Is democratic reform dying out?

First-past-the-post systems are proving remarkably durable


For would-be reformers of the mother of all parliaments, it was a brief and ill-fated courtship—ending with a door-slam to the face. One year ago, nearly six out of 10 Britons were telling pollsters they’d gladly dump the familiar first-past-the post electoral system (FPTP) in favour of a method that better reflected their democratic will. But when given their say in a referendum last week, voters dispatched the alternative with extreme prejudice: nearly 68 per cent opted to retain the old method of electing MPs, soundly rejecting the proposed system of preferential balloting known as the alternative vote (AV).

Advocates for change were quick to marshal explanations. The rejection spoke less to disapproval of AV than to dissatisfaction with its chief proponent, Liberal-Democrat Leader Nick Clegg, they said. Some complained voters had been hoodwinked by hysterical-sounding advertisements suggesting that a costly overhaul of the electoral system would suck money from, among other vital services, intensive care for infants.

None seemed to consider the possibility that FPTP might have its own inherent appeal. “It’s simple, and it normally produces parliamentary majorities,” says Louis Massicotte, a Université Laval political scientist who has studied electoral reform initiatives around the world. “The ambiguities of minority parliaments may fascinate intellectuals. But for the average folk in the street, a clear outcome is always better than a murky one.”

The staying power of first-past-the post is becoming a point of fascination for Massicotte and other experts, who not long ago had cause to think it might someday go extinct. The centuries-old method faced growing challenges in the 1990s from activists who contend it discourages political diversity, and too often results in governments that lack an explicit mandate from the majority of voters. In FPTP, each voter chooses one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. That means an office-seeker with less than 50 per cent of votes in a constituency can take a given riding, and that a party with less than 50 per cent of the popular vote can win a majority of seats. It also means that small parties with diffuse support face steep odds in getting members elected.

In Canadian federal politics, it has been blamed for producing a “false” Conservative victory, given that around six out of 10 electors are voting for other parties; and for shutting out the Greens, who in the 2008 election garnered nearly one million votes country-wide yet failed to gain a single seat. The NDP, too, has complained that its share of seats was far below its popular support, and made proportional representation (PR) a central policy plank during the recent election campaign. In a mid-campaign meeting with Maclean’s editorial board, Leader Jack Layton acknowledged that the New Democrats and Liberals were splitting the anti-Tory vote on almost every policy question. The solution, he said, was PR, which he argued would give parties of all stripes representation in the Commons, and encourage like-minded ones to work co-operatively to govern the country.

Still, it takes a truly perverse outcome to get the wheels of reform actually turning. That’s what happened during the B.C. provincial election in 1996, when Glen Clark’s NDP lost the popular vote to the Liberals yet emerged with more seats. The result triggered an outcry, and a lengthy reform process that included a “citizens’ assembly” charged with considering new ways for British Columbians to choose their governments. In 2005, the panel recommended a single transferable vote system, in which voters would rank candidates—their second and third choices being counted after their first-choice candidates are either elected, or dropped from the ballot due to lack of support.

The B.C. experience, however, proved complicated. In the referendum that followed, the Yes forces fell just 2.3 points short of the 60 per cent threshold set by the government, prompting premier Gordon Campbell’s government to endorse a second vote. Alas for the reformists, enthusiasm for electoral tinkering waned—in B.C. and across the country. In 2009, the second time around, less than 39 per cent cast ballots in support of the new model, while a similar initiative in Ontario, which saw a proposal for so-called mixed-member proportional representation, garnered 37 per cent support in 2007. Prince Edward Island had resoundingly rejected the same system two years earlier, while a lengthy reform effort in Quebec that began in 2003 failed to reach a vote.

In Canada, as in Britain, the reasons for these failures vary. On a crassly partisan level, leaders who push forms of preferential balloting or proportional representation tend to lose their enthusiasm once they have actual power. “PR is something you support when you cannot implement it,” the late senator and constitutional expert Eugene Forsey famously said, “and that when you can, you no longer support.” In New Brunswick, for example, provincial Progressive Conservatives had promised a referendum on mixed-member voting before they were ousted in a 2006 election. They returned to office last year with an enormous seat majority (based on less than half the popular vote), but are hardly rushing to revive the initiative.

Richard Johnston, the director of the University of British Columbia’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, says more subtle political judgments may also be at play. Johnston was part of a team of academics who studied the outcome of the B.C. referendum, and found opinions on the electoral system tended to break along ideological lines. Small-l liberals supported STV, he says, based on their beliefs about its inherent fairness and its capacity to foster co-operation among rival parties. Small-c conservatives, meanwhile, were more likely to support FPTP based on faith in its capacity to preserve order. “People on the right tend to be more responsive to things that have to do with governance,” says Johnston. “Things like stability, durability and commitment. They’re less worried about the process that gets you there.”

Johnston’s observations run against the commonly held belief that reform initiatives fail primarily because voters simply don’t get them. One University of Toronto study following the Ontario referendum offered the rather patronizing theory that “an electorate that did not feel itself to be adequately informed found it difficult to overcome its uncertainty about how the new system would actually work.” In B.C., at least, responses on both sides appeared rooted in the respective models’ purported impact on the legislature. And if you accept the now common theory that Canadians are drifting to the political right, Johnston adds, it stands to reason that attachment to first-past-the post would grow.

