In the 2019 federal election 51% of votes were wasted, might as well be voting with burning oil drums. Illustration: Adam Ashby Gibbard
By Adam Ashby Gibbard
We have a broken, backwards, garbage pile of a democracy. It’s only really been allowed to continue out of sheer inertia, but that’s no reason to let this nonsense continue.
Every election, media pundits put the popular vote up next to the seat count, like some kind of sick reminder on how bad we are at elections
How backwards do we have to be that I have to write an article explaining why a party with 39.5% of the popular vote shouldn’t get 100% of the power? Those were the numbers in 2015 – what was supposed to be the last election under the first-past-the-post system. This kind of distortion and electoral misrepresentation is commonplace in our system; such false majorities have happened 12 times in the past century.
We haven’t fared much better this election, with the Liberals taking 46% of the seats with 33% of the popular vote. That’s arguably a bit better, but still a funhouse-mirror level of distortion.
WASTED VOTES, STRATEGIC VOTING & VOTER APATHY
Our political system is completely broken. This election, about 9.2 million out of 18.1 million votes didn’t elect anyone. That’s 51% of all votes wasted. Of the 338 seats, only 123 were won with over 50% of the vote, the average winning seat only getting 48.9% of the vote.
That’s a majority of voters in Canada not having their votes count for anything. The Liberal win in the 2015 election was almost exactly the same, with 9 million out of 17.5 million (51%) votes wasted.
Popular vote numbers are also even further distorted by strategic voting. It was recently reported that 1 in 3 voters voted strategically. Who would they have voted for otherwise? How different would this election outcome have been under a more proportional system?
Who knows? We have no idea what the real collective opinion of Canadians is – even those who voted! That’s to say nothing of the 8.8 million who don’t bother to vote – who presumably and rightly felt that voting would do them no good and have no effect on their lives. Not to mention the 3.8 million who can’t even vote because they are only permanent residents.
Every election, media pundits put the popular vote up next to the seat count, like some kind of sick reminder on how bad we are at elections. We live in a society with so many rules, laws, and regulations – a minor can’t drink, but a political party can take control of the entire country with a minority. You would hope standards for governing the country met higher standards than ineffectually micromanaging teens’ behaviour.
WE THE PEOPLE?
People often forget that our democratic government is our current official way, as a society, to organize ourselves and improve our lives through collective cooperation. We use elections as the sole direct means of constructing a group of representatives from society to go forth and run things on our behalf. Apart from protest and contacting your Member of Parliament, voting is also our only means of keeping these representatives to account.
Our broken democracy also inherently creates a system where the only real check on majority rule – usually a false majority, see above – comes through elections. Yes, we have a Senate, but its well-known as an unelected and partisan place of lukewarm second thought.
Unlike the U.S., with its three-tiered federal republic, we instead allow for the tyranny of the majority over minority political views. The Canadian Prime Minister gets to act like an elected dictator, effectively controlling the executive, legislative, and (through nominations) judicial branches of government.
Even the people that are elected as opposition can do little else apart from yelling, making statements to the media, and positioning themselves for the next election.
If the way we elect our government so heavily distorts the end result, you would think someone would have changed it by now. Back in 1867, during the formation of Canada, it was decided that Canada would use the British system of elections “until the Parliament of Canada otherwise provides.”
It’s been over 150 years and no one’s bothered to change a thing! We’re still trying to solve a 21st century problem with 17th century governance – with systems that were created in response to the crises and revolutions of the 1600s.
We often act like our current system is the final form of governance, the definitive and only kind of democracy that’s possible, but that’s patently absurd. Future generations – if humanity makes it that far – will undoubtedly look back at our current ‘democracy’ with the same kind of contempt we have for the medieval Divine Right of Kings.
Fun fact, the only countries in the world that use first-past-the-post are ex-British colonies. Thanks, England. The rest of the functioning democracies of the world use a number of other systems, but all of them at least create a better representation of people’s opinions.
RIGHT TO VOTE
The Canadian Constitution says that “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election.” What does this mean? Do citizens only get to perform the act of voting, or do they get to have their vote count for something?
