The changing face of democracy

By Vicki Robertson
Published December 10th 2004 in CBC News
Democracy as an ideal has grown and changed over the years. The way we practise it, however, has not.

In 2003, the Honourable Norman H. Carruthers, retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island, was commissioned to study electoral reform in that province. His report released earlier this year eloquently notes that “democracy, like a good garden, requires constant tending.”

When the “one man, one vote” principle was devised, the common man, it was assumed, was not sophisticated enough to understand the intricacies of elections. To alleviate any confusion, each person voted for a local candidate to represent their interests. Participating in democracy was simple: mark an “X” beside a name. Most votes won the seat, and the party with the most seats formed the government.

This “First Past the Post” system is still intact throughout the country. If there are only two parties, you can at least be assured of a majority decision. But this is Canada. There’s a political party for every day of the week.

The current system is brilliant in its simplicity, but fails to account for the popular vote. History proves that the number of votes each party receives can be out of step with the actual results. Just ask Al Gore, the Miss Congeniality of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Won the popular vote, but lost the crown.

Prince Edward Island prides itself as the birthplace of Confederation. Fittingly, that province could be the first to change its election process. The discrepancies between votes and results have become stunningly apparent to Islanders. Take a look at the 2000 provincial election results:
  • Conservative party: 58% of the popular vote, 96.3% of the seats.
  • Liberal party: 34% of the popular vote, 3.7% of the seats.
  • NDP: 8% of the vote, and the losing end of the shutout.
Yup. That’s our democracy!

Many Canadians have decided that their vote means nothing, and prefer to spend election day watching Law and Order reruns. Others will vote for the candidate or party they believe will win just so their vote isn’t wasted. Ever really wanted to vote for the Marijuana party?

But inspiration can be found in hearty Island voters. Even though four elections in recent memory have ended with lopsided results, the participation rate is still more than 80 per cent.

Our last federal election had the “Big Three” – Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc Québécois – win more than their share of seats at the expense of the left. Under proportional representation, there would be 13 sitting members of the Green party right now, and the NDP would have 48 seats instead of 19. The Liberals, however, would have 22 fewer seats.

You may hear rumblings about electoral reform, but don’t expect a referendum anytime soon.

To overcome the inequality of First Past the Post, “Proportional Representation” has become a political watchword in Canada, as the idea gains popularity around the world. It ensures the number of legislative seats a party is awarded is in direct proportion to the popular vote. Win 40 per cent of the popular vote and get 40 per cent of the seats. Every vote counts.

Sounds fair, but practically, minority governments are often the result. Coalitions are formed to create a working government – Israel’s Knesset is an example. This concept may not be horrendous to Canadians as we adjust to our current minority government, but the distaste of voting for a party – not an individual – to represent our interests is difficult to overcome. Candidates of each party are simply published on a list – baby kissing not required.

The P.E.I. report describes a number of democratic election processes, focusing on the “Mixed Member Proportional” system recently adopted in New Zealand. This system offers two types of legislative seats – member and list. The member seats are directly elected, just like we do today in First Past the Post. The list seats are used to ensure the house is balanced by popular vote.

Each person has two ballots. The first directly elects the individual to fill the riding’s member seat, and the second is for the popular vote, where the list seats come into play to achieve equity. You can mix and match your choices – Party “A” for the member, Party “B” for the popular vote. No matter what the outcome in your riding for the member seat, you can rest assured that your second ballot is not wasted. In the race for the popular vote, every one counts.

The popular vote determines how many list seats each party needs to achieve proportional representation, and the published list candidates fill the list seats until equity is reached. The members who are directly elected in a specific riding still look out for their constituents, and every party has the right number of seats based on the popular vote.

No member seats are taken back, even if a party wins more than they should. Consider these bonus seats. The size of the legislature will increase to accommodate them, but only until the next election.

Interestingly, this system has been adopted by the younger parliaments of the world, including Scotland and Wales. New Zealand adopted it after many years of First Past the Post. Seems they tired of having the party who lost the popular vote form the government.