Many Canadian citizens are outraged about the recent election. In their minds, it achieved nothing else but to strengthen an unpopular minority government. Voters are only appropriately represented when every vote goes toward putting someone in parliament. There are discussions everywhere about “electoral reform”, “proportional representation” or a “single-transferable vote” but many people are wondering what on earth do they mean. British Columbians have an opportunity to change their electoral system in the May 2009 referendum. However, all the sensationalism, criticism and advocacy surrounding electoral reforms are confusing. This article will do its best to put the proposals out on the table and discuss what they mean, quickly and without all the nonsense.
This election the Conservatives received 37.6% of the popular vote but managed to gain 46.4% of the parliamentary seats. Perhaps more significantly, the Bloc received 9.9% of that popular vote resulting in 16.3% of seats. This is contrasted by the remaining 53.5% of the popular vote that compose only 37.3% of parliament.
Canada has been using one of the oldest forms of electoral politics, not to mention that the Senate is outdated and appointed in the same manner as the House of Lords in mother England. How democratic is an electoral system that has 7% of the population voting for a party that results in zero representation? The people are crying out for electoral reform, but how?
One of the proposals is to institute a variation of the proportional representation models used in many countries such as Australia, Germany and Italy. The aim is that the ratio of popular votes will be reflected with a similar ratio of seats in parliament. For example, the Liberals receiving 26% of the vote would have given them around a quarter of the seats.
Proportional representation is achieved through many different methods. The most popular are party lists, additional member systems, and multi-member constituencies. Both multi-member constituencies and party lists are often criticised for lacking in the constituency representation of a single candidate, voters feel that they cannot hold a candidate accountable if they are not solely tied to a constituency. Party lists are accused of lacking in transparency if individual members are not elected. However, the additional member systems make the parliament proportional by adding popular candidates from parties until it corresponds to the popular vote. Furthermore, many of these problems are solved when combining proportional representation with preferential voting and a division of power (e.g. STV and an elected Senate).
The single-transferable-vote, a child of preferential voting, is a method of ranking candidates on an electoral ballot. If the first preference on a ballot does not have enough votes to get elected the vote is transferred to the second candidate listed, this process repeats until there is a clear winner. An example where this could change the winning candidate is the electoral riding of North Vancouver. Here the standings were Conservatives (42%), Liberals (37%), Greens (11%) and NDP (10%). However, is would be probable for most of the Greens and NDP supporters to rank the Liberal candidate above the Conservative one. If this was the case, the latter two parties would receive their first vote for funding and the Liberals would likely win the seat.
Although there are many specific methods for organising representation and calculating votes that are being proposed, there is a general consensus that something needs to change. But, it is up to the citizens of this beautiful country to do so, and the first step is education. Canadians should be encouraged to speak to their friends, read the paper, drop into the library or research online. An effective democracy is an educated one.
Remember, there is a referendum for electoral reform in British Columbia coming up on May 10. Make sure you know what you are voting on (stv.ca). To find out more about electoral reform in Canada see fairvote.ca.