Let’s Make Our Democracy Fair
By Guy Dauncey
First printed in Common Ground Magazine, April 2002, with many thanks.
In BC, in the May 2001 election, the Liberals won 57.5% of the vote, and wound up with 97% of the seats in the Legislature. 42% of the voters voted for different parties, but ended up with little or no representation. There is little that Joy McPhail and Jenny Kwan can do, however bold and persistent, among such a swarm of Liberals.
We can protest these things, but in the May 2005 election, if the Green Party and the NDP continue to split the vote, the Liberals will receive another four years in power, and it will continue that way unless the Greens or the NDP decide to throw in the towel, neither of which is going to happen.
And why should people have to abandon their core values and beliefs in order to make democracy work? A proper system of democracy should encourage citizens to stand by their values and enrich the body politic, not weaken it by eliminating the voices at the edge, the voices we depend on to raise the larger questions and offer new solutions.
The Liberals were similarly upset after the 1996 election, when they won more of the popular vote than the NDP, but ended up with fewer seats. With the Reform Party, they received 51% of the votes to the NDP’s 39%, but the NDP won 39 seats to the Liberals 33 and the Reform Party’s 2, so the NDP went on to govern.
The "First Past the Post" system works fine when there are only two parties. When Britain adopted the system in 1867, there were only Whigs and Tories. In Canada, power has been shared by the Conservatives and Liberals for most of this century; the same applies with the Republicans and Democrats in the USA, and Conservatives and Labour in Britain.
There is nothing divine about the way democracy works. In 1867, when the new Dominion of Canada adopted Britain’s system, only men with property or money could vote. In 1920, the vote was extended to women and most other Canadians, but with the specific exclusion of anyone from China or Japan, and of Canada’s native Indians, who had to renounce their treaty rights and registered Indian status if they wanted to vote. It was not until 1960 that this was rectified.
Out of the world’s 211 democracies, 70 use Britain’s "first past the post" system (mostly former British colonies), and 74 prefer the "proportional representation" (ProRep) approach, under which the seats in Parliament are distributed according to the percentage of the popular vote. If your party wins 18% of the vote, it gets 18% of the seats. Most West European, Latin American and African countries have proportional systems of one kind or another.
What the ProRep system in its pure form fails to do is keep the close link between an MP and his or her constituency, which most people feel to be important. In an important modification, a number of countries including Germany, Holland, Denmark, South Africa, Namibia and New Zealand have adopted the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, which keeps the local connection.
Under MMP, each voter has two votes – one for the local constituency representative, who is chosen using the "first past the post" system, and one for the party of your choice. When the results are tallied, if a party’s seats do not reflect the overall number of people who voted for it, additional MLAs are added from the party’s list to balance up the representation. This ensures the inclusion of smaller parties, while public scrutiny of the lists means that the parties tend to seek a balance of urban and rural, male and female, and ethnic and other minority candidates. If BC had used this system in the last election, with the seats reduced to 68, there would be 43 Liberal, 16 NDP and 9 Green Party MLAs sitting in the Legislature today.
Germany used to have unrestricted proportional voting, but in 1949 they adopted the Mixed Member Proportional system, requiring a party to win 5% of the popular vote to qualify for seats, to reduce the number of smaller parties. During the 1960s, there was a campaign by the larger parties to scrap the system in favour of "First Past the Post", but their efforts were unsuccessful. One of the noticeable benefits of proportional systems is that parties may need to sit in coalition with each other, so there tends to be less aggression, and more cooperation in drafting legislation, which the Germans seem to like. It is a curious fact of "First Past the Post" democracies that the leading parties often become locked in mutual hostility like stags in rut, providing a feast for the media, but frustration for the rest of us.
What other systems are there? Many countries use a "Two-Round System", also known as a "run-off". If a candidate receives an absolute majority, there is no need for a second round; if not, there is a second ballot a week or two later. In France, any candidate who gets more than 12.5% of the vote can run in the second ballot. Most ex-French territories (Senegal, Mali, Egypt) and post-Soviet bloc states (Belarus, Ukraine, Macedonia) use this system.
Australia’s system of "Preferential Voting" allows you to vote for as many candidates as you want, and place them in order of preference. If a candidate wins an absolute majority, he or she is elected, but if not, the candidate with the lowest number of first preferences is eliminated and the votes are re-allocated to their voters’ second preferences. The process continues until one wins an absolute majority. Ireland and Malta use a similar system.
Around the world, frustrations with the limitations of "first past the post" are leading to change. In 1993, following a four-year campaign, New Zealand abandoned the British system after people voted to adopt MMP in a binding referendum. In Britain, elections for the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Assemblies and for the European Parliament are held proportionally, and Tony Blair has promised to review the voting system in 2003. Meanwhile, Canada repeats the same old formula.
Here in BC, a non-partisan organization, "Fair Vote BC", has been working for several years to educate the public and push for change. The Liberal government has promised that it will set up a Citizens Assembly to look at electoral reform before 2005. The Federal NDP has committed itself to proportional representation, and the Provincial NDP has urged the government to establish a commission to study the voting system, and declared that it will campaign vigorously in favour of a Mixed Member Proportional system.
But will it be enough? To complement these actions, and keep the pressure on, Adriane Carr has launched a province-wide "Initiative to Establish a Proportional Representation Electoral System", using BC’s Recall and Initiative Act. Adriane is leader of the Green Party of BC, but has launched the initiative as a private citizen, as required by law. The campaign needs to gather support from 10% of the registered electorate in every riding over a 90-day period, from May 13th to August 12th. If it succeeds, the government must respond by tabling the bill in the Legislature or taking it to a province-wide vote.
So this is a call for action! It’s a big challenge, and it’s going to need a lot of help. The voluntary canvassers have 90 days to collect the signatures. If 4,000 canvassers spread over the province gather 60 signatures each, they’ll get the numbers they need. 800 people have applied to register as signature-gatherers so far, but they will need a lot more help.
Electoral reform is in all our interests, regardless of party affiliation. Maybe there’s a reason why voters have become so cynical towards their politicians. Maybe it is time for change. If BC succeeds with this, it will light a light for all of North America.