For the last 18 years, voter turnout in Canada has steadily declined.
“By now, our numbers might be as bad as the Americans’ are,” said Conservative senator Hugh Segal, who came north from Ontario to talk about electoral reform.
“I’m not here to preach, but, as a Canadian, I worry about any political system where a majority of the people who vote do not have their vote count in any way,” he said Thursday at a Yukon Inn news conference.
“For the majority of Canadians in most ridings, their vote doesn’t count at all, and that, in my view, is going to weaken democracy over time.”
Currently, when four or five candidates are running for a seat in the legislature, or a seat in Parliament, that seat can be won with 29 per cent of the vote, he said.
So, for most of these seats across the country, the majority of the people who voted did not vote for the person who got elected.
“That, I think, is a very, very serious problem,” said Segal.
In 2004, more than 500,000 Green Party voters failed to elect a single MP, while less than 500,000 Liberal voters in Atlantic Canada elected 22 Liberal MPs.
And in 2000, 2.3 million Liberal voters in Ontario elected 100 Liberal MPs, while another 2.2 million Ontario voters only managed to elect three MPs from other parties.
“We weaken democracy everyday when we let a system continue where all kinds of people vote their heart and their mind and vote for what they believe in, and, in fact, that vote isn’t counted in any way whatsoever,” said Segal.
Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, where the candidate who gets the largest amount of votes becomes elected, is actually quite isolated, he said.
Only the United Kingdom, the US and Canada still run elections this way.
These days, most European and Commonwealth countries have what is called a mixed system.
In it, local representatives are elected, but the total vote is reflected in the percentage of seats in the legislature that every party wins.
So the legislature, or the parliament, actually reflects the way people voted, he said.
In New Zealand’s mixed elections, everybody gets to vote for their local MP, as Canadians do now.
But Kiwis also get a second ballot, which asks which party they want to form the government.
So, they get the chance to split the ballot, said Segal.
“I’m sure you’ve all been in discussions where you like the local member, but you don’t like his party.”
On election night, after Kiwis have cast both their votes, if the total party vote is not reflected by the distribution of seats, then nominated representatives from a national list are used to fill the difference.
So the balance is exactly how the voters wanted it to be, he said.
Parties can nominate people for the national list, or citizens could vote for nominees, said Segal.
But in New Zealand the list has to be half female and half male, with sexes alternating in diminishing order.
It is also easier for minorities, indigenous peoples and people with limited resources to get on this national list, he said.
Which allows a broader range of the population to be represented in government.
In a mixed system, like New Zealand’s, the number of seats in the legislature could change with each election to reflect the percentage of seats each party gets, said Segal.
So, in Canada, to support a similar system, Parliament would have to do away with fixed desks and, instead, get long benches, he said.
“I don’t really need a desk in the Senate,” he added.
“If you look in my desk, all you’ll see are candy wrappers and old chewing gum.”
In smaller communities, change is often more difficult, said Segal.
“Everybody knows everybody.
“And when we know the legislators, and each other, it makes embracing change tough.”
But people don’t have to decide the best electoral changes, he said.
They just have to be open to talk about change.
“We’re a very rich and wealthy country with a lot to be proud of, so it’s not all bad, and we should always have the courage to ask these questions, ‘Can democracy be made stronger? Can we find a way for more people to participate? Can we discourage those people who say it doesn’t matter how you vote — nothing ever happens.’
“I think we can, by opening up the system in a way where people truly respect the votes that everybody casts.”