Americas / Elections

Canada’s Elections and the Folly of First Past the Post

In 2011, Canada’s Liberal party held just 34 out of 308 seats in parliament. Historically a very successful political party, the Liberals have held a majority on numerous occasions. They famously were in control for over a decade under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a man widely considered one of the greatest leaders in Canadian history, but by 2011, the Liberals had fallen to third party status. The ruling Conservatives held a majority and the New Democratic Party, which had generally positioned itself to the left of the Liberals, now held second place with over 100 seats. In 2013, a man who had been a snowboard instructor and teacher rose to the leadership of the party. His name was Justin Trudeau, son of the late Prime Minister, and he would go on to win an unprecedented, historic victory. Under his leadership, support for the Liberals went from just over ten percent of the electorate to well over 50 percent. They took 184 seats in the new parliament of 338, solidifying control and proving Trudeau heir to his father’s legacy.

Except the story is not quite that impressive. Trudeau’s electoral victory was astounding, to be sure, but the Liberals’ vote share actually only moved about 20 percentage points, from 20 to 40, far less than the approximately 40 percent implied by the seat counts. This is a result of Canada’s dysfunctional electoral system, known as First Past the Post. Used in the UK and other states descended from the British Empire such as the US and Australia, First Past the Post is simple. One member runs in one district, and, out of all the candidates, the highest vote getter is elected – even if it is with only 25 percent of the total vote, as happened earlier this year to a British Member of Parliament (MP) in the city of Belfast. This can have dramatic effects across the country, when some parties receive significant support but are unable to win many seats. This May, a party called UKIP in the UK received around thirteen percent of the vote but only captured one seat in the 650 seat House of Commons. This should be seen as a scandal: the people are not being adequately represented. And indeed, the voters are aware of the system.

Canada’s former Prime Minister, the Conservative Stephen Harper, was not especially popular towards the end of his third term. However, if the left leaning parties – the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens – split the vote, that could have left the Conservatives with the most votes in individual Ridings (the Canadian districts.) To avoid this problem, the Canadian electorate shifted. Websites like “anyonebutharper.net” arose to help voters vote strategically to ensure defeat for the Conservative candidates. Since Trudeau’s Liberals had the most support of the left leaning voters, his numbers were likely artificially inflated by strategic voters – it is very likely that the Liberals were the first choice for considerably less than 40 percent of Canadians, yet they now hold most of the seats and almost all of the power. This cannot be considered democratic, because the voters’ choices are not being fairly represented. For example, the Bloc Quebecois appeared to have a resurgence in 2015, rising from just two seats to ten, but in fact, their support actually decreased. In the long run, this system tends toward two parties, as “anyonebutharper” happens election after election and the small parties dry up. The US is already like this. We lose the grotesque errors that can be caused by spoiler candidates (in most cases – see the 2000 election and Ralph Nader) but we have fewer choice over who governs us.

Many countries have decided that democracies should, in fact, be governed by a parliament that looks like how the people voted, and numerous systems have been devised for this purpose. For example, in Scotland and New Zealand, people vote for home representatives like in the US, but they also cast a separate vote for their favorite party. After all the local seats are allocated, further seats are allocated based on the party vote, so that each party holds a number of seats that corresponds to the percentage of the electorate who supported them. This system is called MMP, or “Mixed Member Proportional.” In Ireland, each district elects several members, and people rank candidates instead of choosing one. If their first choice is the lowest vote getter, than their vote goes to the second, allowing them to support their favorite candidates without fear of a “Nader effect.” If their first choice wins, then extra votes beyond what their first choice needs go to their second choice, ensuring their vote is not wasted. This system maintains local representatives, allows people to choose all of their own MPs, and creates parliaments with multiple parties that demand compromise: parliaments that can best represent the disparate views of their people. The Irish System is called STV, or “Single Transferrable Vote,” and has helped maintain a healthy democracy with four main parties and several small ones that represent the diverse views of the Irish people.

Prime Minister Trudeau is not the first Canadian Prime Minister to benefit from the dysfunctional First Past the Post System – indeed, it was this same system that led them to have nearly half the MPs they should have had in 2011 and put the Conservatives in power. Thankfully, he has promised that he will be the last. Trudeau had promised during the campaign that this would be the last election conducted under First Past the Post, and has now announced that he will move to switch the country to the Alternative Vote system.