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Counting votes

An examination of proportional representation

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Everyday when I get to campus, I order a cup of coffee. When I settle into work and take a drink of the hot liquid, I expect it to be coffee, not tea and not hot chocolate. After all, that's what I'd asked for.

When we as Albertans go to the polling stations and mark our ballots, we should be expecting to get what we asked for, a government based on the votes we cast. However, with our current voting system, this is not the case.

In the last provincial election, 44 per cent of Albertans got up and went to the polls. Out of the minority of Albertans that voted only 47 per cent asked for a Progressive Conservative government. What Albertans got was a strong majority--75 per cent--PC government. Out of the 83 seats available in the legislature, 62 went to the conservatives. If Albertans had got what they asked for, the PCs would have won 39 seats.

How distortions happen

Like the rest of Canada, Alberta uses a first past the post electoral system. The province is broken down into ridings and each electoral district elects one MLA to represent them. In the case of Calgary-McCall in the 2004 election, 44 per cent of voters asked for a PC representative and 40 per cent asked for an Alberta Liberal representative, 100 per cent of the representation was given to the PC voters thanks to our winner-take-all system.

"It's not about what party you support in terms of how the current system discriminates against people," said Fair Vote Canada executive director Larry Gordon. "It's about whether or not you think everybody should have an equal vote."

Gordon pointed to federal politics to illustrate the gross representations of FPTP.

"In the last federal election, over 600,000 people voted Green in Canada and sent nobody to Ottawa to represent them," he said. "In Atlantic Canada alone, fewer than 500,000 liberal voters sent 20 MPs."

Change a-brewin'

"Ten years ago, you would have been looking at a very different context in Canada," said University of Calgary professor and electoral behavior expert Dr. Keith Archer. "At that time it looked like the Liberal party was going to be in power forever in Ottawa because of the fracturing of the Conservatives--the creation of the Reform and Alliance--it looked like the Liberals were always going to win by default and where popular support continued to go down, they continued to get a majority government. A lot of people back then were saying, 'there's a problem with our electoral system in that it's not responsive to the views of Canadians and it penalizes parties who are not these broad, catch-all parties.'"

Although discontent with the current system first appeared at the federal level, electoral reform started becoming a tangible prospect at the provincial level. Many provinces had experienced the same grievances, explained Archer. Parties penalized by our electoral system were often the ones that committed to examining electoral reform if elected.

British Columbia held a referendum in 2005 asking citizens if their current electoral system should be changed from FPTP to a form of proportional representation--a single transferable vote system. In an STV system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. The candidates that reach a set threshold of votes are declared winners of the riding. From there, if the winner has exceeded the quota, votes are then transferred to the voters' second-place choice and so on, until all the seats are filled.

In order for the referendum to pass, two requirements had to be met: 60 per cent of British Columbians had to vote in favour of the change and half of the 79 voting districts had to have a simple majority in favour, 50 per cent plus one. Results of the election were 57.6 per cent in favour, and 77 out of the 79 districts had majorities.

The referendum failed to pass. However, when Gordon Campbell's B.C. Liberals won a majority of the seats with only a plurality of the vote, both the media and public demanded to know why that was enough to give him a majority government, while a strong majority did not give people a change they had asked for.

Since the B.C. referendum, the issue of proportional representation has been raised in P.E.I., New Brunswick, Quebec and even Ontario, with its own failed referendum in 2007. In the failures of both the Ontario and B.C. referendums, a lack of public education is cited as the cause.

"The education campaign was inadequate," said B.C. Citizen's Assembly member David Willis. "Essentially, Campbell recognized that when he agreed to a second referendum. The second time around there will be funding for the yes and no sides--there was no public funding the first time around."

Experts suggested that the STV system the B.C. Citizen's Assembly tried to put forward was just too complicated to explain to the average citizen. Systems that use a combination of both FPTP and PR, such as Ontario's proposed mixed-member proportionality, have been suggested because they combine a system voters understand with an aspect of proportionality. However, others are confident the public can adapt to substantial changes.

"If you take a university course, there are some pretty complicated things you have to get your head around," said University of Calgary professor and expert in provincial politics Dr. Doreen Barrie. "It's not that difficult to explain to people, but you have to go about it in a different way. Maybe they should have had a series of little mock elections where people could sort of practice or think of some creative ways to get through to voters. You need to make clear to them the defects and the deficiencies in the current system."

Alberta's love affair with electoral reform

"Alberta has a history of electoral reform," said Fair Vote Alberta media spokesperson J.D. Crookshanks. "What people don't realize is we've changed our electoral system in this province probably more than any other province. We're hoping that next time they change it, it happens through a citizens assembly, like it was in B.C. [or] Ontario."

Alberta is a textbook example of why STV works. From 1926-55 Calgary and Edmonton used the STV system, while the rest of Alberta stuck with FPTP. In the 29 years that STV was used in Alberta, it produced results that were much closer to what people asked for. Parties with five to 20 per cent of the vote won seats in 14 out of the 17 opportunities. In the next eight elections, parties that obtained five to 20 per cent of the vote only won seats twice out of the 15 opportunities.

"After 1950, Manning decided to swap it--it was basically decreed--so that the Social Credit party could cement their power base," said Willis.

The switch to STV was arbitrary and not by referendum, and did not have to be changed back by one. It remains up to the governing party to legislate a change in electoral reform.

So is PR really better?

"It depends on what you want to achieve," said Barrie. "If proportionality is your main goal--if you want the legislature to reflect the voting pattern--then you have to have some form of proportional representation. If you have proportional representation you often have minority governments. If it's stability that you want it's easier to get it with first past the post. PR represents more voices, the softer voices in society, groups who might find it difficult to get into the legislature under our current system would have a better shot with proportional representation."

Crookshanks stressed that in a democratic society the legislature needs to represent the voices of its citizens--not just the ones that speak the loudest. Ensuring fringe parties get to the table is a crucial part in both keeping the government accountable to all its citizens and ensuring that people do not feel disenfranchised. He is working to inform people about the possibility of a citizen's assembly.

Archer suggested that a lot of the air has come out of the balloon of electoral reform.

"While there had been a real push for it and some momentum a decade ago, I think it is a non-issue federally and the provinces that had been looking at it pretty closely aren't taking action on it," said Archer.

However, that remains to be seen. Crookshanks isn't the only one looking at PR in Alberta. Political parties from the Greens to the Liberals are stressing the need for change to get smaller parties to the table.

"The assembly is off limits to the Green party, it's off limits to the Separation party," said Edmonton-McClung Liberal MLA Mo Elsalhy. "I don't agree with them, but if five, six, seven per cent of the population agrees with them, they should have the opportunity to have one member in the assembly to present that point of view. It is going to definitely help the smaller parties, the fringe parties, but it is definitely going to help the official opposition. The Liberals are an official block of votes, the NDP are a legitimate block of votes, the Green party is a legitimate block of votes, the Alliance is a legitimate block of votes. These people have to have their voices heard in the assembly."

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