Democracy How? (Part 1 — Canada)

Much thought and talk is given over to what our government ought to do. Not enough is given over to how it is done.

Consider a computer programmer. Sitting down at her desk, a programmer flexes her fingers. She types: “Protect this system from viruses,” and stares. The computer mutely defies her.

A senior programmer stops at her desk. “I understand your difficulty. You can’t simply tell the computer to do what you want. You have to tell it how.”

Simple story, simple concept — but one that isn’t often applied to government. Most are content to say what they would like their government to do — secure our borders, reduce immigration, deliver better health care, keep the economy on track — but little thought or time is given over how.

“How” questions are inevitably complicated and difficult. An average person who has put their time, attention, and expertise elsewhere cannot be expected to muster the depth of knowledge and familiarity necessary to resolve competing methods of organizing border controls, altering a complex and intensely bureaucratic migration system, or redistributing health care officials and reducing redundancies — most people are rationally ignorant on many issues.

But we have a simple and powerful tool, that we can all reasonably understand, at our fingertips. One that allows us to influence complex issues more precisely without more work for ourselves.

It’s also one of the tools we are least likely able to use due to a combination of our own unfamiliarity with it and our elected leaders disincentives from encouraging us to use it intelligently.

It is our electoral system. (University of Saskatchewan Professor John Courtney has a synopsis on ours and others, here.) Our first-past-the-post system, as it is known, has few advantages and has created many of the conditions we consider systemic flaws in our democracy. It has produced cracks in the mortar of democracy in which hostile things have nested.

How? Why? How do we fix it?

The “how” is simple. As neatly summarized by the inestimable CGP Grey, first-past-the-post works by plurality. Whichever party receives more votes than any other takes the election. This explains why whenever there are more than two parties running in an election in Ontario or Canada, the winning party tends to have a disproportionate number of seats relative to the number of votes they received. As long as they had more votes in a riding than any other party, they took the whole seat — winner takes all.

In a two-party system, FPTP is functionally a majority system; to have more votes than the other guy, if there’s only one, means you need a majority of the votes.

This can give the illusion that FPTP is a more democratic system than it is. But FPTP has a dirty secret. It turns multi-party systems into de facto two-party systems. (The NDP, with its recent electoral success, appears at first glance an exception to this, but is in some ways functionally interchangeable with the Liberal Party. They can trade votes because the left-voting urban voters so outnumber the right-voting rural ones.) FPTP incentivizes voters to vote strategically, often against parties they dislike rather than ones they prefer. Talk to many voters in Canada, and you’ll note that much of their election hope is to “vote the bums out” rather than putting an ideal candidate in. Plurality systems like FPTP do this by making more votes not matter than in a more representative system.

All of this means that Canadian election results can be a little odd. For example, a political party can win over 50% of the seats in parliament, forming an absolute majority government (making political opposition completely ineffective) while only winning just under 40% of the popular vote — leaving Canada in a weird situation where if the opposition parties decided to vote as a block together against the government, they still can’t do anything about legislation, even though 60% of voters support them, compared to the government’s 40%.

The system purports to be representative of both population and geography. But it will happily discard one for the other. It discards population, since a candidate can win a majority government with a minority of votes. But geography can get the boot as well. A party could make a clean sweep of Ontario and Quebec and take the entire country: Their combined seats total 199, leaving a mere 139 for the rest of the entire country.

Why have a system of government that doesn’t reflect more people’s voting preferences? There are two reasons. First, FPTP tends to produce more majority or larger, single-party minority governments. Where other governments of the world regularly see multiple parties forming coalitions to lead government, Canada rarely does. This keeps things running smoothly.

Second, FPTP muddles politics. An oft-heard criticism both in Canada and the U.S. is that the two major parties are really one party. While an exaggeration, FPTP does encourage parties to move closer to the political centre. This lets them capitalize on voters who don’t fully agree with them but don’t have a viable option that reflects their preference.

Once entrenched, the two major parties tend to take turns, swapping centrist voters who don’t feel strongly for either party. How this can lead to ennui amongst voters should be obvious. It is akin to a patron trying to decide between two restaurants: One is a dairy-only restaurant (a terrible option, given his lactose intolerance), and the other serves exclusively extremely spicy food (which gives him equally unpleasant gastric distress. Is it any wonder he decides to eat at home?).

This also answers the myth that a FPTP system could lead to more coalitions and common ground in the electorate. It is the opposite. The constant effort of more fringe groups to bring issues to the fore and hijack party meetings reflects this lack of representation.

The final straw of FPTP is an issue that frustrates not only voters but politicians as well: The spoiler effect. It is entirely an aberration of the FPTP. With two parties firmly entrenched, one suddenly appearing on the scene would need to steal the entirety of the party most similar to theirs’ vote to even be an equivalent choice for voters. Otherwise, they’re just leaching.

This is damaging to democracy in a fundamental way. An ostensibly democratic system is one in which voters can choose their representatives and have them be somewhat effective in their capacity. The spoiler effect means they cannot. New parties have a near-impossible hill to climb if they wish to enter the arena. The only way, in theory, to shake up the system is to have multiple, extremely popular, and ideologically dissimilar parties all enter at the same time. Hardly likely, and functionally impossible.

Alternative voting, or a “ranked ballot,” is an uncommon but solid alternative. Allowing voters to rank candidates on a ballot, up to as many as they would like to vote for, and only electing a politician who receives a true majority vote ultimately removes the spoiler effect and the need for strategic voting. It does this by allowing voters to rank their candidates: First choice first, and so on. The system first checks if anyone has a majority; if nobody does, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated. Anyone who voted for that candidate has their vote transferred to their second choice. Then the system repeats. In this way, unless you manage to pick only a slew of extremely unlikeable candidates, your vote will end up counted, and will make a difference in the final results.

Voters thusly can freely pick the candidate they like the most first, and put increasingly safe choices down the list, without worrying that their votes won’t count. It’s not impossible that they ultimately don’t count, but it profoundly reduces the chances of it exponentially as you add more candidates to your ballot.

The other problem is that changing the system is very much against the interest of the current major parties, obviously. They benefit from other parties being functionally locked out of the system and voters having no viable options and little reason to switch party. Not to mention that this kind of shift scares almost everyone, as most people tend to be conservative with these sorts of things.

Switching, of course, means trading a system that tends to work, even if it doesn’t work the way we want it to, for one that is ultimately more dysfunctional, even if it does represent us better. In fascist Italy, the trains ran on time, or so the saying goes. Introduce more democracy, and you have more discussion, debate, and delay. We’ll have representatives that more closely reflect our values, but they will have to strike broader consensuses in order to run government. Canada has a much faster system of legislation than the United States does. This is something we have to surrender, to some degree, if we want our votes to matter more and have our politicians shift closer to being representatives of our views.

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Connor Lynch

About the Author: Connor Lynch

Connor is a professional journalist from Ottawa, Canada. He is the Editor in Chief of Speaking Liberally and a contributor.

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