There is nothing like a surprise election result to shift people’s views on the electoral system. Since the NDP sweep in Alberta, a number of conservative commentators have been swiftly won over to the idea of alternatives to ‘first past the post’ style elections. Meanwhile the Alberta NDP which had proportional representation in their platform a few months ago have grown remarkably silent, though the Federal leader has promised that he will bring it in if he wins government in the fall. But that was in January.

He might try if he has a minority government but with a majority? Time will tell.

The ‘first past the post’ system has been around for a long time and continues to be used in England, Canada, the United States and… well, the list of 45 also includes Yemen, Myanmar and Pakistan as well as a few small former British colonies. FPT works fine in a two party system or even reasonably well when there are three parties in a position to win seats. Five parties won seats in the Alberta election while, in the United Kingdom, where the Conservatives just won a majority government with a mere 35% of the vote, more than a dozen parties will be represented.

This is clearly unfair but it is difficult for people who see the opportunity for unlimited power (a Prime Minister with a majority has considerably more ability to do as he or she wants than any president) are unwilling to embrace the opposite. Well, except in the dozens of countries where they have.

Proportional Representation can come in many forms and the opponents of it point to those forms which work least well. Israel for example has a multitude of parties, many of them extremist in their views. But Israel has one of the odder forms of PR. Until recently a party could win seats if they received 1% of the vote, making it quite easy for fringe groups to get representation. Recently this was raised to 1.5% which got rid of a few parties — or forced them to merge with similar ones. But in most countries the minimum amount needed to win seats is 5%. In Canada, that would mean on a national level only 4 parties in Parliament (5 if regional blocks were used as in Germany), which is what we have now. However, the large parties would be smaller and the small ones, bigger. Some votes might shift adding one or two more parties but not dozens.

Another criticism of PR is that it means you don’t have a direct representation in government. The Mixed Member Proportional system solves that. MMP allows you to vote for a local representative and also for a party. In some cases this is a single ballot — your party vote is considered to go to the party of your selected candidate — but in others there are two ballots. So you could vote for a favorite candidate who happens to be a Liberal while casting your party vote for the Conservatives. Party votes elect candidates from a list, which is almost always presented to the public before the election and lead to a legislature composed of local members with list candidates added until the assembly resembles the proportion of votes received by each party. In federations like Canada and the United States, PR would be based on individual province/state results rather than national ones but that’s a mere detail.

It is this latter process of public lists that ensures a more diverse set of candidates rather than the endless lawyers and business people our current system tends to give (along with an awful lot of career politicians). Parties will want to make sure their lists, especially the first half dozen names, are as appealing to as many people as possible. The net result — and you can see this in Europe — are more women and more minorities represented in legislatures. And that’s a good thing.

And all those minorities and coalitions? Well, it hasn’t stopped Germany from becoming one of the biggest economies in the world.

And that’s slightly more than ten minutes.


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