When Most Votes Don't Count

Lack of democracy is at the root of Canada's worst problems
December 1, 2013

The Senate scandal that has obsessed the media in recent months is the least of the political problems that beset this country. The Senate is no less dysfunctional than the House of Commons has become. We live in a country that is politically incapacitated by an electoral system that no country can maintain and still call itself a democracy.

Canada is the only purportedly "democratic" country in the world in which a political party garnering less than 40% of the ballots cast can form a majority government. It is the only country in which a government supported by fewer than one in four eligible voters can exercise almost unlimited power for four years or more to implement its ultra-conservative agenda.

Even in the United States, because of its two-party system, neither the Democrats nor Republicans can normally win an election with less than 50% voting support. (There have been a few exceptions, thanks to the strange U.S. Electoral College, but usually it's the candidate or party with the majority of votes that prevails.)

In Canada's horribly unfair "first-past-the-post" (FPTP) system, all a candidate or party has to do is win a plurality of votes, and, with balloting split among five or more parties, a plurality could be as low as 35%. This is democracy?

Granted, many who vote for candidates who don't represent the victorious party have the satisfaction of helping elect an MP to sit on the opposition benches. So in that sense their votes are not "wasted." But they are wasted in the important sense that all their votes combined outnumber (by more than 10% in the last federal election) those cast for the party that gets to form the government.

Our FPTP electoral method was modeled on the parliamentary system in the United Kingdom, where it is still practised. But it has fallen into disfavour with the transition to a coalition

Conservative-Labour government, one of the conditions of which was Labour's call for polling voters on a shift to some form of proportional representation (PR).

Under a PR system, a party's representation in the legislature accurately reflects its voting support, and so is demonstrably – not just purportedly – democratic. It's not as simple as assuring that each party gets the same percentage of seats as its percentage of the vote, but in practice that's close to the actual outcome.

The democracy inherent in PR is evident in its adoption in some form by 75 countries around the world. That's the vast majority of countries that give their citizens the right to elect their legislative representatives. Canada, the U.S., and Britain are the only large nations that continue to stick with the patently unfair winner-take-all system – and so with its damaging social, economic, and environmental impacts.

Most Canadians, however, still complain about inequality, poverty, pollution, unemployment, and other serious problems without connecting the lack of remedial government measures to our undemocratic electoral voting system. It's a sick parody of democracy that disenfranchises the majority and allows the country to be ruled by a fundamentalist minority cult. With an impotent opposition and no effective restraints on its reactionary impulses, it becomes a government that rules as an autocracy, not a democracy.

The citizens of most continental European countries enjoy a truly democratic electoral system based on some form of proportional representation – a system in which all votes count and all parties are represented in legislatures according to the extent of their balloting support. Many other countries, including South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea, also have PR-determined governments. So do many Latin American nations such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Uruguay.

There are multiple forms of PR, which can be tailored to the social and cultural nature of each country. One method is called the simple transferable ballot (STB), in which each party's list is printed on the ballot so that voters can rank their choice of candidates in order. This ensures that the candidates who win seats reflect the voters' preference rather than that of the party leadership.

The STB system is explained in detail in an article by Saul Zalik elsewhere in this issue. It is popular in other countries, including New Zealand, but failed (narrowly) to win approval in the referendum on PR conducted in British Columbia a few years ago. Perhaps that's because its methodology is not as "simple" to understand as its proponents contend.

But the fact that so many other countries have viable and popular forms of PR – in which every vote cast is reflected in the election results – should surely prove the superiority of this voting system over our disastrously first-past-the post travesty.

How much longer will Canadians pretend that we have the democratic right to decide how and by whom we are governed? When will most of us become aware that our present system virtually guarantees we will be misgoverned? And when will we learn that being deprived of electoral democracy leads inevitably to the empowerment of despots?

The grim fact that these questions are not even being asked, let alone answered, by most of our current political and business leaders – and ignored by the mass media – bodes ill for Canada's future. A government of, by, and for the rich and powerful is as far from democracy – and as near to fascism – as it's possible to get. 

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)