A vote that really counts

Politics is broken in Canada, writes Andrew Coyne. But B.C. could help fix it today.

A vote that really countsDear British Columbia:

I know you’re kind of busy right now, and maybe it’s not my place, being from another province and all, but could I just ask you, on behalf of the rest of the country, to please vote Yes in the May 12 electoral reform referendum? I wouldn’t intrude, except it’s terribly important—important not just for B.C., but for all of us.

Because politics is broken in Canada, and electoral reform—changing the way we vote—may just be the key to fixing it.

B.C., you hold that key in your hands. If the referendum passes, it will not only transform the politics of your province, it will put electoral reform squarely on the map for the country as a whole. Whereas if it fails in B.C.—after the failure of reform efforts in Ontario, Quebec and P.E.I.—it may be the last we’ll see of it for some time.

By now you’re probably familiar with the broad outlines of the debate. Under the old system, in use federally and in all 10 provinces, you mark an X beside the name of the candidate of your choice, and whomever gets the most votes in each riding wins. Hence its popular name: “first past the post.” If you don’t mind, I’ll shorten that to FPTP.

Under the proposed new system—recommended after months of study and debate four years ago by the B.C. Citizens Assembly, a group of randomly selected men and women from across the province—you’ll instead rank your favourite candidates in order of preference: 1,2,3, and so on. And in place of today’s single-member ridings, each riding will elect several members. (Of course, that means there’ll have to be fewer, larger ridings, to keep the legislature from exploding.)

Who gets in? You start by counting up the first choices. Then, as candidates are either eliminated from contention or assured of election, voters’ second choices are redistributed among the remaining contenders. And then their third choices, and so on. (It’s a little complicated, but that’s the returning officers’ problem, not yours. All you need to know is 1, 2, 3 . . .) That’s why it’s called the single transferable vote, or STV.

Why does this matter? Here’s why: under the current system, the candidate with the most votes wins, no matter how few he gets. In a typical six- or seven-person race, candidates often win with as little as 30 per cent of the vote. But that candidate and his followers then get 100 per cent of the power to represent that riding.

What’s true for a single riding is even more true in the aggregate. Under FPTP, governments routinely win “majorities” with 35 or 40 per cent of the vote. Sometimes they even win a majority of the seats with fewer votes than their rivals: that’s how Glen Clark won B.C.’s 1996 election over Gordon Campbell. And sometimes a party will take nearly all of the seats with little more than half of the vote: that’s how Campbell was able to rule all but unopposed after 2001.

Under STV, by contrast, the power to represent a riding is shared. Say it’s a five-member riding: if a party gets 20 per cent of the vote, it gets 20 per cent of the representation, or one member; a party that gets 40 per cent of the vote would get two members. Again, the same is true in the aggregate: a party’s representation in the legislature will tend to be proportional to its share of the vote. STV is a form of “proportional representation”—PR for short. (I promise that’s the last acronym.)

Well, so what? So the parties’ share of the seats don’t always precisely mirror their share of the vote. It may be a little unfair, but whoever said life was fair? It works, doesn’t it?

No. We’ve only just begun to describe the problems with the present system. So if your view of this tends to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” end of things, let me try to convince you: it is broke.

Let’s just revisit that fairness question, for starters. The issue isn’t fairness for parties. It’s fairness between voters. Take the last federal election (just to broaden this out from B.C. a little). The NDP, with 2.5 million votes, won 37 seats, meaning it took roughly 68,000 NDP votes to win one seat. Meanwhile the Bloc Québécois, with 1.4 million votes, took 49 seats: about 35,000 votes per seat won. So, quite literally, one BQ vote was worth two NDP votes.

This is pretty fundamental. If there is a bedrock principle of our democracy, it is supposed to be one person, one vote. Every vote is equal, and every vote counts. Yet that is simply not the case in Canada today. Indeed, if you’re a Green voter, your votes might as well not have been counted at all: 938,000 Green votes were worth exactly zero seats.

Well, the Greens. What’d they get: seven per cent of the vote? Except it isn’t just Green voters who are disenfranchised in this way. The same is true of any voter in any riding who supports any other candidate but the winner. In most ridings, that’s most of the voters. Strange but true: in a typical Canadian election, over half the votes . . . don’t count.

And of course, even if you do happen to vote for the winning party, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee effective representation—if you live in a “safe” seat, or indeed a safe region, such as FPTP tends to produce. Since only the leading candidate in each riding gets in, a party that can bunch its votes geographically, like the Bloc, will do relatively better than a party whose vote is spread more evenly, like the Greens. Parties that take a narrow, regional view are thus rewarded at the expense of parties with a broader, national perspective. Politics divides along regional lines, rather than along ideological differences. In place of debates, we get grievances. Sound familiar?

