Election 2015: Let's make every vote count

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As the 2015 federal election fast approaches, electoral reform has emerged as a platform issue. 

Three main political parties -- the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens -- have committed to making 2015 the last federal election conducted with the first-past-the-post system. 

We didn't get here by accident -- it's been a long road.

Stephen Harper's "majority" government was elected in 2011 with just 39.6 per cent of the popular vote -- about 24 per cent of eligible voters -- which first-past-the-post translated into 54 per cent of the seats and 100 per cent of the power. 

This is no anomaly. In fact, since WWI, we've only had four majority governments that actually had the support of a majority of voters. The last one was in 1984. 

With winner-take-all voting, badly distorted results are the norm. In fact, it's possible for one party to receive more of the popular vote, but another party to "win" a majority of seats in the election -- it's happened a number of times provincially.

Equally troubling, each federal election, seven million voters cast ballots that elect no one -- what many call "wasted votes." A voter can potentially go through his or her entire life never having elected any representation in a representative democracy. 

Canada's voting system makes us appear more divided than we really are. Not all voters out west are Conservatives, and not all Quebecers are Bloc or NDP supporters, but we are all trapped in an 800-year-old voting system.

Only with a winner-take-all voting system can a separatist party become Canada's official opposition, with the same type of distorted results that gave the NDP 78 per cent of the seats in Quebec in 2011 with 43 per cent of the popular vote. 

Since 2000, Fair Vote Canada has been advocating for the adoption of a more proportional voting system. Proportional representation (PR) isn't one particular system -- it's a family of systems that reflect a basic principle: If a party gets 39 per cent of the popular vote, they should get roughly 39 per cent of the seats. Your vote should help elect representation you want, no matter where you happen to live. 

There are two major families of voting systems in the world: proportional, and "winner-take-all" (which political scientists call "majoritarian"). With a proportional system, every voter is equal and the overall results in the legislature reflect how the citizens voted. With a winner-take-all system, only one group in each riding is represented, and the overall results often produce a false majority for a single party.

Among OECD countries, 85 per cent have some degree of proportionality in their voting systems. Making votes count is rarely ever brought in by a referendum. Any model designed for Canada doesn't require a constitutional amendment, just legislation. Also known as: political will.

The evidence for a more proportional system is comprehensive and compelling. Research over 55 years has repeatedly demonstrated that on average, countries with proportional systems:

  • have 7.5 per cent higher voter turnout
  • create policies that better reflect the views of the median voter
  • have citizens more satisfied with their democracy
  • elect eight per cent more women
  • have lower income inequality
  • have better environmental performance
  • are just as fiscally responsible, and have higher economic growth
  • have no more frequent elections 

Most countries with more proportional voting systems are governed by stable and productive majority coalitions which actually represent a majority of voters. As the evidence suggests, over time these governments are better able to make and sustain progress on a variety of social democratic issues.

With no phony majority in sight for any party, the parties have an incentive to work hard to find common ground.

What do Canadians think of a more proportional voting system? Polls conducted by various major polling companies over 14 years consistently show a strong majority of Canadians who vote for all parties support it -- 70 per cent in the latest poll (2013).  

Ten Canadian commissions have recommended PR. Federally, in 2004, the Law Commission of Canada did a comprehensive two-year study, including 17 public consultations, and released a 200-page report recommending Canada adopt a Mixed Member Proportional system with regional open lists (meaning, all MPs directly elected by and accountable to local voters).

The Liberals sat on the report and the Conservatives disbanded the Law Commission.

There are other possible proportional designs for Canada, two of which are featured in three six-minute videos with Professor Dennis Pilon. 

The catch-22 of electoral reform, of course, is that the party who achieves power via winner-take-all voting (or can dream of it) is usually loathe to change the system that got them there, and will sit on or sabotage any process or recommendation to do so. This includes governments of all political stripes. 

That's what makes where we sit now so unique and exciting.

On December 3, 2014, in the House of Commons, the NDP used their Opposition Day motion for a vote on proportional representation. 

All the NDP MPs, Green MPs, Bloc MPs, 3/5 Independent MPs and 16/31 Liberal MPs voted YES. 

The NDP and Green parties are committing, in their 2015 campaign platforms, to consult citizens and experts on a model, then implement PR for 2019 if elected. 

In June 2015, the Liberal Party announced that they will form an all-party committee to consider electoral reform (both winner-take-all and proportional options), to report back to Parliament within one year of the next Parliament, introduce legislation on electoral reform within 18 months, and make 2015 the last first-past-the-post election.

Their caucus is divided on proportional representation. Some favour PR, while some favour another winner-take-all system, which changes little but historically would have benefited the Liberal party.

Experience has taught us that no matter what the process is, the views of the parties and the individual MPs who fill the chairs are critical to seeing electoral reform move ahead. 

Fair Vote Canada has asked candidates in every riding in Canada where they stand on proportional representation, and whether they will vote for it -- the riding by riding results are on www.fairvote.ca

Last month Fair Vote Canada announced that 500 academics, including Kevin Page and over 30 Canada Research Chairs, have signed an open letter by Professor Peter Russell calling on the parties to implement proportional representation.

We have a window of opportunity this election to move Canada forward, so we leave behind a better democracy for our children and grandchildren. Together, we can make every vote count.

To learn more about proportional representation in Canada please visit Fair Vote Canada.

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