[There is a lengthier version of this article available here.]
I’ve been listening to those who advocate sticking with our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. And while I support proportional representation, I’ve decided that fans of FPTP have a point… though I’m not sure they realize 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, creating 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
Whether urban or rural, whether electing a local or a regional representative, FPTP supporters argue that all voters should be equal. The sad 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.
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.
A party that wins a majority of seats under first-past-the-post all too often does so with about 40% of the vote (sometimes even less).
For all these reasons, in FPTP elections a very small number of votes actually matter to the parties and are focused on during their 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 favour than they are the voters’. 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 and it being in the best interests of elected representatives to be far more responsive to the public.
First-past-the-post leads to very distorted results. Is a party with a minority of the votes commanding a majority of the seats answerable to the people? Is a party coming in second place in the popular vote, but winning the most seats, a good example of accountability? Proportional representation solves these issues by giving parties seats related to the popular vote, and by encouraging 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, our campaign finance rules evolve, originally voting was mostly for white men but now everyone can vote, we moved from voting in public to voting by secret ballot, we allowed parties to be listed on the ballot, we introduced independent electoral commissions (and more recently than most people think; Elections BC wasn’t created until 1995), and much more. The only constant has been change.
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 at one time, too. Alberta and Manitoba both experimented with ranked ballots in the 1930s and ’40s (and proportional ranked ballots in urban areas).
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.
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 am voting in favour of switching to a form of proportional representation in our referendum.