Election season has come and gone, and the results are deeply problematic. “Wait a minute,” you might say. “Election season isn’t over. The Iowa caucuses are still three months away, and we have to wait an entire year before the actual voting occurs.” True, but I’m referring to the election that took place on Oct. 19 in the land of maple syrup, moose, beavers, snow, Mounties, Tim Hortons, “aboots,” and curling. It’s the home of my Loyalist ancestors, and it’s where my girlfriend lives today.
In Canada’s most recent election, five major parties jockeyed for seats. The Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau, the Conservative Party, led by incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Thomas Mulcair, all had the potential for a win. The Quebecois nationalist Bloc Quebecois, led by Gilles Duceppe, and the Green Party, led by Elizabeth May, were smaller players who had the potential to gain a small but significant block of seats.
The election was a decisive Liberal victory; they won an absolute majority of 184 of 338 seats. The ruling Conservatives were reduced from to 99 of 338 seats, while the NDP won a middling 44 of 338 seats. The Bloc Quebecois had a slightly successful night, winning 10 of 338 seats, while the Green Party won only one of 338 seats. As Canada operates under a parliamentary system, and as the Liberals now have a majority of the seats, Justin Trudeau is the new Prime Minister of Canada, and the Liberals now have almost 100% of the power at the Federal level.
However, a quick glance at the popular vote figures reveals that Canadians did not get the Parliament that they desired. The Conservatives were slightly underrepresented with their 31.9 percent of the popular vote translating to 29.3 percent of the seats. The NDP and the Bloc were more underrepresented, with the NDP’s 19.7 percent of the popular vote translating to 13.0 percent of the seats, and the Bloc’s 4.7 percent of the popular vote translating to 3.0 percent of the seats. The Greens were the most underrepresented, with their 3.5 percent of the popular vote translating to a mere 0.3 percent of the seats. Meanwhile, the Liberals, with only 39.5 percent of the popular vote, were able to win 54.4 percent of the seats and to gain a majority when only a minority of Canadians voted Liberal. Parliamentary representation error for this election (which can be calculated by adding the |percent of seats – percent of popular vote| of all parties) was a high 30.1 percent.
This skewed result was caused by Canada’s voting system, known as first-past-the-post (FPTP). Under FPTP, the country is divided into local constituencies (known as “ridings” in Canada), and the voters are not directly voting for a Prime Minister or party. Instead, Canadians are directly voting for their Member of Parliament (MP) who will, in theory, represent their riding in Ottawa. In order to be elected, a candidate must only receive a plurality of the votes, even if a majority of citizens votes for another candidate. Other countries that use FPTP include Great Britain, India, and the United States.
FPTP, however, is a poor method for allocating seats. Under a multiparty system, it almost always leads to minority rule. This problem was inspiringly portrayed by YouTube user “CGP Grey” (in multiple videos) and further explored by the YouTube user “1stofjulyfilms” in the video entitled, “First Past the Pizza,” in which six friends order pizza for dinner. Two out of six vote for meat lovers’ pizza, while the other four all have unique, non-meat votes. One meat lovers’ pizza is ordered over the objections of the four who did not vote for that outcome. Here, 33.3 percent of the popular vote is converted into 100 percent of the pizza. While this example is extreme, it does demonstrate a structural problem with FPTP.
Also, under a multiparty system, FPTP exhibits a very troubling characteristic known as the “spoiler effect,” in which ideologically similar voters split their votes and cause a victory for a unified, minority ideology. In the pizza example above, assume that one anti-meat voter chooses mushrooms, one chooses black olives, one chooses onions, and the last chooses spinach. Even though two voters are pro-meat and four are anti-meat, a single pizza with a meat topping is purchased anyway because the anti-meat vote is fractured.
Additionally, under FPTP, there is a large number of wasted votes, which are votes that have no effect at all on the composition of Parliament. They may as well have never been cast. Finally, the districts in an FPTP system can be gerrymandered. Gerrymandering involves redrawing the electoral boundaries in order to increase the number of seats for a party without changing the voting habits of the citizens.
In order to avoid the problems of FPTP, voters often vote strategically, and the country trends towards a two-party system. While the problems of minority rule and the spoiler effect are eliminated, wasted votes and gerrymandering still afflict an FPTP two-party system. In addition, a two-party system has its own unique problems. Assume in the pizza example above that the anti-meat voters all grow tired of meat-lover’s pizza and decide to vote for mushroom pizza. While this eliminates the spoiler effect, the anti-meat voters who also did not want to order mushroom pizza will still not get to eat their favorite pizza. Two-party systems cause disinterested, uninformed, polarized, and tribal electorates, as well as complacent and unresponsive politicians and parties. This should sound familiar.
FPTP defenders will respond by arguing that the system is designed so that the elections are local, with each MP representing a small group of local constituents, giving all of those constituents a greater voice. This is highly fallacious. Although Canadian voters are directly voting for only their local MP, the average voter is thinking, “I want (X leader) of (X party) to govern Canada,” not, “I want (X local representative) of the (X party) to represent my local riding” when casting a ballot. Though it is a de jure local election, it is a de facto national election. Unfortunately, the local ridings are even more unrepresentative than the national Parliament. Not a single riding had a lower representation error than the national Parliament’s (30.1 percent). The most representative riding was Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, which the Liberal Judy Foote won with 81.8 percent of the vote, yielding an error of 36.4 percent. The least representative riding was Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot, which the NDP’s Brigitte Sansoucy won with only 28.5 percent of the vote, yielding a ridiculously high 142.9 percent error. Besides, there are other, less flawed systems that maintain local representation, such as the alternative vote system (in which you can rank your candidates) and mixed-member proportional system (which has a mechanism for counterbalancing error).
While campaigning, Justin Trudeau promised to replace FPTP with another, less flawed system. Now, the time has come for him to fulfill his promise. Many (including me) are skeptical that he will abolish the system that gave him his Parliamentary majority and, thus, relatively unchecked power, but there is reason to hope.
Democracy is a cherished part of our culture. It is something that many have died to preserve and that many in the world never get to experience. We owe it to ourselves to preserve its health. Currently, not only the Canadian, but also the U.S. democracies are ailing (as shown with the struggle of party polarization and weak bipartisanship), and FPTP is the virus. We must work towards a cure. We must replace first-past-the-post.