Make Voting Simple, Equal, Accountable, and Traditional

[There is a shorter version of this available here.]

I started this referendum cycle in favour of proportional representation (PR), but I’ve been listening to those who advocate sticking with our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. And while I still support PR, I’ve decided that the supporters of FPTP have a point… though they don’t know it yet. Confused? Read on.

Voting Should be Simple

Supporters of first-past-the-post say voting should be simple, and I agree. One person, one vote, and the person with the most votes wins. What could be simpler, right? Well, all too often the winner doesn’t have a majority of the vote, and no one wants to “waste their vote”. This encourages voters to calculate who the probable winners might be, both in their local riding and in the whole province. Should a voter cast a ballot for who they want to win? Or should they vote for a compromise candidate who might do better locally? Or should they take a chance on supporting a compromise candidate that supports a party that is stronger province-wide, because there’s a fourth party that they feel must be stopped at all costs? First-past-the-post is simple on the surface, but creates a confusing array of strategic voting possibilities, and that makes it the least simple option on the referendum ballot this November. Under proportional representation, however, almost every vote counts so voting for who and what you believe in is much, much simpler.

All Voters Should Be Equal

I couldn’t agree more with the supporters of FPTP on this point. All voters and all votes should be equal, whether they’re urban or rural, whether that vote elects a local or a regional representative, etc. The truth is, no vote is less equal than a first-past-the-post vote. If you’re in a “safe seat” under FPTP, one that is almost always won by the same party every election, your vote is largely taken for granted. Other parties usually won’t fight hard for your vote because they see your riding as unwinnable, and the party that typically wins your riding too often takes your vote for granted. If you’re a voter in a “safe riding”, you become an after thought for all the parties.

On the other hand, if you’re in a riding that frequently “swings” back and forth between different parties, your vote is of key importance every election, and your opinion counts for more than voters in most other ridings. The election platforms of each party are highly tailored to the interests of these swing voters. The opinions of these voters are considered more important than most. A lot more. And that’s as unequal as it gets.

And once elected, a party that wins an election under first-past-the-post all too often does so with less than 40% of the vote. They frequently ignore the opinions of the more than 60% of voters who didn’t support them. They didn’t need them the first time around, and reason that they probably won’t need them the next time, so their votes aren’t equal under FPTP either. Once you take out the safe seats, and those who voted for the non-winning party, under FPTP elections a very small number of votes actually matter to the parties in how they conduct their election campaigns.

Under a proportional representation system, almost every vote helps elect someone so each voter is far more equal.

Voting Should be Accountable

First-past-the-post supporters are absolutely correct that elected representatives should be accountable. If we change how voting is conducted, how can we keep it that way? Except, that presumes they’re accountable now. An MLA in a safe seat doesn’t need to work as hard to win an election; just being the candidate for the right party is usually enough for victory. So under FPTP, many MLAs are more worried about winning the party’s nomination for a riding than what the voters of the riding think. That’s not accountability. Proportional representation, on the other hand, distributes the seats to the parties based on the popular vote, meaning far fewer safe seats, meaning it’s in the best interests of elected representatives to be far more responsive to the public.

First-past-the-post leads to distorted results, and often very distorted results. Is a party with a minority of the votes having a majority of the seats answerable to the people? Is a party in second place in the popular vote winning the most seats, as has happened several times in Canadian history and just happened again in New Brunswick, accountability? Proportional representation solves these issues by giving parties close to (or even exactly) the number of seats they earned, and by forcing parties to cooperate until the group in power represents a majority of voters.

We Should Honour Our Voting Traditions

Supporters of first-past-the-post argue that we should honour our electoral traditions. I absolutely agree. Interestingly, though, our voting tradition is one of constant change. Our riding boundaries change every two elections in BC. Campaign finance rules have evolved significantly in recent years. At first women, first nations, and many others didn’t have the right vote in Canada, but over time these groups were all given the vote. We moved from voting voting done in a public room with voters holding up their hands, to voting by secret ballot. The hours the polls are open change from time to time. We created advance voting opportunities, and then expanded them significantly. Originally politicians drafted up riding boundaries, but they eventually handed it over to independent bodies like Elections Canada and Elections BC (and that happened far more recently than most realize… Elections BC wasn’t created until 1995). Elections were originally held when the sitting government wished to hold them, usually at a time they thought they would benefit from it, but now most of Canada has fixed election dates. Some parts of Canada originally didn’t allow political parties, but most of Canada eventually allowed parties to endorse candidates (though the Northwest Territories and Nunavut still don’t). In BC, parties weren’t allowed for about the first 30 years (it was independent candidates only prior to that). In federal elections, party names weren’t listed on the ballot until 1972.

Our voting system is no different. Seventeen elections in BC history have had the voting system change for some (or all) voters. The first election in BC history held entirely under first-past-the-post was 1991. Before 1991, the voting system used in each ridings was fluid, was at the government’s discretion, and was changed frequently. Many British Columbians voted in multi-member ridings as recently as 1986. There were multi-member ridings in federal elections far more recently than most people know, too. Alberta and Manitoba both changed to proportional representation for urban ridings (and ranked ballots for rural ridings) for elections held in the 1930s and ’40s and, though it worked well, they changed back to FPTP when they saw a partisan advantage in doing so.

So not only is first-past-the-post not “the way it’s always been”, only 17% of BC’s provincial elections have been held entirely under first-past-the-post. It’s worth noting that while most of the country uses first-past-the-post for electing city councillors, British Columbians do not. Many people who support FPTP for provincial elections in BC also support the current non-FPTP way we elect councillors.

Switching to proportional representation wouldn’t go against our electoral history, it would be absolutely in keeping with our traditions.

Simple, Equal, Accountable, and Traditional

Voting should be simple. All votes (and voters) should be equal. Voting should be accountable. We should honour our electoral traditions. And for all those reasons, I will be voting in favour of switching to a form of proportional representation in our referendum.

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