The future of electoral reform

While on hold at the federal level, electoral reform may be back on the table in BC


By: Olivia Roberts

After the federal Liberal government announced the broken promise of electoral reform back in February, there remained another vote with the potential to bring about a big change.

However, the House of Commons voted on Wednesday to reject an all-party committee report on democratic reform, which recommended that the government hold a national referendum on changing the voting system to proportional representation. The report was defeated with 146 votes in favour and 159 against.

While electoral reform seems to be on hold on the federal level, the latest developments in BC politics have made it front and centre.
The election results that came out of the province’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system resulted in a historic minority government — the first in BC since the 1950s.

Though the BC Liberals came in just shy of a majority with 43 seats, the BC NDP and the BC Greens have formed a partnership to govern the province. Electoral reform was a central part of the agreement between the two parties.

Current electoral system

In Canada, and BC, we use a majority election system with FPTP voting to determine the outcome in an election, though electoral reform has often been brought up in provincial and national politics.

Within the FPTP system, a census determines Canada’s electoral ridings and constituencies, in which voters can elect one member of Parliament from a range of parties to send to the federal House of Commons. Simply put, the person who receives the highest amount of votes wins.  

FPTP is simple and used in many countries across the globe, including the UK and the USA. However, the FPTP systems garners much criticism as there is often a skewing of results, and the person or party who wins the election often isn’t the person or party who won the highest amount of votes. This caveat is most notable in the past couple months in the recent US election, in which the Clinton campaign won the popular vote, but the Trump campaign won the presidency.

The majority election system prevents the success of many small parties, and further encourages a limited-party system. This creates a stable parliamentary majority, but can mean that some people feel unrepresented. Furthermore, it can encourage “gerrymandering,” a redistribution of constituencies in order to optimize those elected to the majority party.

Popular alternatives

When it comes to alternatives, those in favour, namely the NDP and Green parties, or the Liberals until late January of this year, are vocal about the necessity for change.

Some of SFU’s student groups affiliated with political parties feel that a change in the system would help encourage the youth vote.

“Within the context of youth and university students, we are often blamed for not turning out to vote on election day,” said Ian Soutar of the SFU Greens. “But when the system is as antiquated as it is and there are so many people from older generations telling us that our vote doesn’t count, or using other voter suppression techniques, it is very difficult to convince us that there is a benefit to marking an X on a piece of paper.

“My hope is that implementing a more inclusive system would stimulate youth into getting out the vote, as well as any other disenfranchised voters, because we know that our vote will do what we want it to do,” Soutar noted.

The main alternative to our current electoral system in a parliamentary election is the proportional representation (PR) electoral system. Popular around the world, PR aims to ensure that the percentage of votes for a party aligns with the percentage of representation of the party.

This system often encourages a multi-party system, and consequently encourages coalitions in government. Often PR electoral systems will have voters cast their votes for a party, not specific individuals, depending if the system is an open or closed list.

This electoral system is usually favoured by parties such as the NDP and the Greens on both a federal and provincial level. As part of the alliance announced this week between BC NDP leader John Horgan and BC Green leader Andrew Weaver, the parties have pledged to hold a referendum on PR next year.

Soutar said it was reassuring to see the two parties put forward electoral reform in their platforms this election. “I am very much hopeful that BC will help shift the country’s support towards proportional representation,” he said.

However, there are some commonly cited drawbacks to the PR system. Firstly, the system encourages multiple parties and creates an environment in which consensus in the form of a party-line is difficult to achieve.

Secondly, while encouraging the success of small-party representation in government, some are concerned that this may allow for extremist parties being represented in government.

A common form of proportional representation is the single transferable vote model which involves a complex system of ranked voting and redistribution. The model is praised for its ability to achieve nearly pure proportional representation, but criticized for its complexity as to how individual votes are counted.

It was defeated twice in provincial referendums in BC — once in 2005 and again in 2009.

Olivia Roberts is the vice-president of the SFU Greens.

With files from The Guardian and CBC News.