The reality of our electoral system

(By Ami Trivedi, Queen’s University)

Despite Canada’s reputation as a fair and democratic country, the nation is turning into a system dominated by two parties. The single member plurality (SMP) system in Canada, commonly referred to as the “first past the post,” system, undermines our key democratic values of participation, diversity, and equality. It constrains voting and the participation of minority groups. This has resulted in low voter turnout, safe ridings, and wasted votes.

The SMP system places constraints on individuals and groups to vote and create new parties as they would stand no chance to win if they did. Living in a riding that is dominantly Conservative or Liberal may hinder your motivation to vote if you support any third parties. This has caused third party voters to feel that their votes will not affect the outcome of future elections. Many people wonder why they should vote for a different party, if that vote would just be considered wasted.

Canada is home to individuals from all over the world, but when it comes to the elections and political interests, diversity ceases to exist. The system benefits parties that are geographically centered and applies broad general issues, all while failing to acknowledge parties that take distinct positions. Even if the Liberal or Conservative party fail to address an issue specific to your group, you do not have the opportunity to vote for a party better suited to your affiliation.

Lastly, equality is compromised due to the vote-seat bias. SMP does not give an accurate reflection of voter representation. Minority governments are becoming an increasing issue in today’s politics. For example, Party A could win 40% of the votes, Party B 30% and Party C 30%. In this situation, Party A would win with 40% of the votes however, 60% of the population did not vote for them, resulting in a minority government. In an SMP system, not every vote counts. The SMP system is flawed and will continue to discourage Canadians from voting if something isn’t done about it.

Implementing a proportional representation (PR) system could be a solution that effectively promotes democratic values. A PR system better addresses diverse interests and minority groups as the party that passes the minimum threshold will win the election. This system eliminates strategic voting and wasted votes. A recent example of how strategic voting affected the outcome of an election was in 2015 when Canadians voted with the incentive of ousting Stephen Harper. They chose to vote for alternative parties that they would not normally support, in order to strategically concentrate the vote in favor of “anything but Harper.” By having a two-vote system, candidates can choose the party they want and the local candidate, regardless of party affiliation, which eliminates the need to resort to strategic voting.

However, the obstacles to reform outweigh the strategies, so a PR system is highly unrealistic to be adopted in Canada. Although a proportional representation system would enhance the democratic values of participation, the barriers to implementation make it an unrealistic reform at this time. These barriers include Canada’s lengthy constitutional amendment formula and the requirement of having a majority of supporters in the House of Commons agree on the referendum. A party in power with the intention to change this system would have to prioritize this issue and work hard to utilize media coverage and education to get citizens on board. Even then there would be limitations as seat holding conservative members may be reluctant to support the referendum due to their belief in maintaining the status quo. Ultimately, any party that used the SMP system to get into power would be reluctant to introduce this new system as it could cost them their seats in future elections.