“First past the post” or “winner take all” voting was invented in the 12th century, when people thought the Earth was flat. FPTP works well when there are only two candidates. Whoever gets the most votes has clearly been elected.
However, since the 1920s, Canada has had multiple parties. With three to five parties running candidates, FPTP can produce perverse results.
University of Toronto professor emeritus Peter Russell has pointed out that only FPTP allows a minority of the voters to elect a majority of the seats. Russell coined the term for this: “a false majority.”
Since the 1920s, Canada has had 14 false majorities. The current Liberal majority was elected with 39.47 per cent of the vote. The Stephen Harper majority in 2011 was also false, with 39.62 per cent of the vote. Not every vote counts. In riding after riding, when an MP can win with 30 per cent of the vote, that can leave 70 per cent of the votes “orphaned.”
When voters feel their vote will make no difference to the outcome, they are less likely to vote. This is referred to as the “effectiveness” of a vote. A Conservative living in a “safe” Liberal riding is less likely to vote. The low voter turnout over decades in Alberta had a lot to do with the sense that voting made no difference.
On average, countries with some form of proportional representation have significantly higher voter turnout than those voting with FPTP, or with the system known as ranked ballots (both are majoritarian, “winner take all” systems).
In fact, the vast majority of modern voting systems are based on proportional representation. Of modern democracies, only Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom still vote by “winner take all.”
Why dump “first past the post”? First, FPTP makes politics nastier. So-called wedge issues are designed to make people vote from fear or anger. Trying to keep your party’s vote solid while using voter-suppression techniques, such as attack ads to reduce another party’s vote, is reinforced by FPTP voting.
Second, co-operation is discouraged. The constant fear of strategic voting luring your supporters to vote for another party — to stop a worse choice — has the effect of making parties act like teams in an endless competition. To suggest another party has a good idea could risk bleeding your vote to another.
As compelling as all these reasons are to get rid of our current system, the third reason, the rights argument, trumps them all. Under Section 3 of the Charter, every Canadian has the right to vote. And under Section 15, we are entitled to equal protection and an equal exercise of our rights. How can a system of voting in which the majority of the votes might not have an impact on the outcome be considered Charter-compliant?
A fundamental principle of our democracy should be that every vote counts. The new Trudeau administration’s speech from the throne promised to ensure that 2015 will be the last election in Canada under FPTP in order to ensure that “every vote counts.”
The fact that the Liberals only had the support of the minority of Canadians is now being used to argue they lack the legitimacy to get rid of the current, outmoded voting system. But, counting all NDP and Green votes, 62 per cent of Canadians voted for a party committed to getting rid of FPTP.
When rights are involved, we do not hold referendums. There was no referendum to give women the vote. That was a fundamental shift in our voting, ensuring the right of suffrage to half of the non-Asian, non-indigenous population. Eventually (way too much later), that right of voting was extended to all citizens, regardless of race and ethnic background, and to those whose land we are on. No referendum took place to make sure every citizen had the right to vote.
We should not hesitate to grab with both hands the opportunity to make sure our right to vote includes the right to make sure every vote counts.
Elizabeth May is leader of the Green Party of Canada and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands.