“Every vote counts”

Ballots cast on Oct. 19 will determine the next four years in Canadian politics.

Ballots cast on Oct. 19 will determine the next four years in Canadian politics. | Photo courtesy of BBC Radio 4

Elections are one of the basic requirements of a democracy worthy of its name. Simply put, democracy is dependent upon free and fair elections.

Elections are the essential link between the people and political power: they enable citizens to choose a government and they authorize this government to exercise power. In a democracy, the exercise of power is founded on the people’s will.

In practical terms, the electoral system translates citizens’ preferences into seats in representative institutions. The political party that wins the most seats earns the right to form government.

In their respective political platforms, both Liberals and New Democrats have committed to electoral reform. The Liberal Party would convene a cross-partisan parliamentary committee to review options and issue recommendations. Legislation on electoral reform would be tabled within 18 months of forming government.

The NDP does not want to further study the matter. Their platform charges forward with a new electoral system: mixed member proportional representation. Different variants of this system are used in several countries around the world, including Germany, Mexico, Russia and Taiwan.

More significant, both the Liberal Party and the NDP give similar justifications to electoral reform: “We will make every vote count,” declare the Liberals, while the New Democrats pledge to “ensure every vote counts.”

In short, both parties aim to ensure “every vote counts.” Are we thus to infer that every vote does not count in the current electoral system? That is surely what their justification seems to imply.

The difficulty comes from our electoral system: the single member plurality method, more commonly known as first-past-the-post. This electoral system has the merit of simplicity. In every riding, the candidate that wins the highest number of votes is elected, and the party that wins the most ridings forms the government.

Canada has a long history with first-past-the-post. It has been in use for federal elections and across the provinces since Confederation. Its advantages are undeniable: it is easy to understand, it provides a clear link between the elector and the elected representative, and it generally results in majority governments.

However, first-past-the-post also has its share of weaknesses: a recurring gap between votes casts for a party and seats won, the domination of politics by one party for four or five years, and the under-representation of smaller political parties. For example, in the 2013 B.C. Elections, 8.13 per cent of votes were cast for the Green Party, yet the party won 1.18 per cent of seats in the Legislative Assembly.

For both Liberals and New Democrats, the advantages of first-past-the-post come at too high a cost. Among the number of weaknesses or flaws, both parties emphasize how not all votes count in the current system. The problem is the following: votes in support of candidates who do not win their ridings have no impact on the composition of the House of Commons. First-past-the-post essentially discards votes cast for losing candidates.

Both Liberals and New Democrats aim to address these challenges by adopting an electoral system that can better translate votes into seats.

Many experts believe that this phenomenon of ignored or distorted votes – votes that “do not count” – contributes to the decline in voter turnout and more generally to the political disengagement of the population, and in particular youth.

In summary, every electoral system translates preferences into seats, but these systems are not all created equal.

Rémi Léger is a professor of political science at Simon Fraser University.

Translation Hakim Ferria