Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau recently made a platform speech outlining his 32-point democratic reform plan. If headlines are any indication, the point that most impressed itself upon the media and political pundits alike is the intention to get rid of the “first-past-the-post” electoral system.
What exactly is first-past-the-post and why would someone want to get rid of it you ask? In answering those questions, it is helpful to briefly review three alternate electoral systems commonly in use today. Please note that this is a general, and by no means comprehensive, review.
Alternative or Ranked Choice Vote
In this system the voter ranks the candidates in order of preference, putting a “1” by their first choice, a “2” by their second choice, and so on. Candidates are elected if they gain an absolute majority (more than 50% of the votes). If this does not happen, the candidate with the least first preference votes is eliminated and his/her votes are redistributed according to the next preference on the ballot. This continues until one candidate has half the votes.
Proponents argue this system is more democratic as it ensures candidates have the support of the majority of their constituents and allows voters to vote for their first choice without fear their vote will not count.
Opponents argue this system is undemocratic because it can result in the election of a candidate who was not the first choice of the majority of voters.
It is interesting to note both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau were elected as leader of their parties using this system.
Second Ballot Majority or Runoff Voting
In this system a candidate is elected by obtaining an absolute majority. If there is no absolute majority, a second round of voting is held. The candidate with the majority of votes in the second round is elected.
Proponents argue this system gives voters the greatest choice, allowing them to vote for their preferred candidate a second time, or even change their mind, in the second round.
Opponents argue this system favours large parties, and the second round is not only costly, but can foster political instability between the two rounds.
With large ridings in which multiple candidates compete for a number of seats, this system reflects an electorate’s votes proportionally; that is, if a party garners say, 25% of the popular vote, it gets 25% of the seats in that riding.
Proponents argue this system is the most democratic and fair because every vote counts and has equal weight, resulting in markedly higher voter turnout and citizen participation.
Opponents argue this system produces a fragmented multi-party parliament leading to political gridlock and instability.
With the foregoing in mind, we now return to the questions of what exactly is first-past-the-post and why would someone want to get rid of it.
Unlike the previous electoral systems, in the first-past-the-post or “winner-takes-all” system, a candidate is elected by obtaining a plurality of the popular vote. This means that a candidate is elected simply by obtaining one more vote than any other candidate.
Proponents argue this system is simple to understand, cost-efficient, and fosters a single party government resulting in political stability.
Opponents argue this system is undemocratic for a number of reasons, including the following:
Because an elected candidate need only have a plurality of the vote, the majority of voters may have actually voted against him/her. An example of this involves “vote splitting” where the majority of the popular vote is split between, say the Liberal and the NDP parties, allowing the Conservative party to win with a plurality that is significantly less than 50% of the vote. This creates apathy towards the system, as voters perceive their vote does not count and is a waste of not only their vote, but their time.
With small ridings electing one candidate per riding, this system encourages “gerrymandering”, in which political boundaries are strategically redrawn to concentrate support and ensure a specific candidate is elected.
This system fosters “tactical voting” in which voters, perceiving their first choice vote will not count, vote against the candidate they most dislike rather than the candidate they prefer.
You can see there are valid reasons why someone would want to get rid of first-past-the-post. Any opinion on that debate is well beyond the scope of this article; however, there is a larger point to be made.
Winston Churchill once stated “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. For democracy to work properly however, the people must accept their responsibility to actively engage in the political process. As Robert H. Jackson correctly declared, “it is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error”.
Whatever the outcome of the 2015 federal election, I hope that Justin Trudeau’s platform will foster a much-needed dialogue that forces us as Canadians to examine and reassess our democratic values and political ideals, as well as our relationship to both.
And—dare to dream—this new-found political awareness will not only lead to the reformation of our sociopolitical system, but also ensure that it never again regresses to its current sorry state.
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