Social & Economic Issues

What is wrong with Single Member Plurality? Case study in context of electoral reform in Canada

Canada’s current electoral system is built on the British model of parliamentary system which it inherited from its colonial past. The existing SMP (Single Member Plurality) system which divides a country into number of geographical divisions (ridings) and from the winners (Members of Parliament or MPs) of each division or riding government formed metaphorically finds its expression in horse racing where only one horse who manages to pass the post first counts: First-Past-The-Post (FPTP).

Instead of a total number of votes obtained countrywide, a government is formed on the basis of a number of winning seats, and this can create a substantial anomaly. Huntley and Wortis observe, “Because there are usually several candidates in a riding, the winner is frequently elected with a significantly less than percent of the votes cast; many voters are therefore represented by an MLA for whom they did not vote.” They argue, “FPTP often produces a legislature whose composition does not accurately reflect voters’ preferences.” In 1993 federal election for example, Bloc Quebecois became the official opposition despite securing fourth highest popular votes. It is this deviation which is at the heart of discontent with SMP.

Democratic deficit is what is expected from a democracy and not delivered through the existing system. According to Jansen and Siaroff, “the SMP system contributes to the regionalization of Canada’s party system. Furthermore, it distorts the parliamentary representation of large parties, under-represents small parties with nationally-dispersed support, and over-represents those parties with a small regional base of support.”

One advantage of SMP, however, is that by discouraging smaller parties, it tends to reduce chances of coalition governments or minority governments. Smaller parties with newer ideas are not always in a position to carry forward their philosophy and fund themselves for a long time, making it tougher to support and sustain new ideologies (Bittle, 2002). 

Mixed-Member Proportional representation (MMP) is one interesting alternative to address democratic deficit from the existing SMP. Under the proposed MMP, half of the Members of Parliament (MPs) would be elected from single-member districts using SMP while other half selected in a way so as to compensate parties against distortions in voting from the SMP system. This is seen as a judicious blend where the other half would take care of the distortions produced through First-Past-The-Post concept. It is, however, feared that the new system would give too much influence to party bosses who would determine half of the candidates earmarked for compensating against distortions from the SMP: this is not truly democratic. Also, the number of MPs would double adding cost to the nation.

On the positive side under the proposed MMP, parties will be rewarded for every vote they get. Total number of seats in the legislature represented by a party will more closely mirror total votes bagged (exact method of calculation slightly varies). New Zealand and Germany are presently using this system. MMP would give smaller parties with new ideas an early recognition. Proportional representation would also help create pressure among prominent parties to work for common interest because of fear of coalitions and minority governments. Proportional representation would provide under-represented groups such as minorities a greater say: they are the ones who are victims of single plurality the most.

On the negative side, MMP can lead to a formation of many smaller parties making opposition vague. It is feared MMP would lead to more minority or coalition governments. SMP keeps the number of smaller parties in check. C.J. Kam, a skeptic of proportional representation, feels that SMP does a better job of setting conditions required for accountability than proportional representation because Kam sees accountability, which is the ability of citizens to identify and sanction underperforming political agents, as more important than representation. By keeping the number of parties functionally limited, SMP does prepare a ground for competitive opposition. Also for voters, SMP is easy to understand while MMP complicated. In order to implement MMP, citizens should be first taught of its modus operandi.

Introducing proportionality into voting system will dramatically change ways negotiations are carried over government formation, cabinet membership, and the likes. J.C. Courtney observes that it is not necessarily an untoward development, as political history of some countries with non-plurality votes show. But for Canada, that would be entering uncharted waters with no historical map of inter-party, as opposed to intra-party, elite bargaining to draw on.

Among other proposals, Single Transferable Vote (STV) is one which has caught the attention of electoral reformists in Canada more than others. Under STV, a voter can place his or her ranking preference in ordinal terms irrespective of party affiliation. A voter can mark his or her preference for candidates of the same party as well as from different parties. A voter will get still only one vote. The main feature of Single Transferable Vote is that if the candidate voted by you as your first preference has no chance of winning or already secured sufficient votes, your vote is transferred to another candidate (from your own or different geographical division) as per your instructions. Thus few votes are wasted. This is unlike Single Member Plurality for which Huntley and Wortis observe, “Under FPTP, voters who prefer an independent candidate or one from a smaller party are routinely placed in the frustrating position of “wasting” their vote on a candidate they now will not be elected or voting for someone who is not their first preference. In this situation they may, indeed, decide not to vote at all.”.

STV is presently used in Ireland and Australia. Under the proposed BC-STV which went for a referendum in May 2009 in British Columbia, the total number of MLAs (Member of the Legislative Assembly) would remain the same at 85. British Columbia is to be divided into 20 larger geographical districts. A voter could exercise preference for more than one MLA from within a district. As voters could also influence election outcome from nearby constituencies of their district, STV can also be one weapon to put national interest above regionalism.

It is felt that lack of information among public and perception that BC-STV is complicated was one prime stumbling block to having it passed in the 2009 referendum. Andrew Coyne, a supporter of BC-STV, shows BC-STV is simple enough for an eleven-year-old child to use! Perhaps such proportional systems need better ways of demonstrating so that voters are not intimidated.

A Clockwise Orange by Anthony Burgess

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