Is democratic reform dying out?

First-past-the-post systems are proving remarkably durable

For would-be reformers of the mother of all parliaments, it was a brief and ill-fated courtship—ending with a door-slam to the face. One year ago, nearly six out of 10 Britons were telling pollsters they’d gladly dump the familiar first-past-the post electoral system (FPTP) in favour of a method that better reflected their democratic will. But when given their say in a referendum last week, voters dispatched the alternative with extreme prejudice: nearly 68 per cent opted to retain the old method of electing MPs, soundly rejecting the proposed system of preferential balloting known as the alternative vote (AV).

Advocates for change were quick to marshal explanations. The rejection spoke less to disapproval of AV than to dissatisfaction with its chief proponent, Liberal-Democrat Leader Nick Clegg, they said. Some complained voters had been hoodwinked by hysterical-sounding advertisements suggesting that a costly overhaul of the electoral system would suck money from, among other vital services, intensive care for infants.

None seemed to consider the possibility that FPTP might have its own inherent appeal. “It’s simple, and it normally produces parliamentary majorities,” says Louis Massicotte, a Université Laval political scientist who has studied electoral reform initiatives around the world. “The ambiguities of minority parliaments may fascinate intellectuals. But for the average folk in the street, a clear outcome is always better than a murky one.”

The staying power of first-past-the post is becoming a point of fascination for Massicotte and other experts, who not long ago had cause to think it might someday go extinct. The centuries-old method faced growing challenges in the 1990s from activists who contend it discourages political diversity, and too often results in governments that lack an explicit mandate from the majority of voters. In FPTP, each voter chooses one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. That means an office-seeker with less than 50 per cent of votes in a constituency can take a given riding, and that a party with less than 50 per cent of the popular vote can win a majority of seats. It also means that small parties with diffuse support face steep odds in getting members elected.

In Canadian federal politics, it has been blamed for producing a “false” Conservative victory, given that around six out of 10 electors are voting for other parties; and for shutting out the Greens, who in the 2008 election garnered nearly one million votes country-wide yet failed to gain a single seat. The NDP, too, has complained that its share of seats was far below its popular support, and made proportional representation (PR) a central policy plank during the recent election campaign. In a mid-campaign meeting with Maclean’s editorial board, Leader Jack Layton acknowledged that the New Democrats and Liberals were splitting the anti-Tory vote on almost every policy question. The solution, he said, was PR, which he argued would give parties of all stripes representation in the Commons, and encourage like-minded ones to work co-operatively to govern the country.

Still, it takes a truly perverse outcome to get the wheels of reform actually turning. That’s what happened during the B.C. provincial election in 1996, when Glen Clark’s NDP lost the popular vote to the Liberals yet emerged with more seats. The result triggered an outcry, and a lengthy reform process that included a “citizens’ assembly” charged with considering new ways for British Columbians to choose their governments. In 2005, the panel recommended a single transferable vote system, in which voters would rank candidates—their second and third choices being counted after their first-choice candidates are either elected, or dropped from the ballot due to lack of support.

The B.C. experience, however, proved complicated. In the referendum that followed, the Yes forces fell just 2.3 points short of the 60 per cent threshold set by the government, prompting premier Gordon Campbell’s government to endorse a second vote. Alas for the reformists, enthusiasm for electoral tinkering waned—in B.C. and across the country. In 2009, the second time around, less than 39 per cent cast ballots in support of the new model, while a similar initiative in Ontario, which saw a proposal for so-called mixed-member proportional representation, garnered 37 per cent support in 2007. Prince Edward Island had resoundingly rejected the same system two years earlier, while a lengthy reform effort in Quebec that began in 2003 failed to reach a vote.

In Canada, as in Britain, the reasons for these failures vary. On a crassly partisan level, leaders who push forms of preferential balloting or proportional representation tend to lose their enthusiasm once they have actual power. “PR is something you support when you cannot implement it,” the late senator and constitutional expert Eugene Forsey famously said, “and that when you can, you no longer support.” In New Brunswick, for example, provincial Progressive Conservatives had promised a referendum on mixed-member voting before they were ousted in a 2006 election. They returned to office last year with an enormous seat majority (based on less than half the popular vote), but are hardly rushing to revive the initiative.

Richard Johnston, the director of the University of British Columbia’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, says more subtle political judgments may also be at play. Johnston was part of a team of academics who studied the outcome of the B.C. referendum, and found opinions on the electoral system tended to break along ideological lines. Small-l liberals supported STV, he says, based on their beliefs about its inherent fairness and its capacity to foster co-operation among rival parties. Small-c conservatives, meanwhile, were more likely to support FPTP based on faith in its capacity to preserve order. “People on the right tend to be more responsive to things that have to do with governance,” says Johnston. “Things like stability, durability and commitment. They’re less worried about the process that gets you there.”

Johnston’s observations run against the commonly held belief that reform initiatives fail primarily because voters simply don’t get them. One University of Toronto study following the Ontario referendum offered the rather patronizing theory that “an electorate that did not feel itself to be adequately informed found it difficult to overcome its uncertainty about how the new system would actually work.” In B.C., at least, responses on both sides appeared rooted in the respective models’ purported impact on the legislature. And if you accept the now common theory that Canadians are drifting to the political right, Johnston adds, it stands to reason that attachment to first-past-the post would grow.

The same may apply to the referendum in Britain, where suspicion of multi-party parliaments runs as high as in Canada—and where plenty of intelligent minds were attracted to the simplicity of the old model. An explanatory pamphlet circulated by the U.K. electoral commission made their choice easy, summing up FPTP in three sentences, while taking four pages, complete with a sample election scenario and complicated diagrams, to describe alternative voting. This for a system that is considered among the more straightforward in the democratic family.

What prospect, then, does electoral reform stand in countries where first-past-the post has stood the test of time? In Canada, at least, the federal New Democrats still carry the flame, despite having crashed into the mainstream with 104 Commons seats in the recent election. Reached this week by Maclean’s, a party spokesman insisted Layton remains commited to PR. But Massicotte, for one, will reserve judgment until the NDP finds its way out of opposition. “Some politicians will almost cry on your shoulder following a bad election outcome,” he says, chuckling. “But once they’re in office, they forget all about these things. When I hear major party leaders talking about PR, I don’t take them seriously.”

As for the British result, Massicotte can’t help wondering if the cause of reform has taken a critical symbolic blow—landed, appropriately enough, in the birthplace of Westminster-style democracy. “It looks very much,” he says, “like a proverbial nail in the coffin.”