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April 19, 2016

Canada on the brink of change in voting?

Reuel S. Amdur

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On March 22, University of Montreal Political Science Professor André Blais spoke about proportional representation (PR) on Parliament Hill, before an audience invited by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The issue is salient at this juncture, as Prime Minister Trudeau has declared that the 2015 election would be the last one using the first-past-the-post system. 

While PR is one alternative system, the preferential ballot, as used in Australia, is another.  His talk was focused on PR.  He noted that there has been unhappiness with first-past-the-post, as it does not accurately reflect the views of the electorate. 

In PR, the number of seats that a party gets is proportional to the share of the votes it receives.  For the system to operate, there must be multi-member districts. 

In the case of the Netherlands, the country as a whole is one district.  The list of candidates a party presents may be open or closed.  That is, either the candidates compete among themselves for their place on the list, or the party itself determines the listing.  The further up on the list, the more likely to be successful.  An open list system can create tension within a party, with candidates skirmishing with one another for spots on the ticket.

Canada, Blais noted, is a rarity. 

Most democratic countries, aside from some of the former British colonies, have some form of PR.  Often, there is a lower limit for entry into the legislature, to prevent too extreme fracturing.  In Germany, a party must have at least 5% of the vote to enter the Bundestag,

One form of PR is the mixed member system, where a voter votes for a party as well as a local candidate.  The local candidate is chosen by first-past-the-post, while the party vote reflects the strength of the party.  Germany’s is an example of this system.  

Blais has studied the consequences of adopting PR.  While claims are made that the fact of the outcome more clearly mirrors voter preferences would lead to greater rates of voter participation, he reported that careful analyses have shown only a small, perhaps 3%, increase. 

In New Zealand, that increase disappeared over time.  Voter satisfaction in PR has not been shown to be greater, but people in PR jurisdictions do feel that the system is fairer. 

So what are the consequences of going PR? 

For one thing, it is harder to pinpoint accountability.  A party may run on a platform making certain commitments, but because PR often results in minority governments requiring working with other parties, once elected a government must often put water in its wine.  We commented to Blais that a voter pushing for a particular issue could be disappointed in this situation.  “Yes, that is true,” he replied.

A PR system encourages the formation of new parties and leads to minority governments and coalitions.  While PR has within it the potential for governments to fall when parties cannot come to terms, he finds that PR governments are generally relatively stable.  Often parties want to avoid having to go to the polls too often, so they find ways to work together.

One questioner asked about a situation where the federal level might go PR while provinces would remain first-past-the-post.  Would this make the federal government weaker?  Blais did not see this as a problem.  Another asked if PR results in more women being elected, and he responded that it does. 

We suggested that, in the current scene, the preferential ballot would strengthen the Liberals and PR the NDP, Greens, and other small parties.  We were unsure about how the Bloc Québécois would be affected.  But any change from first-past-the-post would hurt the Tories.  He was not so sure, emphasizing the unpredictability of events.

Unpredictability.  You will probably not know of an event in 1934 in the Connecticut Senate.  After the state election, three Socialists held the balance of power in the Senate.  After 109 ballots, on the 110th the three Socialists voted to give the Republicans control of the Senate, in exchange for some social measures. 

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