The same may apply to the referendum in Britain, where suspicion of multi-party parliaments runs as high as in Canada—and where plenty of intelligent minds were attracted to the simplicity of the old model. An explanatory pamphlet circulated by the U.K. electoral commission made their choice easy, summing up FPTP in three sentences, while taking four pages, complete with a sample election scenario and complicated diagrams, to describe alternative voting. This for a system that is considered among the more straightforward in the democratic family.

What prospect, then, does electoral reform stand in countries where first-past-the post has stood the test of time? In Canada, at least, the federal New Democrats still carry the flame, despite having crashed into the mainstream with 104 Commons seats in the recent election. Reached this week by Maclean’s, a party spokesman insisted Layton remains commited to PR. But Massicotte, for one, will reserve judgment until the NDP finds its way out of opposition. “Some politicians will almost cry on your shoulder following a bad election outcome,” he says, chuckling. “But once they’re in office, they forget all about these things. When I hear major party leaders talking about PR, I don’t take them seriously.”

As for the British result, Massicotte can’t help wondering if the cause of reform has taken a critical symbolic blow—landed, appropriately enough, in the birthplace of Westminster-style democracy. “It looks very much,” he says, “like a proverbial nail in the coffin.”


Is democratic reform dying out?

  1. It’s called representative democracy. We vote for individual representation not a party.
    Only losers call for PR.

    • The referendum in Britain wasn’t about PR, it was about a different method of choosing that individual representative.

  2. Let it go. It’s an idea that get’s kicked up by the “losing” side of just about every election but fails to consider that voting patterns themselves would change under a PR system. Being from a smaller rural riding, your damned right I don’t want a party appointed “hack” put in place based on the urban vote.
    Which is somewhat funny. In the referendums on the matter, the decision not to change was based on the popular vote.

    • PEIMAC, nearly every parliamentary system in the world favours rural ridings over urban ridings. Canada is no different. About 10 per cent of all Canadians live in the Toronto-Missassauga-Hamilton area, yet I don’t think anybody can say that 10 per cent of all Canadian MPs represent Toronto-Missassauga-Hamilton. In Canada, the Tories have generally had the edge in these rural ridings, so the system favours the Tories.  

  3. Now that the NDP is a beneficiary of FPTP, I’d bet good money you won’t hear much about PR from the Dippers. The Liberals are the only party with much reason to raise the issue, and even then, they may still harbour fantasies of forming a majority government some time in the future. I suppose the Greens are sure to push for PR, but even by their own logic, Elizabeth May’s victory (with <50% of the vote) is illegitimate.

    Sure, 60% of people did not vote for the Tories, but 69% didn't vote NDP, 81% didn't vote Liberal and 96% didn't vote Green. Moreover, in a PR world, nobody's vote matters because the actual program of government is negotiated among the parties after the election. A vote for the Liberals could be a vote for a Liberal-Tory coalition, or a Liberal-NDP coalition, both of which would be very different beasts. And of course that assumes the party system remains the same – something that is unlikely to happen. You would probably get scores of more extremist parties, in place of the brokerage parties that predominate today.

    As for the notion that Conservatives prefer FPTP to ensure "order", now there is a statement that ignores the history of electoral reform in Canada. The clearest case of a province changing the electoral system is BC's move towards a model akin to that used in Australia (voters rank their choices). However, it was implemented by a Conservative-Liberal coalition, aiming to keep the socialist CCF out of power. Electoral reform (both support for and opposition to) has always been about political interests, not high-minded values. And that is precisely why it is unlikely to happen – almost by definition, it is going to be preferred by losers.*

    *Even within the parties that would gain from PR, there would be significant losers. Regional MMP is the most likely version to be proposed. While the Liberals would gain overall in such a system, they would lose MPs in PEI, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland (provinces that contain a third of the Liberal caucus). 

    • “…Sure, 60% of people did not vote for the Tories, but 69% didn’t vote NDP, 81% didn’t vote Liberal and 96% didn’t vote Green…”

      Which is an excellent argument for alternative voting. 

      Most voters aren’t partisan one party supporters; they change their votes in various situations. So clearly many have an mental hierarchy of who they are most and least likely to vote for.

      That’s pretty important information to have in a democracy, if you’re truly trying to determine who has the strongest mandate.

      Why then aren’t voters able to rate that support and have it represented? 

      I for one may be a liberal, but I’d rather see the CPC win than the NDP, and my vote should reflect that preference.

      As it stands, our system actually emphasizes support for the outlier party, ie that which is most different with the most support, rather than those which are closest in ideology with collectively more support.

      That directly contradicts the point of a democracy. In a true democracy the people decide directly not only who represents them, but what ideas and ideology they want that person to adhere to in a general sense.

      If their general preferences are essentially ignored in favour of a winner take all mentality, then how is that really representing what the people actually want?