You would think that an electoral system that can essentially throw 51% of people’s votes in a burning oil drum would have been deemed an infringement on our constitutional rights at some point. Perfect proportional representation isn’t exactly possible, but anything is better than this.
We should at least consider giving everyone an equal voice and the freedom to vote how they like without concern for split votes. Everyone should possess all the rights necessary to involve themselves in elections and have their vote count towards the final result.
It’s unlikely that Canada would ever see a majority with a more proportional system because of the real diversity of politics in the country. Somehow, our diversity is touted in nationalistic rhetoric as one of our great strengths, while simultaneously rejected because governments can’t get anything done when run as minorities.
This becomes especially important when you consider the major pressing issues currently confronting our society: growing inequality and the centralization of wealth, the rise of right-wing nationalism and – most dire of all – climate change.
It might seem like a cause for alarm that the Conservatives ‘won’ the popular vote in this election – barely. Yet the Conservatives’ 34.4% of the vote is dwarfed by the 63.2% of the vote that went to more progressive parties.
It’s just that the right-wing is currently united behind one party in Canada – the thankfully irrelevant People’s Party notwithstanding. This unity was only achieved after years of wandering in the political wilderness under competing iterations of the Progressive Conservative, Reform, and Canadian Alliance banners.
In reality, the political views of the whole are much more progressive than our elections make us out – it’s just that first-past-the-post mutes this. It makes you wonder how much progress we’ve missed out on because of our electoral system.
There’s increased talk of a need for new politics to tackle the plethora of incoming climate-based threats to human life. What options are we left with if we don’t have a system of democracy that gives the growing voice of people who are rightfully concerned about this the ability to elect people and parties who have real solutions?
It’s not all doom and gloom. Electoral fatigue is definitely setting in. The broken promises of the last government and the minority we have now lends well to electoral reform. A case in British Columbia is challenging the constitutionality of first-past-the-post, and other countries have already taken the steps we need to take.
But what proportional voting system should we use? That depends on who you are and what you believe and, honestly, what party you want to benefit the most from electoral reform.
The Liberals, who realize that they are the safety vote of many, want ranked ballots, where you vote for your first, second, and third choices. The votes are tallied up, and if no party gets over 50%, the last-place candidate is dropped and everyone who voted for them has their vote dispersed to other candidates based on their second choice, and so on.
This would be a titch better than what we have now, but still a pretty cruddy system that tends to favour the Liberals winning extra seats. They couldn’t convince anyone else that this obviously bad idea was actually a good one and were able to resist the urge to ram it through anyway.
None of the other options have really garnered expert agreement on what constitutes the ‘best’ system, as combining individual opinions into a group opinion is an inexact process. (In the 80s, an American legal scholar published a call for the winning ballot to be drawn in a lottery; others have proposed turning government into something like jury duty for which you can get randomly selected.)
Opposition parties naturally see different strengths in each of the systems.
The NDP and Greens have favoured a mixed-member proportional system that would create proportionality through a combination of local first-past-the-post seats and proportional party seats.
The Conservatives have never really ever favoured a specific system, though that may change as the power-hungry Andrew Scheer realizes he was just screwed out of 24 Sussex by the FPTP system.
Critics say that, among other things, this might cause perpetual minority governments, as is common in more proportional systems in other countries. People may not like minority governments, thinking that they are ineffectual, but that says more about how politics is conducted in Canada than how it is formed. I think we could all do better with a more cooperative, compromising, and thoughtful government. One that actually uses the diversity of Canadians to its advantage rather than governing in spite of it.
In the end, opinions shouldn’t matter when our electoral system is restricting people’s rights. We shouldn’t debate people’s right to be enfranchised, have their vote count, and participate in our democracy – any more than we should debate the existence of climate change or women’s rights to bodily autonomy.
The goal of electoral reform should be finding a way to make sure the largest majority of voters possible can participate in our democracy to the fullest and that all political opinions have a voice and an impact in the formation of our government.