Democracy is never ‘first past the post’

Nathan Gallagher
Image by: Jodie Grieve

We supposedly live in a representative democracy. Yet in 2011, a party that only 39.6 per cent of the electorate voted for took majority control of Parliament.

The reason for this is our current voting system: first past the post (FPTP). Under this system, the candidate who receives the most votes wins—regardless of their actual voter share. When a minority of voters can exert their will over the majority of people, how can we claim to be democratic?

Today, the large population size of nation-states and the diversification of labour make direct democracy unfeasible. It’s implausible for everyone in the country to participate in the legislative process. That’s why voters organized into small districts across the country select representatives to carry out their interests.

But FPTP consistently leads to disproportional outcomes and governments that exercise majority control in the House of Commons despite representing only a minority of people. Our 2011 federal election is one example where Stephen Harper’s Conservatives secured a majority government with over 60 per cent of the country voting against them.

In 2015, Trudeau promised to switch us to a proportional voting system but reneged on that promise after taking office. The reason: FPTP has historically given the Liberals majority governments.

Even though the NDP align more closely with my values, I usually vote Liberal. This is because FPTP often leads to vote-splitting where two or more candidates with similar ideas split their constituents, taking a majority of the vote share when added together but each winning fewer votes on their own than whichever candidate wins the plurality.

Polling in my district often reflects that a vote for the NDP would be “wasted” because the race is hotly contested between a Liberal and a Conservative. Not wanting the conservative candidate to win, progressive left voters are forced to strategically vote Liberal despite the party’s centrist leaning.

There are a number of proportional representation (PR) voting systems we could be using instead. Under ranked choice voting, for instance, constituents rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of most-preferred votes, the election goes to a runoff. The last place candidate is removed from the ballot and those who selected them as their top choice get their votes reallocated to their second pick. These runoff elections continue until one candidate secures a majority.

This is just one of many PR voting systems we could switch to. Any one of them would be better than what we have now. However, with neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals proposing PR, and given that many voters aren’t aware of just how disproportionate our governments are, this is unlikely to happen soon.

Nathan is a fourth-year English student and The Journal’s Arts Editor.


Canada, Federal elections, Voting

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