Electoral reform: nowhere more needed than in Alberta

By Janet Keeping, Leader, Green Party of Alberta

June 22, 2016

Electoral reform is all about improving democracy in Canada by having our Legislatures and Parliament more accurately reflect voters’ preferences.  Instead of winner-take-all in each constituency (often referred to as first-past-the-post, FPTP), we need a system more consistent with the central idea of democracy – the principle of equality.  Andrew Coyne nails it when he says,   “At heart, democracy is based on a belief in the equal worth and equal rights of every citizen.”  It follows that we need elections that produce results that reflect – are proportional to – how votes are cast.

Our current electoral system denies this democratic equality.  This cannot be justified when there are demonstrably fairer ways of running elections.  And nowhere in Canada is this type of change more needed than in the province of Alberta.

The problem is winner-take-all

Under winner-take-all (FPTP) every vote cast for someone other than the candidate who receives the most votes simply disappears and thus has no impact on the election outcome.

Many will speak of our system leading to “false majorities.”  For example, in 2008 the Alberta PCs got over half the votes cast (52.7%), but elected a hugely greater percentage of the seats – 87%!  In 2012 the last PC government received only 44.0 % of the popular vote but again unfairly dominated the Legislature by holding a full 70% of the seats.

The distortions continued into 2015 when the Alberta NDs got only 40.6 % of the vote but 62.1 % of the seats.  So FPTP served the NDs well in 2015 but historically treated them very badly.  In 2008 they got 8.5% of the vote but only 2.4% of the seats.  In 2012 it was 9.8 % of the vote and 4.5 % of the seats.

A preferential ballot would make matters worse

As is well known across the country, last fall the federal Liberals elected more MPs than any other party – 184 of 338 seats, or 54% – having received 39.5% of the vote.

But purporting to cure the disappearing vote problem, as the federal Liberals want, with a preferential ballot is nonsense – that system is no better and may even be worse.  With a preferential ballot, voters rank all the candidates running in their area.  With each round of counting the candidate getting the lowest number of votes drops off until there are only two left, one of whom ends up with a “majority” of the votes manufactured in this way.

But the point of electoral reform is not to put in place a system that after several rounds of voting elects the voter’s 4th, 5th or 6th choice.  It is, or should be, to put in place a system that has as many people as possible represented in the Legislature by their first choice.

The solution is proportional representation

Only proportional representation gives that desired result. 

PR is especially needed in Alberta

Nowhere in Canada has a higher percentage of votes cast disappeared under winner-take-all than in Alberta, a province whose government was dominated unrelentingly by one political party for 44 years.  Winner-take-all always masks political diversity – because the votes cast for anyone other than the winning candidate disappear.  For more than four decades, most votes for other than PC candidates elected no one and might as well never have been cast.  That was a huge number of votes and a lot of Alberta voters were denied, and continued to be denied, the right to participate equally in choosing their government.

Prior to their win last May, the Alberta NDs were in favour of ditching winner-take-all in favour of a fairer, proportional system.  Whether they still do is unclear, but the NDs know why PR is crucial in principle.  And in practice, as we have seen, they have been consistently under-represented in the Alberta Legislature because of winner-take-all (FPTP.)  Given that the next provincial election is likely to turn out very differently from that in 2015, the NDs should realize that FPTP is very likely going to bite them yet again, if they don’t amend the system.

One final thought:  There is no need for Alberta to follow the model of electoral reform that is adopted at the federal level, if indeed one is adopted.  We should be open to the possibility that somewhat different proportional systems would better suit the different levels of government.

But whether the solutions are identical, or not, electoral reform is badly needed everywhere in Canada, and nowhere is that need more acute than right here in Alberta.

This blog was first published by Troy Media here: http://www.troymedia.com/2016/06/27/electoral-reform-needed-nowhere-alberta/

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