The result is a highly distorted picture of the country. To look at Parliament, you would think there were no Liberals in Alberta, no Conservatives in Toronto—and that federalists were the minority in Quebec. Add to this the phenomenon of vote-splitting, which further limits voter choices: rather than simply vote for the party they like, they are forever being told they must vote against the party they dislike. Anyone who might think of starting a new party, out of dissatisfaction with the choices on offer, is likewise told not to bother: after all, they will only “split the vote.”

By now you may be suspecting this is about much more than the way we count the votes, and of course you’re right. The case for electoral reform isn’t only about what happens on election day—it’s about what happens every day in between. And this is really how we should think about FPTP: not just in terms of the distortions and anomalies it produces, but the incentives these present the political players—the rewards and penalties that accrue, depending on what strategies they choose. In essence, FPTP is a highly leveraged system: a two per cent swing in the popular vote can result in a much larger change in relative seat counts. In that tiny sliver of the vote can hang the difference between a majority government for one party, or a majority for the other.

Much of what we deplore in our politics can be seen in this light. Faced with such massive down-side risk, politicians are inclined to play it safe—very safe. Hence the parties tend to hug as close to each other as they possibly can, minimizing their policy differences while attacking each other in stridently partisan terms. Only at election time do they take off the wraps; in the concentrated time frames that our campaigns allow, that typically means the sorts of wedge-issue gimmicks that can be reliably expected to yield small gains in the short term. Because a small gain is all they need.

How would PR—STV, in particular—change all this? In every conceivable way. Under STV you’d have a much better chance of actually electing someone in your riding who represented your point of view: not only supporters of the leading candidate would get representation, but also second and third parties. In fact, because second and third choices, even for last-place candidates, are redistributed, everybody’s vote would count. There would be less reward to vicious partisanship: candidates would hesitate to offend each other’s supporters, for fear they might need them on later ballots.

If everybody’s vote counted, there would be fewer safe seats, or regional ghettoes: since every riding would offer a potential gain or loss of at least a member or two, every riding would be contested—and not only among the established parties. New and small parties would now stand a fighting chance. No longer could the fear of splitting the vote be used to terrorize voters into line: a vote for a new party need no longer be considered wasted.

Among proportional representation systems, STV is noteworthy for the way in which it preserves the local representation that is the most cherished feature of our existing system. Indeed, with multiple members in each riding, voters will benefit from competition to represent their concerns, even between elections.

Moreover, given the chance to rank their choices rather than mark a single X, voters will no longer face the Hobson’s choice that so often bedevils them at present: between the candidate they like, running for a party they despise, and the candidate they loathe, running for the party they support. They can vote the party line with most of their choices, but also give a nod to a particularly ?ne independent or rival party candidate. And that means greater autonomy for candidates from the parties—with enough second and third choices, a candidate can get elected even without the bosses’ blessing.

It’s true, as opponents point out, that PR would make majority governments unlikely, given how rarely a party wins more than 50 per cent of the vote. But would it really? It would certainly make one-party majorities less likely. But nothing would prevent the formation of stable multi-party majorities—real majorities, that is, not the phoney ones we have today—as is the norm in the dozens of countries around the world that use some form of PR. In this sense, reform would not mean the end of majority government, but the beginning of it.

We think of minority governments as unstable because, in our present winner-take-all system, they are: the payoff from that two per cent swing is such that every party has its finger poised over the election button, ready to press it the minute they get a pop in the polls. But take away the leverage—let a two per cent swing in the popular vote mean a two per cent change in seats—and everyone is forced to calm down. Politics becomes more incremental, a matter of long-term persuasion, rather than short-term gambles.

Indeed, many of the most common criticisms of PR could better be applied to FPTP. Instability? That would well describe the changes of government Ontario endured in recent elections, from Bob Rae to Mike Harris to Dalton McGuinty. Or if the concern is that fringe parties, representing a tiny fraction of the population, might wield disproportionate influence—well, what do you call the parties’ obsession, under the existing system, with that sliver of the electorate known as “swing voters,” on whose every whim their fortunes depend?

So you see, B.C., it all comes down to you. If there’s anywhere electoral reform is most desperately needed, it’s probably in federal politics: the damage FPTP has done, particularly in terms of regional ghettoization, is most acute there. But reform is most likely to occur at the provincial level first. And that means you. You came so close in 2005, when you voted 58 per cent in favour of reform—just shy of the required 60 per cent margin. If it’s ever going to happen, B.C. is the place. And now is the time.

So come on B.C. Pluck up your courage. Show us the way. Light a candle for electoral reformers everywhere. We’re depending on you.

Your friend,
cc The Rest of Canada