Ballot Box

There has been a great deal of talk lately, among politicians anyway (I’m not sure that the average voter cares), about coming up with a better way to elect our government. In fact, Trudeau II has promised that his government is last that will be determined by the “first past the post” method.

“First past the post”, for anyone who hasn’t ben paying a lot of attention for the last twenty years, is the system we have now, and it definitely has its negative aspects, such as majority governments that don’t have nearly a majority of the popular vote. In a nutshell, the candidate with the most votes in each riding wins the seat for his/her party. Here in the Golden Horseshoe anyways, there are often five or more names on the ballot. That means that, technically speaking, a candidate on a ballot with four other parties can be elected with only 21% of the vote. Taken to extremes, with 51% of the seats necessary for a majority government, using the above unlikely result in every riding, a majority government could be achieved with only 10.71% (21% X 51%) of the popular vote.

Every election that produces a majority government, parties complain that the party in power doesn’t have the popular support to govern unconditionally. It’s never the party that won, mind you, until now that Trudeau has decided to look his gift horse in the mouth. And that has set off discussions and arguments among Canada’s politically minded.

A number of alternatives have been offered over the years, especially in the provinces, but none have made it past a referendum so far. For one thing, the suggestions they had to vote on sometimes were so confusing that even someone steeped in politics like myself had to study them hard to understand them. Nobody’s going to vote for a system they don’t understand and rightly so.

The most popular term for non-first-past-the-post systems is “proportional representation”, some versions of which include the more complicated ones.

The first is a system used in some European countries. It’s very straight forward: each party makes up a list of candidates and the order they want them appointed, people vote, the votes are counted, and for every so many per cent of votes, a party gets one of the candidates starting at the top of their list. The top one is, presumably the party leader. This means no costly bi-elections for defeated leaders that must have a seat and the seats are totally proportionate.

There are drawbacks, though. There are no ridings per se and some folks don’t like the idea that their vote might not get them a local candidate. While that may be a good thing, since the party is usually elected based upon the party’s leader and its platform, which means that local input has limited meaning anyways. Another is that the elected members are all party favourites and therefore unlikely to contain any party “conscience”, such as Peter Kormos in the Rae government. Finally, if you like majority governments (I’m not a fan myself), you’ll likely be out of luck in a multi-party system because no one will likely ever get a clear majority of votes.

Another method that’s being discussed is a preferential ballot. That is, you mark off who you want most and then who you’ll settle for in order of preference. The votes are then tallied and, if there’s no definite majority winner, the second choices are taken into account. It isn’t very clear, but it sounds like this could well end up in new parties never get elected as their first choices are gobbled up to create majorities. It’s like a convention where, in order to get a clear winner, the bottom candidates are eliminated. While it looks like the majority supported the winner, many people actually lost their first choices.

There is another possibility that no one ever seems to want to discuss and that’s likely because most people in politics are partisan supporters. Also, it’s not workable. And what’s that possibility? Eliminate political parties. That’s right: every candidate is an independent in their own riding. At the riding level it would still be first past the post but the government wouldn’t be.

The pros are that every politician would be voicing their own point of view. There would be no party leader to beat them into line (the party whip’s job actually), so they’d truly represent your riding’s interest and money would have to be better spread around to get passed. All legislation would require trade-offs to go through and there wouldn’t be a problem of one party being able to fundraise more than the others. When Parliament sits, they would first elect their “chair” or Prime Minister, getting rid of the politics of one man’s popularity, glitz and merchandising.

The problems are several and, while some matter more to some than to others and there are some solutions and arguments, some are inherent with the method. The main inherent one is, of course, is its local nature. While it’s good to have local representation, there may develop a problem of national or even regional interest being served as each tries to get the most for his/her riding and this may well tie up Parliament even more than it is now.

Some with whom I’ve had this discussion decry the fact that the Prime Minister isn’t elected directly. But he/she isn’t now. The leader of our country is chosen by the party that gets elected. We just elect the party, hopefully by their platform, which usually comes out of the same convention that elects the party leader. The exception is the Conservatives, whose members elect their leader by computer vote, often without having ever heard them speak and policy made some time after. And I’m not convinced that the MP’s would make any worse decision than any other voters. If we were to elect out Prime Minister separately under this system, we’d be looking at obscene multi-billion-dollar elections with all the candidates being millionaires or billionaires.

In the end, there are positives and drawbacks to any system. The only way to entirely overcome all of the possible drawbacks is to use one of the systems presented in B.C. years ago. In the system that seemed to be favoured by the experts, the voters would mark their ballots 1) for the party and 2) for the candidate. The electoral powers that be would apply a formula that I think only they understood to come up with what they claimed was a representational government that still had local representation. Many Canadians can’t even bother to vote in an election: how many would bother to try to figure out the new system?

Is there a better way? That depends on what you expect out of the system.

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