The legislature sent its electoral reform committee back to high school civics class this week for a review of different electoral systems — and how each might work in the territory.
“As the Yukon considers electoral reform it’s useful to reflect on the experiences in other jurisdictions,” said committee researcher Keith Archer on Jan. 21.
The committee members include Kate White, Brad Cathers and John Streicker.
Their goal over the next week is to listen to and ask questions of witnesses who have been selected to provide information about electoral reform. This week they heard presentations from Archer, chief electoral officer Maxwell Harvey Harvey and two political science scholars from outside the territory.
Different options to consider
Right now the Yukon — like the federal government — uses a “single-member plurality system” called first-past-the-post (FPTP). Candidates from different parties compete for a seat in 19 different geographic areas, and each citizen gets one vote in their riding. The candidate with the biggest vote share in the riding takes the seat – even if they get less than 50 per cent. And the party that wins the most seats forms the government.
But as the committee heard on Jan. 21, first-past-the-post isn’t the only system out there.
“We sometimes get so accustomed to our own electoral system that we assume, or we can assume, that the way we do it is the way it has to be done,” said Keith Archer, the researcher assigned to the committee.
On Jan. 21 Archer gave the legislators a review of different electoral systems, and alternatives to FPTP that might work in the territory.
Archer also provided some context on how elections since the first in 1978 have been shaped by FPTP and how the governments may have looked different if they’d used other systems such as proportional representation.
FPTP is credited with being a stable system that emphasizes regional representation. The main criticism of FPTP is that it distorts the popular vote.
For example, the Yukon Party took the popular vote in the 2021 election, with 39 per cent of the overall ballots cast, but did not win enough ridings to form government. The Liberal Party won the highest number of seats but only took 32 per cent of the overall ballots cast.
Historically the Yukon Party and the Liberal Party have benefitted from this distortion. Smaller parties, like the NDP, tend to suffer the most under FPTP.
Other systems, like proportional representation, which assigns seats based on popular vote breakdown, have also been touted as ways to promote more diversity among candidates.
During his presentation Harvey noted that the Yukon’s voter turnout tends to be consistently high, but the FPTP system can discourage voters who feel like their ballot won’t “count.” In a consistently NDP riding, for example, Yukon Party voters know the outcome of a riding before voting.
“Many electors will not vote because they think there is no point, or it doesn’t matter,” said Harvey, while also noting that Elections Yukon is neutral on the topic of reform.
Archer also noted that under the current system, rural ridings are overrepresented. By population, Whitehorse should have 14 seats. Instead, only 11 of the 19 ridings are urban.
Archer explained there are three main systems for elections; plurality and majority systems, which include FPTP, proportional representation systems and mixed electoral systems. All three have drawbacks and advantages.
History of electoral reform
Both academic witnesses who spoke to the committee this week provided broader context, outside of the territory, for electoral reform.
Professor R. Kenneth Carty from the University of British Columbia provided a history of electoral reform across the country, including the ongoing debate between proportional representation and first past the post, and provincial attempts to change them.
In her presentation to the committee, University of New Brunswick professor Joanna Everitt noted that there is an option to tweak the existing system, rather than a complete overhaul.
“It’s very difficult to make change,” Everitt noted, referring to her own province’s experience trying to reform their FPTP system. She suggested smaller reforms – such as incentives for nominating more women or minority candidates in winnable ridings – are another way to achieve the goals of a different system.
Public hearings continue all week, and are available to watch on the Yukon Legislature’s website and social media. Archer’s report detailing the alternative options for electoral reform is also available for public reading.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org