COLUMN: Let’s move past first-past-the-post

North Delta Reporter editor James Smith makes his case for adopting a system of proportional representation to replace first-past-the-post.

Ballot for the riding of Calgary West in the 2008 federal election in Canada.

Ballot for the riding of Calgary West in the 2008 federal election in Canada.

I’m not one to hyperbolize and say that our electoral system is broken; it isn’t. We hold regular elections, there’s (usually) a high degree of confidence in the results, and the business of government runs (relatively) smoothly year-in and year-out.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t – or shouldn’t – do better.

When the federal government announced last month it was abandoning its goal of electoral reform – one the key planks in the Liberal Party’s 2015 election platform – the backlash online and in the media was swift.

And rightly so.

Our current first-past-the-post system has essentially been in effect since the British North America Act was ratified in 1867, and it’s well past its expiration date.

The system’s simplicity and clear results made it a great option 150 years ago, but the way it seriously distorts the popular vote and misrepresents the political spectrum is something that we can no longer tolerate.

Case in point: In the last federal election, the Liberals won a majority of the seats (about 54 per cent, or 184 of 338) but only 39.5 per cent of the popular vote. By contrast, the Conservatives won about 29 per cent of the seats (99 of 338) and were just shy of 32 per cent of the popular vote.

So despite less than an eight per cent lead in the popular vote, the Liberals won 25 per cent more seats than their closest rival. Similar situations play out in every provincial and federal election in Canada.

On top of that, first-past-the-post often has the effect of disenfranchising the majority of people in a given riding by essentially casting aside their votes.

For example, Delta MP Carla Qualtrough was elected with 49 per cent of the popular vote, leaving more than half of Deltans without someone in Ottawa who represents their point of view.

As the majority of ballots cast in Delta in 2015, not to mention those cast in most other ridings in Canada, are worthless as soon as the count is finalized, is it any wonder that a third of the country doesn’t bother to vote at all?

Under a proportional system of representation, the makeup of government would more accurately reflect the views of Canadians. Fewer votes would be “wasted” and fewer people would feel unrepresented and marginalized. Voter confidence would rise as the makeup of our governments better reflected the diversity of views and opinions from coast to coast to coast.

Also, minority governments would become more common, necessitating a more comprehensive and meaningful dialogue between political rivals. No longer would one party be able to ram its agenda down the country’s throat.

A decade ago, there was a push to adopt a system of proportional representation in B.C. Two referenda, one in 2005 and another in 2009, asked voters to decide whether or not to adopt a single transferable vote electoral system, known as BC-STV.

The province’s own literature explaining BC-STV states that it would provide a “generally high degree proportionality,” while in the current system “there is often a wide variance between popular vote and seats won.”

In the proposed system, voters would rank the candidates in order of preference, and those that reached a certain threshold of votes would be elected. After reaching that threshold, any additional vote for the candidate would be re-allocated according to the preference indicated on the ballot.

Membership in the Legislature would remain at 85, but the seats would be distributed over 20 multi-member electoral districts, each with between two and seven MLAs, depending on the district’s size and population.

Ultimately, both referenda were unsuccessful as they failed to meet the double threshold of approval required for the adoption of BC-STV: both 60 per cent of the popular vote and majority support in 60 per cent of the ridings (at least 51 out of 85).

It’s worth noting that if political parties needed to meet the same standards of approval in order to form government, we’d be in a perpetual election cycle.

First-past-the-post is an antiquated system that denies vast numbers of people an adequate, representative voice in government. As Canadians, don’t we deserve better?

James Smith is the editor of the North Delta Reporter.

North Delta Reporter