electoral reform

It does seem weird that 21st-century Yukoners use an electoral system that dates back to the English middle ages and beyond.

It does seem weird that 21st-century Yukoners use an electoral system that dates back to the English middle ages and beyond. As early as 1295, for example, King Edward I was calling for each county, borough and city to elect representatives to deal with the issues of the day.

Although those issues were different – raising money to fight the pesky Scots instead of health care and climate change – the seeds of our ‘first past the post’ voting system and the concepts of ‘constituency’ and ‘member of parliament’ were planted.

The electoral reform movement probably started about a week later, after those few English subjects that were able to vote heard how their representatives had behaved.

Since then, psephologists have invented dozens of different electoral systems around the world. While it all seems like detail only a wonk could love, the amazing thing is that each of these systems would produce a dramatically different result given the same voting behaviour by the populace.

For example, in the 2006 running of the reptiles here in the Yukon, the Yukon Party won with 10 of 18 seats. But ours is a first-past-the-post system and they won a majority with only got 41 per cent of the vote. The NDP got more than half as many votes, but got only three seats. The Yukon Party got only six per cent more votes than the Liberals, but won twice as many seats.

If a proportional representation system had been in place, the results based on the same voting would have been quite different: only seven seats for the Yukon Party, six for the Liberals and four for the NDP (plus one more ‘rounding error’ seat to be allocated somehow).

The Australians use another system where you rank the candidates in your riding. When your favourite gets knocked out, they move your vote to your next choice. If, say, all the NDP voters had put the Liberals as their second choice in 2006, then the Liberals would have won a landslide victory.

The Australian system actually requires you to put numbers beside all the candidates or your vote is invalid. This would actually force NDP members who hate the Liberals, and vice versa, to put down a rival party as No. 2 preference or spoil the ballot.

If we really had proportional representation, however, the last election would not have yielded the results above. More parties would have come forward to take a place on the ballot. Consider the range of political opinion not represented in the legislature today.

If other countries are any guide, it is quite possible that a proportionally elected legislature would have more than a few territorial Greens. An evangelical Christian party is possible, and other places have ethnically based parties that are popular. New parties such as the one veteran Yukon politician Willard Phelps has been talking about would be much easier to get off the ground, as long as enough Willardistas showed up at the polls of course.

And we should remember that in Europe the proportional representation systems have been especially kind to far-right, anti-immigrant parties. Without such a system, it is unlikely that Gert Wilders and the Freedom Party in the normally liberal Netherlands would have the balance of power. Or that the new Dutch laws restricting immigration, asylum and stripping convicted immigrants of their citizenship would ever have seen the light of day.

The other thing that surprises people about our electoral system is how it weights different votes. For example, there are 140,000 or more voters in some ridings in Toronto and Vancouver. A Yukoner’s vote is worth four times as much, since there are only 34,000 of us in our MP’s riding. Some law professors at the University of Toronto documented last year how the citizens in these ‘underrepresented’ mega-ridings are disproportionately visible minorities.

The same factor can be seen in the Yukon. In 2006, for example, the Copperbelt riding had 1,748 electors, more than twice as many as Pelly-Nisutlin’s 714. The Old Crow constituency had just 176.

One of the problems of proportional representation is that it can weaken the link between a representative and the constituency. Even systems that have multi-member ridings, or a mix of proportional and constituency members, end up with much larger ridings. That’s not necessarily a good thing for places like the Yukon.

So what’s the upshot? Should we put almost a thousand years of history behind us and dump first past the post?

It’s really hard to say. Broader representation is good, and more minority governments might be a more effective check on the power of prime ministers and premiers than a submissive majority caucus. On the other hand, does anyone really believe that a Yukon Legislature with six or seven parties would really be more credible, engaging and effective?

So the jury is out on proportional representation. This suggests some caution, especially since the current system has got us this far.

We should probably concentrate our reform efforts on more obvious cases, such as our Senate. It doesn’t even have an electoral system.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.