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ANDREW COYNE: Our winner-take-all system turns too many voters into losers and leaders into gamblers


You’d have thought he’d just won another majority. There was Justin Trudeau on election night, boasting of the “clear mandate” he had just been given. No mention that his party had been reduced to a minority, or that it had won a million fewer votes than it did the previous election — a quarter million fewer, in fact, than the Conservatives.

At 33 per cent of the votes cast, it is, in fact, the weakest mandate any Canadian government has received in any election since Confederation. It is only because of the accidents of first past the post — how the vote divides between different parties in different ridings; whether a party’s vote is spread evenly or happens to bunch in the right places — that the Liberals remain in power. With less than a third of the vote, a shade more than the Conservatives received in losing in 2015, they won nearly half the seats — 36 more than the Tories.

That only begins to describe the anomalies in these results. The NDP and the Greens took 22.5 per cent of the vote between them, but won just 27 seats. The Bloc Québécois, with less than eight per cent of the vote, won 32. The basic premise of our democracy is that everybody gets a vote and every vote is equal. But, as this election has once again shown, that is simply untrue. It took 386,000 votes to elect each Green MP; it took just 43,000 to elect each Blocquiste. We might as well have issued nine ballots to each Bloc voter for every one we gave to a Green.

If we were trying to come up with a way to divide and destroy the country, we could hardly do a better job of it. A party, like the Greens, that campaigns and wins votes nationwide, based on a national vision, is punished; a party, like the Bloc, that campaigns in just one province, based on how uniquely ill-treated that province is, is rewarded.

First past the post takes all of our existing divisions, and rubs salt into them. The Liberals won more than 20 per cent of the vote west of Ontario, yet emerged with just 15 seats. The Tories won 20 per cent of the vote east of Ontario, and 14 seats. Possibly if Alberta and Saskatchewan elected Liberals in proportion to their support, the party would take their interests more into account.

By the same token, half the Liberal caucus, 79 seats, were elected in one province, Ontario; yet those 79 seats, two-third of the province’s total, were won with just 41 per cent of the vote. Perhaps, if the Liberals could not so easily depend on Ontario to deliver them into power, they would have to work harder to win seats elsewhere in the country.

Still, at least the Liberals did not win a majority. To pass legislation, they will have to win the support of at least one of the other major parties. If, as seems likely, that support were to come from the NDP, they could claim something close to a genuine majority, not only in the House, but in the country: the Liberals’ 33 per cent of the vote plus the NDP’s 16 per cent.

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This is, indeed, becoming the norm — the inevitable consequence of trying to run five- and six-party politics through a system designed for two. Not only is this the fourth federal election in the last six to result in a minority, but four provinces are now also ruled by minority governments. First past the post, that is, no longer even delivers the false majorities that some cite as its chief advantage – just a bunch of other weird inequities.

So, if single-party majorities are a thing of the past, if governing from now on is going to have to be about assembling multi-party majorities anyway, why not institutionalize it? In particular, why not remove the major source of the instability Canadians associate with multi-party governments: the constant threat of a snap election?

That threat is not a reality in countries with systems of proportional representation. Why? Again, because of the incentives in each. A winner-take-all system like first past the post, in which a two per cent swing in the vote can mean a gain or loss of 60 seats, encourages a gambling mind-set to match. Is your party up a couple of ticks in the polls? Force an election and try your luck. By contrast, in systems without such leverage — where a two per cent swing means just two per cent more seats — there is no such payoff, and no game worth playing.

First past the post takes all of our existing divisions, and rubs salt into them

Yes, thank you parliamentary pedants, I know: we do not elect a government, but a parliament. There is not one vote, but 338 separate votes. Does that suggest, as some insist, that any reference to overall vote shares, or their relationship to seats won, is irrelevant?

But that’s the point: the disproportionality in the whole is only the sum of the disproportionalities in the parts. The problem isn’t just that a party can win a majority of the seats in Parliament with only 35 or 40 per cent of the popular vote. It’s the much worse disparity that results in each constituency. Under first past the post, or “single-member plurality” as it is more formally known, each riding elects only one member: whatever fraction of the vote the winning party received, it gets 100 per cent of the representation. Winner take all, indeed.

So the fix reformers propose is not to abolish ridings, as some seem to believe — no system that would ever be proposed for Canada involves anything of the kind — or to reallocate the riding-by-riding votes via some sort of post-hoc statistical trickery. Neither is it to insist each member be elected by a majority, as in the preferential voting systems that are often suggested as a “moderate” alternative to proportional representation. The problem with single-member plurality isn’t the plurality. It’s the single member.

The solution, rather, is to increase the number of representatives for each riding, from one to several. That’s what electoral reform amounts to, in the main. Instead of one party hogging all of a riding’s representation, it is shared among the parties, in rough proportion to their support among the riding’s voters. (Perfect proportionality is neither possible nor desirable: even with three to five members per riding, a party would have to win a substantial share of the vote to be elected.)

The very idea, I realize, upsets some people. Why, they ask, should the “losers” also be represented? Turn the question around: why shouldn’t they? If there were some reason why a riding could only be represented by one member, fair enough. But as there isn’t, it is the purest form of circular reasoning: none but the party with the most votes may be represented in Parliament, because only the party with the most votes may be represented in Parliament.

The system we have, in other words, is the only system there is. Ninety-four other democratic countries would beg to differ.


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