A national vote is brewing, and it doesn't exactly get me all excited. I am one of many disenchanted voters. Yes I will vote, but I don't feel like my vote makes much of a difference as I tend to vote NDP, and they are by far the underdogs in my riding of Algoma-Manitoulin. Already I am reading in the papers of NDP'ers joining ranks with the Liberals in an effort to stand up against the Alliance Party. If the Slightly-Left-of-Center vote is divided between the Liberals and NDP, the Alliance has a chance of becoming the ruling party. As Nick Loenen, author of Citizenship and Democracy, writes, "[T]he system induces many not to vote for their first preference, but to vote strategically." This voting thing, the ultimate expression of democracy, seems detached from the bright shining sword that democracy should be.
Our present electoral system, in technical terms, is a "plurality system made up of single-member districts", with one Member of Parliament (MP) being elected from each geographical region. "Plurality" is a term for rule by majority, although majority can get a little foggy. Take a look at this example: let's say in one riding there are three candidates running for election. The Conservative gets 35% of the vote, the Liberal 33%, and the NDP 32%. The Conservative candidate is elected to represent the riding, even though most of his constituents did not vote for him. Under our current electoral system, we have the right to vote, but not necessarily the right to representation.
I was under the impression that this was an unfortunate part of a democratic system. Quoting John Stuart Mill,
That the minority should yield to the majority, the smaller to the greater, is a familiar idea... but does it follow the minority should have no representatives at all? Because the majority ought to prevail over the minority, must the majority have all the votes, the minority none?Thankfully I chanced upon some publications that provided a tantalizing alternative, proportional representation.
Proportional representation is a voting system that seeks to better translate votes into seats in the Legislature. Rather than organize the country into single-member ridings, the regions are enlarged to accommodate multiple representatives. Let's use for this example fairly large 10-member ridings. Each party puts forth a list of 10 candidates who will run for election in each riding. So if, in one riding, the PCs receive 10% of the vote, one candidate is elected to the Legislature. If the NDP receive 60% support, they get 6 seats. Reform and the Liberals get the remainder. As you can see, voters are much more likely to have a representative in the Legislature who they voted for, unlike the present system where over 50% of voters can be left without representation.
In a large country like Canada, any party that has strong national support, but whose support is thinly spread, will be unlikely to elect any representatives under the plurality system. On the other hand, the plurality system rewards parties with strong regional support, but possibly little national support. Thus we see the strengthening of regional differences at the expense of national interests under our current system. PR provides a broader representation of national interests in Parliament because parties need not appeal to a majority of voters in any given region, but rather, to a proportion of voters on a national basis.
Let's look at a few more benefits of PR. Already you can guess that there are definite incentives for voters to actually vote, because their vote counts (in the 1997 national election we had only 67% of eligible voters cast a ballot). Additionally, minorities can expect better representation as they don't need a majority within a riding, merely a reasonable percentage (assuming they vote along ethnic lines). Interestingly, the number of women elected in countries using PR has been as high as 45% (in New Zealand), compared to approximately 15% in single-member pluralities. Professor Douglas Amy suggests this occurs because parties must nominate a slate of 10 candidates (in our example) for a region, and if they were to put forward all men, public opinion would be quick to frown on them. Thus more women tend to be nominated in a PR system, ultimately resulting in better representation of women in the elected Parliament.
As you are mulling over this unusual twist to democracy (a twist I was completely unaware of until just recently, surprising since so many of the European countries use PR), you may be unconvinced that replacing our current small ridings with large, multi-member districts is a positive step. True, one drawback of PR is the removal of the close ties between constituents and their Member of Parliament. This is especially true in a country such as Canada, where there are quite significant differences of opinion in various regions (i.e. gun control in rural vs. urban ridings). Germany uses a system of PR where half of the MPs are elected by proportional representation and half are elected using the traditional plurality system of single-member districts. They have used this "mixed-member proportional representation" since 1946. By combining the two systems, the benefits of both can be achieved - an elected representative who shares the values and concerns of her constituents, and better representation of the diversity of public opinion.
We should not feel impotent at election time. Proportional representation can provide us with a government that better represents voter preferences and diversity, improves voter turn-out, and ultimately improves our ability to be heard and counted on election day, the most important exercise in any democracy.
To help maintain the momentum of the PR movement, why not write a letter to your MP stating that you are in favour of incorporating proportional representation into our electoral system. Here's a short letter I wrote and sent to my MP. Just copy and paste it into your wordprocessor, make the necessary changes, print it and send it off. Remember, no stamp required!
Here's a link to the Ministries and their contact info should you want to send this to a bigwig.
For any Member of Parliament currently elected to Ottawa, click here.
You can also lend your copious hours of free time and energy into supporting groups for PR, like FairVote Canada, or VotePR (toll-free number 1-877-7VOTEPR). With a bit of determination, we can see this issue become a priority before the next election!