Liberal Party of Canada leader, Justin Trudeau, recently made a platform speech outlining his 32-point democratic reform plan. He intends to get rid of the “first-past-the-post” electoral system.
What exactly is first-past-the-post and why get rid of it? To answer this, we need to review the 3 alternate electoral systems commonly in use today. Here’s a general review:
Alternative or Ranked Choice Vote
Voters rank candidates in order of preference: “1” is their first choice, “2” second choice, and so on. Candidates with more than 50% of the votes, or an absolute majority, are elected. Failing that, the candidate with the least #1 choice is eliminated. Those votes are given to the next preference on the ballot. This continues until one candidate has 50% of the votes.
Proponents argue this system is more democratic. It ensures candidates have the majority support. It also lets voters pick their first choice without fearing their vote won’t count.
Opponents argue this system is undemocratic because it can result in the election of a candidate who wasn’t the first choice of the majority of voters.
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 is then elected. Both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau became party leaders under this system.
Proponents argue this system gives voters the greatest choice, allowing them to vote for their preferred candidate a second time, or even change their minds.
Opponents argue itm favours large political parties. The second round is also costly, and can foster political instability.
In large ridings, with multiple candidates competing for seats, this system reflects the electorates’ votes proportionally. If a party receives 25% of the popular vote, it gets 25% of the seats.
Proponents argue this system is the most democratic and fair because every vote counts and has equal weight. This leads to higher voter turnout and participation.
Opponents argue this system produces a fragmented multi-party Parliament, leading to political gridlock and instability.
So, what exactly is first-past-the-post system and why would someone want to get rid of it?
This is a “winner-takes-all” system, where a candidate is elected by getting just one more vote.
Proponents argue this system is simple and cost-effective, resulting in a stable, single party government.
Opponents argue this system is undemocratic because most voters may have voted against the winner. An example is “vote splitting” where the majority of the popular vote is split between 2 parties. The winning party actually had less than 50% of the vote. This leads to voter apathy since they wasted not only their vote, but their time.
With small ridings electing only one candidate, this system encourages “gerrymandering”. That’s when political boundaries are strategically redrawn to ensure a specific favoured candidate is elected. The result is “tactical voting,” where voters vote against the candidate they most dislike.
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, we must all accept our 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, let’s hope that Justin Trudeau will foster a much-needed dialogue to force Canadians to re-examine and reassess our democratic values.
And—dare to dream—this new-found political awareness will not only lead to the reformation of our political system, but also ensure that it never again regresses to its current sorry state.
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