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April 13th, 2006

I wrote this a while ago on my belief that proportional representation is no less bad for Canada than our current system, but never found a place to publish it. In light of the floor-walking controversy and its denial of the fundamental principle that we have the option in Canada to vote for people, not just for parties, why not put it here?

Why Proportional Representation is Not the Answer for Canada - but nor is the current system

Jack Layton has told the country that a condition of the NDP joining any federal coalition is that the new government would hold a nationwide referendum on proportional representation. While this may benefit the NDP, it's not really good for Canada. But other systems might be.

Under the proportional representation system, everyone in Canada would vote not for a person to represent them locally, but for a party. The party provides a list to the Chief Elections Officer of all their candidates, in order that they are to be elected. The party is then awarded a proportion of the seats equivalent to the proportion of the vote they receive.

If 20 million Canadians vote in a federal election, and 4 million of them vote for the NDP, the NDP will win 61 seats. Under the current system they would likely win between 15 and 30. And that's great, every vote really does count, but at the cost of local representation, and the cost of allowing people in this country to vote for a person, not for a party.

If a party has a stallwart supporter, or just a big campaign contributor, the party can put them very high on their list and they are guaranteed a seat. In that way, people could literally buy their way into a seat in parliament. From there, our democracy can rapidly decline.

Is this better than our current system? I'm not sure. In our current system, each riding has a set of candidates and the person who receives the most number of votes, even if it's only one more than the next candidate, wins the riding. In that way, 2 people, or 2 parties who represent a similar point of view hurt eachother when their total vote exceeds another candidate's tally, but the other person came out above either one of them and thus wins the election.

There are at least two ways we can improve our system without sacrificing the ability to choose our representatives. One is a minor, perhaps even intermediate, change from our current system, and the other is a significant change from our current system.

Canadians, historically, have had a tendency to vote against certain people or parties, not for certain people or parties. In Quebec, I voted against the Bloq, not necessarily for the Liberals or my local candidate. In Ontario, I have voted against the Alliance or tories, not for the Liberals. We call it strategic voting, but it's really just voting against someone.

What we should do instead is allow people to vote one of two ways on their ballots. You can either vote for someone, or you can vote against someone. Instead of casting a strategic vote for a person or a party you don't really like, in order to not help one you like even less, we should allow people to vote against candidates.

Instead of one column on our ballots, we would get two. The left column would be "for", the right column would be "against". You would still only be allowed to vote once, but you would have the option of voting against someone, which would reduce their total votes by one, instead of in favour of someone else. While the results at the end of an election could contain negative votes in a net count for some candidates, it would allow Canadians to vote the way they already do, but properly.

The other alternative system we could use that allows every vote to count, preserves local representation, and preserves the selection of our own candidates, is the preferential ballot.

Australia has a preferential balloting system that is a poor implementation because it forces every voter to rank all candidates in their ridings. There exists a preferential balloting system that does not force people to do this. It is called the Condorcet system of pair-wise preferences.

It works by each voter ranking candidates on their ballot by who they prefer. For example, if I prefer candidate C over candidate A, and don't really care about the rest, I would vote for C as 1, and A as 2 on my ballot. This would tell the ballot counters that I prefer C over A, and both C and A over all the other candidates. If I only select one candidate, that tells the counters that I prefer that one candidate over every other candidate. At the end of the day, someone will be preferred over the others more than anyone else in a riding, and that person wins the election.

Political parties have for years demonstrated a preference for preferential balloting, including the NDP. It was by a preferential ballot that Jack Layton became leader of the party.

The preferential balloting system solves the problem of local representation, choosing between voting for a person or a party, choosing who you vote for, allowing voters to vote for more than one person, run-off votes, and vote-splitting, all in one fell swoop. With that, the power stays in the hands of the people.

Posted at 10:46 on April 13, 2006

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April 10th, 2006 | elections politics reform | April 20th, 2006

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