What’s So Bad About First Past The Post?
This is the second in the Whoa!Canada: Proportional Representation Series
I’ve always found history fascinating, so I took every course possible in high school. My 12th grade history teacher used to give me transcripts from Parliament because he hoped I’d make a career in politics. I thought I understood how our political system works.
Being a citizen in a democracy is a responsibility. Whenever an election has been called, I made sure to find out who the candidates were, and learn as much as I could about them. Sometimes that was limited to reading articles in the local paper, sometimes I could attend the local debates to hear them speak in person. Once or twice an actual candidate appeared at my door. My goal has always been to choose which candidate would best represent me in Ottawa. That’s what it’s all about, right? And every election, I went out and voted. It wasn’t that I only voted for fringe parties or independents, I was usually voting for a candidate in one of the major parties. But my vote never elected anyone. And I couldn’t quite figure out why.
One year when we were walking home from the polling station, my husband commented that whoever we vote for doesn’t ever get elected. Hearing this, our small son helpfully suggested maybe the way to elect the candidate we wanted was to vote for a candidate we didn’t want. I think that was when I began wondering if Canada’s much vaunted democracy was all it was cracked up to be.
Another time there wasn’t a single candidate that either my husband or I could stand to vote for in our provincial riding. That was when we discovered Ontario’s “none-of-the-above” option. The way it works is that you go to the polling station, present your I.D. and get handed the ballot same as always. But instead of taking your ballot behind the privacy screen to mark your choice, you hand back the ballot and say, “I decline to vote.” Then the polling staff had to write it down in a ledger. We felt really proud of ourselves, because we made a deliberate political statement: none of the candidates met our standard, so we chose none of the above.
Except nothing changed.
At the time, we thought the only reason it was a futile gesture was that not enough people were aware this was even an option. But later on I learned that even if enough people did know they could decline, and even if a clear majority of voters declined to vote, it might send a message, but it still wouldn’t change anything.
The truth is that declined votes have no weight. The only real effect of a declined vote is a reduction in the number of votes cast. If half the voters decline to vote, the government is still chosen by the voters who do vote. The actual net effect of a declined vote is the same as a spoiled ballot, or a vote that was never cast by a voter who stayed home. All it does is reduce the number of votes needed to get elected. All it does is to make it easier for bad candidates to win.
But what are you going to do? Our system isn’t perfect. That is just the way it is.
Or so I thought. It never even occurred to me there was any other way to decide who to send to Ottawa.
When government policy made me really angry, sometimes I wrote a letter to my MP. I would take care to be very clear, to make my case as well as I could, because this letter was the only way I might convince my MP to make my case in Parliament. Because after all, even if I hadn’t voted for the MP, the representative in the riding where I live is supposed to represent me. Right? That’s what they tell us, anyway.
But no matter how great my letter was, no matter how compelling my argument, I never once convinced any MP in any riding where I have lived to change his or her mind. Never once did “my” MP argue for the policy that mattered to me in Parliament. When I did get a reply, it was always months later. The reply wasn’t ever actually a response to anything I had written. Instead of responding to my actual concerns, such letters would inform me what the government was going to do. The response would be a form letter filled with party talking points.
So voting became less of a duty and more of a chore for me. A truly futile gesture.
We’ve all heard “One definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting a different result.” I don’t know about insanity, but it certainly describes my experience of voting in Canada.
But that’s me.
The situation isn’t quite the same for all of us. Some people are quite fond of our system, because for those first class Canadians, our system is democratic. Some of the time the party they support is in charge, and some of the time the other one is. That’s how democracy is supposed to work after all, right?
First Past The Post (FPTP)
The political system we use here in Canada was largely inherited from England. The Westminster parliamentary system is very old, dating back to the Norman Conquest of 1066 — or even earlier. The Magna Carta limited the King’s power in 1215, and Wikipedia tells us that the first time an English Parliament was elected was in 1265, when only rich landowners had the right to vote for representatives in the House of Commons. (The House of Lords was filled by birth or appointment, much like the Canadian Senate is today.) But it didn’t become a constitutional monarchy until there was a Constitution — when the 1688 Bill of Rights put serious limits on the power of the monarchy. Life in the middle ages was a little different than what we’re used to now, but that’s where our electoral system was created. We used First Past The Post to elect the Dominion of Canada’s first government.
In Canada we don’t have one big federal election. What we actually have is hundreds of little ones. Each electoral district (riding) has its own election to determine who wins its seat in Parliament.
Our FPTP is a “Single Member Plurality” system. That means there can only be one winner in any election, and to win, s/he only has to win more votes than any other candidate— a plurality. If our elections only had two candidates/parties, the winner would always have at least 50% of the vote +1. But since the system allows for more than two candidates or parties, the winner that takes all doesn’t need to win an actual majority.
Typical FPTP Outcomes
The Wikipedia chart below shows us that 25,504 people voted for first time Liberal Candidate Raj Saini in the Kitchener Centre Electoral District during the recent 42nd Federal Election. That’s about 10,000 more votes than his nearest competitor — the incumbent MP — was able to manage.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Raj Saini was the clear winner. But 25,504 votes is only 48.8% of the 52,280 valid votes that were cast in Kitchener-Centre. The problem is that there can be only one winner in a winner-take-all system like ours, even though a majority of Kitchener Centre voters — 51.2% — voted for someone else.
We can easily see that Elizabeth May won her riding with an actual majority — with 54.35% of the votes cast. That’s the way it should be, right?
But even though a real majority of the votes were cast for Ms. May, 45.65% of Saanich—Gulf Islands voters voted for someone else. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Elizabeth May was the clear winner, but how is this outcome fair for the rest?
A winner-take-all electoral system polarizes the citizens into winners and losers. The citizens who voted for the winner— first class Canadians— have representation in Parliament. But the citizens who choose a representative who lost— second class Canadians— have no representation at all.
This is the essential problem with any winner-take-all system. When some votes count more than others, and most don’t count at all, it just isn’t fair.
Shouldn’t a Representative Democracy try to provide every citizen with representation?
Wikipedia’s Canadian federal election, 2015: Kitchener Centre Election Results Chart published on the Raj Saini Wikipedia page is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License
Wikipedia’s Canadian federal election, 2015: Saanich—Gulf Islands Election Results Chart published on the Elizabeth May Wikipedia page is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License