Voting Systems – be careful what you wish for

There are numerous voting systems, none without bias. It is just that the bias favours different groups and so explains who supporters and opponents are. The recent Dutch national election reveals how proportional representation (PR) can work, and the implications if Canada chose a similar system. At present, the federal government has decided not to make changes. While criticized for reneging on an election promise, the government should be congratulated for retaining the status quo.

The Dutch example

The Netherlands adopted PR for its recent election. It works as follows. The country is treated as one constituency with 100 members elected according to the number of votes received by a party. There were 28 parties on the ballot and members elected for thirteen of them. It will take a coalition of four or five parties to achieve a majority for legislation to be passed.

A Dutch voter has no member representing her or his district if the voter has an issue to discuss. Maybe this works with a population of 17 million in a relatively small homogeneous land area, but I doubt whether it would in the widely distributed and varied Canadian situation. A voter in Newfoundland, Quebec and BC for instance would each want to be able to contact someone familiar with conditions in their location. This is one reason why a constituency system is more suited to Canada. There are others. It is possible to have a mixed system with some members elected in constituencies, and some chosen from a list of candidates proposed by parties. How the latter are chosen to be party representatives raises all sorts of issues.

In Canada it is sometimes thought that only the existing parties would run candidates if PR was adopted. This is unlikely as the case of the 28 parties on the Dutch ballot reveals. Under PR, The NDP and the Greens would have collected more seats, and the Liberals fewer seats in the 2015 Federal election, but only assuming that no other parties had formed and were on the ballot, an unlikely event.

With the existing first past the post Canadian system, you can end up with members elected with less than 50 percent of the constituency vote, but it seems to have worked out pretty well over the years not only here but in the UK and a number of other countries, …….and in contrast to the system south of the border where creation of an electoral college to elect a president and gerrymandering of Congressional districts have subverted representation.

When Provinces have held referenda on changing the Canadian voting system, there has been no strong support for change. Maybe the voters are smarter than those supporting change. To repeat, there is no unbiased voting system. Each favours some groups at the expense of others both in electing members and in the passage of legislation. A main check of the existing system is elections required at certain dates or with the defeat of the government.

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One Response to “Voting Systems – be careful what you wish for”

  1. John Chant Says:

    Chris:

    Well stated. Advocates of PR minimize the party fragmentation that is likely to occur and its impact on elections.

    Andrew Coyne suggested that PR would not dilute the share of votes needed to win an election by much. He calculated that 16.7 percent of the vote would to assure a victory in a five- member riding with only ten candidates contesting the election.

    in doing so, he ignored the effect on the number of candidates. Even today, we would expect at least fifteen candidates, one from each of the major parties. Then, only 9.1 percent of the votes would be needed to assure victory.

    The share of votes gets even smaller if the multiple-seat riding encourages more candidates. With twenty-five candidates, the opportunities for fringe parties will expand because election would be assured with only 4.8 percent of the votes.

    Coyne suggests that opponents of PR have created a bogeyman. As you point out, not so.

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