Electoral reform still shouldn’t be an issue

Debunking classical arguments advanced against Canada’s FPTP

In my previous op-ed, commenters argued that I failed to acknowledge that FPTP results in “unrepresentative” governments, or governments that won by a plurality—rather than with a majority—of votes. I think this is fair criticism of FPTP, but I should clarify what I mean when I say that electoral reform shouldn’t be an issue. What I emphasize is that FPTP’s demerits, upon closer examination, seem not to be remedied by proportional representation (PR) and may actually be replicated by PR systems. In light of the fact that PR systems may also be subject to the same shortcomings FPTP faces, I think Canadians should question whether or not PR will really solve the problems in cited in Canadian democracy.

So, what does it mean to have an unrepresentative government? Opposition to FPTP claim that it results in something called “wasted votes.” In other words, these contenders claim that votes excessive of the winning candidate and votes for the losing candidate are merely dismissed without further consideration. For example, The Liberal Party was elected in 2015 with 39 per cent of the vote. Though other parties such as the Conservatives (31.9 percent) and NDP (19.7 percent) garnered sizeable support, under the plurality system, Liberals were entitled to legislative domination and gained 184 seats; a stark contrast to the 99 and 44 seats awarded to the Conservatives and NDP. All in all, Denis Pilon, an associate professor at York University, estimates that from 1980 to 2006, an average of 49 per cent of Canadian votes were wasted in federal elections.  Hence, the “wasted vote” argument is that plurality, in providing the winning party with legislative overrepresentation, ignores the opinions of what may be a majority of voters who did not vote for the winning party.

The claim that an alternative electoral system, like PR, will avoid the problem of wasted votes is questionable. First, Craig M. Scott, a law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and a former Member of Parliament explains that since Canada pales in comparison to a higher voter turnout in PR countries, PR proponents understand a higher voter turnout to PR’s ability of “making each vote count.” However, other factors besides Canada’s electoral system may better explain Canada’s low voter turnout. Statistics on Canada’s low voter turnout compiled by Brian Tanguay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, show that turnout has only declined among Canadians born after 1970. On the other hand, Canadian voter turnout for those born before 1970 average “middle-to-high 70 per cent.” Tanguay therefore attributes Canadian lower voter turnout, not to the electoral system, but to a decline in political education seen among progressing generations.

Second, it can be argued that single transferable vote (STV) and PR systems are susceptible to the problem of wasted votes. In STV, it may be true voters can rank candidates by preference, but it does not mean that each voter’s preference is directly represented by electoral results. It still may be the case that a majority of voters’ first preference is not elected if less preferred candidates amass sizeable secondary and tertiary vote support. Toronto lawyer and former Progressive Conservative John Pepall illustrates this in his book Against Reform.  Among three candidates presented to ten voters, Candidate A, who is the first preference of seven voters, may lose to Candidate C who is only the first preference of three voters. This is because Candidate C may have accrued more second preference votes (7), as opposed to Candidate A (3), which, in conjunction with Candidate C’s first preference votes, add up to a higher score than Candidate A.

Guy Lardeyret, president of Institut pour la Democratic, suggests that if the assessment of whether a vote is wasted is its effect on the government decision-making, then PR also wastes votes. Pepall notes that in the 1970s, under PR, the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) obtained roughly 30 per cent of the vote in federal elections, yet was unable to form government and lacked any substantial exercise  of leverage at the federal level. Thus, votes cast for the PCI were “wasted” because PCI lacked the political influence to reflect their voters’ interest at the federal level. Therefore, both STV and PR systems may still result in wasted votes, depending on how one interprets what constitutes a wasted vote.

Another argument advanced against FPTP is that voters who are aware of their party’s unpopularity vote disingenuously through strategic voting. After all, the argument goes that if a voter’s preferred party has no chance of winning, then the voter might cast his or her ballot for a party that they do not wholly endorse. BC voter Cassandra Effe explains her 2015 strategic vote to prime minister Justin Trudeau by stating, “I did not vote for you. I voted against the alternative.” Understanding that her preferred, yet unpopular, party had no chance of winning, Effe acknowledges that “millions of Canadians” follow suit in casting their ballot disingenuously.

In rebuttal, proponents of electoral reform suggest that PR and STV do not sway voters towards strategic voting. Abramson et al., 2009, suggest that the “winner-takes-all” mentality of plurality systems is not present in PR. Therefore, voters may cast genuine ballots since their preferred, albeit unpopular, party is still ensured representation. However, other scholars refute the idea that PR systems are devoid of the strategic voting problem. For mixed member proportional systems in Germany, when a voter’s original party has already met its seat limit under PR, voters may opt to vote for a party who is, according to Pepall, “most likely to ally itself with [the voter’s] real party choice.” Pepall says these parties are known as “decoy parties.” In Germany, the Free Democrats functioned as a decoy party for the Christian Democrat—with critics noting little ideological differences between the two. As such, PR systems also suffer from the problem of strategic voting.

So, I should emphasize again that Canadians should be wary of jumping onto the electoral reform bandwagon and endorsing PR as the solution to all the perceived faults in our political system. PR is attractive at face value, but I’ve tried to show that obtaining real change is more than skin-deep. Our problems can’t be remedied solely by focusing on electoral reform.



This article has been corrected.
  1. November 8, 2017 at 12 a.m.: Corrected Craig M. Scott’s profession.
    Notice to be printed on November 13, 2017 (Volume 44, Issue 10).