party legislature, leaving 40% of the voters totally unrepresented. (It is fair comment to point out that the winning party did at least have a majority of the votes; but it did not have 100% of them!) Fortunately, we do vary in our voting patterns, between regions and between electoral districts, so we usually get an opposition. None-the-less our electoral system does not do a good job of reflecting the pattern of diversity of opinion. The present Conservatives have a majority of MPs and can choose, if they wish, to take no notice of the majority of the population. Other major viewpoints are often grossly under-represented (Liberals at present, the NDP in the past) and widely held minority viewpoints, exemplified by the Greens in particular, are often excluded entirely. Stranger still, minority viewpoints that are narrowly distributed, exemplified by the Bloc Quebecois, confined as it is to Quebec, or the old Reform Party in the west, may be grossly over-represented. The NDP is proposing a revision of the electoral system so that the outcome of future general elections will reflect directly the opinions of the voting public; in other words, the NDP is proposing “Proportional Representation.” For a party that has at least a chance of forming a government this is an extraordinary platform. There is no question that any party that reaches power under the present system is most likely a beneficiary of its distortions. To change it to proportional representation, therefore, is likely to reduce the party’s future electoral chances. There is no question that the present NDP policy is firmly established, but even a fervent NDP supporter (and equally fervent believer in proportional representation) like myself regards it as imperative to keep pressure on the party to honour its promise, should it reach power. These days, everybody is aware that there is something wrong with our electoral system. A party that ignores the matter risks antagonizing voters; but what it says and does is not necessarily to be trusted. As massive beneficiaries of the present system, there is no sign that the Conservatives are interested in real reform. The Liberals, who are presently way under-represented, have toyed with the notion of proportional representation, but seem to have settled for a quite different idea, that of “Alternative Voting.” The Liberal proposal is that we would retain our present system of single seat constituencies each electing one MP, but instead of voting for one candidate, we would rank all the candidates according to our preferences. When the ranked ballots are counted initially, only our first choice would be tallied. If any candidate receives more than 50% of the first choices, she or he is declared elected. If not, a second round of counting takes place, with the least successful candidate being dropped from the count and his/her votes being transferred to second choices. If necessary, this process is repeated until one candidate accumulates a total of 50% of the preferences. This process certainly sounds appealing; the winner has at least grudging acceptance by a majority of voters. In practice, alternative voting is hardly an improvement to our current system. The pattern of representation is still unrelated to the pattern of opinion among the electorate. In fact it makes it harder for minority opinion to be represented, since candidates holding minority viewpoints will tend to be eliminated early in the counting process. The system therefore favours centrist viewpoints, since second and third preferences for both sides of the political spectrum will generally be for the centre. It is easy to see, then, that the Liberal preference for alternative voting has little to do with fair representation, but is clearly a reflection of the purported Liberal position at the centre. Same old, same old power-hunger, it seems.

 Contributed by David Nash, a member of the Edmonton-Leduc NDP Executive. 
The article is a reflection of Dr Nash’s personal views.