More accountability with current voting system



In the referendum currently being conducted in BC, voters are being asked to make a choice between the first past the post (FPTP) system that we use now, and proportional representation (PR), with a second question seeking an indication of the voters’ preference for one of three of the many variants on PR.

Setting the process aside — and the process is an issue — let’s look at the positives and negatives of both systems. Both are practiced in many countries and jurisdictions around the world, and there are many variations. In short, both are valid electoral systems.

Starting with PR, the biggest selling point is the proportionality. It’s the big attraction for advocates. The percentage of votes a party receives, determines the proportion of seats that party wins in the legislature. How this proportionality is achieved is where the many variations in PR come into play. The three options in the second referendum question are three such variants. There are many, many more.

What usually happens in this type of electoral system is that more parties elect members and no one party generally commands a majority of the seats in the legislature. So these parties, to establish a working government, need to group together to form a coalition that does have a majority of votes in the legislature. PR advocates consider this a positive exercise in cooperation and compromise. Although they may have only a few members, smaller political parties also have influence in this system because they may be a participant in whatever ruling group is formed. Because of this, advocates say that “every vote counts”.

Many of these positive outcomes also have a flip side though. For example, how the much-desired proportionality is achieved can be quite complicated. Generally, parties have lists of members to be elected to meet the proportionality benchmarks. These politicians are not generally connected to any riding and may not even be connected to a region. And there is the question of how they get on this party list? The current referendum has thrown up a debate about so called “Closed” and “Open” lists. A “Closed” list is prepared by party head office and those on the list owe their position there to the leader, or past service, or some other party political connection. Voters have no say in who they are.

The creation of an “Open” list can be somewhat more complicated. It could be a list of the biggest losers in a party (and I say this in the nicest way) where the candidate doesn’t win in a riding, but does secure a large number of votes which might have resulted in a win elsewhere. A list created this way would likely skew towards urban members because in BC our urban ridings tend to have more voters than our northern rural ridings. A candidate coming second in an urban riding frequently has more people vote for him or her, than a candidate who wins up north, for example. You could try to weight ridings to compensate for this, but that adds another layer of complexity. Another way for an “Open” list to be created is by voters choosing their preferences for people within a party. This would require voters to know about a lot of individuals and in many countries where this is practiced, voters simply place a vote for a party. So again, the lack of accountability of elected members to voters in any area is an issue. The elected member’s only allegiance is to the party.

With the members now elected under PR, the next equation with a flip side is the establishment of a working coalition that can command a majority of votes in the legislature. PR advocates consider this an exercise in compromise and cooperation. All parties enter the election with a list of policies they would like to implement. When no one has a majority, parties with similar ideas get together to see what they can put together that they can all agree on. This inevitably results in horse-trading with their policies. A policy that may have been the single biggest reason for your vote for a party, could be dropped because it is opposed by a smaller party that your party needs to be able to create a majority government. That smaller party may have a single-issue policy you disliked, but that is the price for its cooperation with your larger party. So a deal is sealed. Unfortunately, you, the voter, have no say in any of this. It will be done behind closed doors. You don’t get the policy you wanted but you do get one that you didn’t! This is policy making AFTER the election.

Further, it may take a long time to create a governing coalition. In the not too distant past it took Belgium a year and a half for its parties to reach an agreement to govern the country. In early 2017, it took the Netherlands six months. Later that year, it took Germany nearly six months to establish a governing group that looked much like the one that preceded it, and this is now coming unstuck as the various parties blame each other for their unpopularity. While this happens, nothing else does, and bureaucrats run the country.

And those negotiations to create a majority can produce some interesting and seemingly unfair results. The 2017 New Zealand election is a great example. The right wing National Party won the most seats with 56 out of 120, while left-wing Labour had 46, far-right New Zealand First 9 seats, and the Greens 8. You might expect the two right-wing parties to get together, but instead, NZ First formed a coalition with Labour, supported by a confidence and supply agreement with the Greens. It was the first time the most popular party in the election (in this case the National Party) had not formed the government. Further, and very interestingly, NZ First did NOT elect any members in ridings. All 9 members were from a closed party list! Three of these wound up in cabinet, with the NZ First leader becoming Deputy Prime Minister. The three in cabinet all ran to win seats in ridings. But all three lost! That means, when given the choice to elect these individuals as their riding representative, voters declined to do so! Yet all three found themselves in cabinet via the closed party list! How is that fair?  And with their left-of-centre Labour rivals to boot! Think about that. There’s a lot to mull over there.

