Our current electoral system is obsolete and broken

With Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef in town last week to discuss electoral reform with Canadians, outgoing Yukon Party cabinet minister Currie Dixon took to these pages to offer his defense of the first-past-the-post electoral system.

With Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef in town last week on her cross country tour to discuss electoral reform with Canadians, outgoing Yukon Party cabinet minister Currie Dixon took to these pages to offer his defense of the first-past-the-post electoral system.

It is indeed important to acknowledge the merits of the status quo.

First-past-the-post is a simple and easy to understand system for voters. It does a reasonably good job of giving a voice to the disparate and diverse regions of this large country. And, most importantly, it provides a direct link between citizen and government through local elected representatives — a link that is threatened under some models of proportional representation.

But in acknowledging what our first-past-the-post electoral system does well we cannot lose sight of why we are having this discussion to begin with: First-past-the-post does one thing very very poorly and that is produce governments that are even remtotely reflective of the majority opinion of the country.

Dixon rejects the characterization of first-past-the-post as “antiquated,” but that is exactly what it is. First-past-the-post is a relic of an era when only two major parties contested elections.

It actually operated reasonably well until third parties became a permanent fixture on the Canadian political scene in 1921. In most elections prior to that year the party that won a majority of the seats also won a majority of the popular vote — whic is how a democracy should roughly function.

A notable exception was the election of 1896 when Wilfred Laurier was elected to office with not only less than fifty percent of the vote but fewer votes than the Conservative incumbent. By no coincidence it was the first time third parties drew a significant share of the vote — taking 10 per cent in total.

After Laurier’s election, third party vote share dwindled for a few decades until 1921 — when the Progressive Party vied for power for the first time. This marked the end of two-party dominance in Canada (at least in terms of the popular vote). Since then third parties have had a significant vote share in every election and as a result the winning party has taken 50 per cent or more only four times in almost 100 years.

And the problem with first-past-the-post goes beyond governments winning majority governments with less than half the vote. Dixon heralds the direct link between citizen and representative and the accountability that supposedly produces as a reason to keep first-past-the-post. But can our individual members of Parliament really be said to be any more representative of their constituents than our governments are?

In ridings across the country MPs are routinely elected with less than half the vote. In 2011, more than half of the ridings in the country were won in this manner. In 2015, an NDP candidate in one Quebec riding was elected with a mere 28.5% of the vote – getting the approval of just more than 1 in 4 voters in the riding.

Mr. Dixon points to the results in the Yukon in the 2011 election as evidence that first-past-the-post works. It is a popular narrative in the Yukon that Larry Bagnell lost the 2011 election because of anger over the gun registry. And there is a grain of truth here because Yukoners didn’t like the registry and there were a number of voters who parked their votes elsewhere that year because of his reluctant vote to keep it.

But is this really good evidence that first-past-the-post works? After all, Bagnell’s Conservative challenger, Ryan Leef, won that election with only 33 per cent of the vote and regardless how we might feel about the gun registry, nearly two-thirds of Yukoners voted for parties that supported maintaining it. This tells me — simple narratives aside — that most Yukoners had other priorities that year.

Dixon highlights the fact that first-past-the-post gives a voice to smaller regions like the Yukon and implies that the lack of proportionality in the first-past-the-post system is somehow related to the regional accommodations it makes.

But, mathematically speaking, the relative overrepresentation is but a minor contributor to the disconnect we see between popular vote and seat count in this country. The main reason is that we have all kinds of vote splits in a large number of ridings.

It is important to point out — as Dixon does — that there are many considerations that go into crafting an electoral system, that proportionality between popular vote and power is but one, and that first-past-the-post incorporates some of those considerations.

And it is more than fair to question the process that the federal Liberals have undertaken to reform it. I too have very serious misgivings about the ham-fisted manner with which this file has been handled. It is a very dangerous precedent the Liberals will set if they purport to meddle with our electoral system without a formal expression of popular support through a referendum.

Even so, first-past-the-post is both “broken” and “antiquated.”

It is “antiquated” because it is a system designed for elections contested by only two major political parties — which hasn’t been the case in Canada for almost a hundred years. And it is “broken” because the disparity between popular vote and seat count is so wildly out of whack that it is barely deserves to be called democratic.

The only reason we don’t think it’s broken is because it has been distorting the democratic will in almost every election since before most of our grandparents were born. We have become so accustomed to how our system operates that many of us have internalized a subtle redefinition of democracy from rule of the majority to rule of the plurality.

But that is not what elections are supposed to be about.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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