Further, contrary to sunny belief, the politicians in countries with PR do not love each other appreciably more than those in countries with FPTP. Some outright refuse to work with those from certain other parties, as in Germany where none of the traditional parties would agree to any governing relationship with the Alternative For Germany that has emerged as the largest opposition party. Of course there may be good reason. There may not be as well. Neither do voters seem any happier with their politicians in countries with PR than those with FPTP. Why else are we seeing the splintering of previously cohesive traditional voting patterns and traditional parties in favor of smaller populist groups, especially in Europe? There is a malaise across the globe, that voters are increasingly disenchanted with governments, regardless of the way they are elected.

Further to the issue of smaller parties having a say, and “every vote counts”, most PR systems recognize the possibility of extreme views gaining a foothold in their legislatures and restrict membership only to parties that gain at least 5% of the popular vote province wide. If you vote for a party that does not get at least 5% of the overall vote, your party will be disqualified and your vote will NOT count!  Should there be several small parties receiving for example, 2.5%, 3%, and 4.5% of the vote, then collectively 10% of the votes are disqualified and will NOT count. The idea that every vote counts is a myth.

Turning to FPTP, this system is essentially separate elections in every riding of the province — 87 at the moment. To be elected, you simply have to win more votes than anyone else in your riding. For a party to be elected as the government its members need to win a majority of those 87 seats. It is clear, and it is simple. This is what its advocates like. When you aggregate those 87 results, however, the popular vote across the entire province is unlikely to match the party seat count in the legislature exactly. If we had only two parties it would be close but with three or four candidates in a riding, it is possible to win a seat with as little as 34% or 26% of the votes, respectively, if the votes are very evenly divided. If this happens across the province, the percentage of seats a party wins in the legislature is going to be somewhat different from the popular vote the party receives overall. Generally speaking, although not always, under FPTP, with more than two parties active, parties that win just over 40% of the popular vote are able to form a majority government without having to deal with other parties. This means that the winning party is free to implement it’s policy program as presented to the electorate. It is also clear who is responsible for those policies. This accountability is a key strength of FPTP.

Under FPTP, every elected member is responsible to the voters in a riding. A particularly odious individual, even if selected by a party, can be elected or defeated on his own merits. He does not have another way to win. This is why parties generally spend a significant amount of time searching for appealing candidates that will resonate with voters. Certainly, many voters vote along party lines, but the option to join a party and help select a candidate in the riding, and to choose whether or not to vote for that candidate in the election is available. Under “Closed” list PR, and even some “Open” list models, that option is not available to voters. As many as half of the members of the legislature may have no allegiance to the voters of a geographic area and simply be members at large. There is no accountability.

When a government performs poorly under FPTP, voters have the option every four years to keep them or “throw the bums out”, as is popularly proclaimed. In a PR system it is much more difficult to get any one party out of power because you never know which parties will get together to try and form a coalition. In the previously mentioned 2107 German election, Angela Merkel’s party dropped from 41% of the vote to 33% but she remained Chancellor and even put together another coalition with the Social Democratic party that had been her partners prior to the election and which also had lost more than 5% support.This can lead to considerable voter frustration.

In summary, in this referendum British Columbians need to consider what kind of governments they want. Do they want proportionality, even if it is complicated and unclear how they got there, and even if it results in up to half of the members of the legislature being unaccountable to voters? Do they want to elect governments with no idea what policies they are going to get in the end? And do they wish to do this more often than they do currently, because minority governments are inherently unstable?

My preference ever since I was a young economics and politics student at university is for a clear connection between voter and elected representative. This is critical in a vast country such as Canada. I prefer a strong stable government that when elected delivers on the policies it has espoused. When it doesn’t I know i have the opportunity to vote against it meaningfully.


The writer was a BC Liberal Party candidate in the Saanich North and the islands riding int he 2013 and 2017 elections and resides on Salt Spring Island. The above is a much longer version of Stephen Roberts’ submission printed in the Nov. 21, 2018 Driftwood. 

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