      Your quote above exemplifies my point: 60% of people not only didn’t vote for the CPC, they all voted for some form of social liberalism, which the CPC simply doesn’t reflect, while all the other parties do.

      There’s something wrong about that, and I think everyone knows that instinctually, even if they rail against it with every last ounce of breath.

  4. No. The answer to the question is “No.” Most Canadian voters just got a rude jolt when they woke up and found themselves with a Conservative “majority” government that received less than 40% of the votes. The two parties that support pr, the NDP and the Green Party, have made significant gains. The two who are traditionally over-represented. the Liberals and the Bloc, just got an object lesson in the value of a fair voting system. Four years from now, when the Conservatives are at 16% in the polls, there will be a great opportunity for change.

    Democratic reform dying out? It’s just getting started!

  5. I’m surprised at how many people in Britain were swayed by ads that claimed that voting for ATV would kill their babies.  What a strange world.

  6. PR is what parties that are on the fringes and refuse to become mainstream enough to actually win like to tout. It’s a great way to give power to fringe and extremist groups and take it away from the mainstream. That’s why it gets defeated every time someone proposes it. It simply doesn’t work for the absolute majority of voters.

    The whining about results is also getting old. All of Chretien’s majorities were sub 40% results. You have to go back a very long time time to find an absolute majority. Yet somehow Canada continued on.

    Granted, that’s less annoying then the shrill whining of the left who seem to think that all Liberal voters are onside in some NDP/BQ/Green/Lib union against the Conservatives. They’re not. Many Liberals would rather vote Conservative then see the NDP in power. Once the left starts to understand that, they might figure out just how far they really have to go.

    •  If you wouldn’t mind could you tell me what has you so dead set against the NDP? Sure they are far from ideal but when it comes down to it the NDP will probably get themselves involved in some mess if they take government and we can have another term of pointless governance. For some reason these periods of time often happen to be periods of great growth for Canada when the government doesn’t actually do anything to mess with us.

      Sorry, if Harper wants to save money he should stop spending it. That’s my $0.02.

  7. FPTP will remain the system because it favours Parties. Parties allow very poor quality people to attain a position that they wouldn’t otherwise attain as long as they stay loyal and do as they are told.
    During any referendum campaign the Parties call the shots and spend money preserving their status.  They invariably have more money and the status quo on their side.

  8. The need for voting reform is growing.  In our modern world, citizens expect government to increasingly adopt governance processes which are built around inclusion, engagement and consensus-building.  Our adversarial voting system provides strong incentives to force voters into making a binary choice, but this is increasingly at odds with what we need to do to solve the problems facing us as a society.  Only by including all voices in governance processes can we build durable and widely-supported public policies. 

    PR is part of what we need to get there, but we also have to pay close attention to other aspects of how we run our parliament.  One simple change that would be very helpful would be to eliminate the convention that a government falls if it loses a parliamentary vote.  If only the official opposition could move a motion of non-confidence, then there would be no ‘tail wagging the dog’ – if the government didn’t get its way, it would just have to try again.  If the government felt sufficiently thwarted, it could resign.  This is how virtually all other organizations are run – businesses and NGOs alike vote on issues all the time and don’t expect the board to resign every time a motion is defeated.  It just means that the decision-makers need to do some more work.  A sensible approach for modern times, in my view.

    Also, remember that many voices in society are silenced by how we vote – not only supporters of the Greens and NDP, but also supporters of the Liberals just about everywhere in Canada, supporters of the Conservatives in most parts of the major cities in Canada (along with places such as Vancouver Island), and voters of all stripes who don’t like their local candidate but who are not offered a choice between representatives of the party they support.  Fully half of Canadians are currently represented by a person they didn’t vote for, and not all those who did vote for their MP voted for the person they most preferred.  We need a voting system which will start by giving all voters the representatives they ask for so that our MPs have the maximum possible legitimacy for the work they need to do.

  9. Three points: (1.) The UK referendum was on just another winner-take-all system which no serious study had recommended and which was hardly anyone’s first choice, a worthless alternative. (2.) Public opinion polls have shown for a decade that 62 to 66 percent of Canadians think parties should have seats in Parliament in proportion to the popular vote received by each party, and still do. (3.) As to MMP, the Law Commission of Canada recommended a model with open regional lists for the proportional one-third of MPPs, not closed province-wide lists, and the NDP also wanted regional lists since province-wide lists were not acceptable in Northern Ontario and many parts of southern Ontario. So although polls showed voters who understood the MMP system supported it, those lists were a very hard sell. The Law Commission’s model would have been far better, and has never been rejected by a referendum. As to the BC referendum rejecting STV, at the same time a poll showed 66% (including 44% of those who voted against STV) wanted a proportional system, just not STV.

    So here we have yet another majority government that the majority voted against, elected by only 39.6% of voters. And the 209,000 Conservative voters in metropolitan Montreal are left out of the cabinet because winner-take-all threw their votes in the trash. No, democratic reform is needed more than ever.

  10. Beware the lunatic fringe! 

    PR would result in all sorts of crazies getting seats in the HoC.

  11. I find it really interesting to see all these people in Canada with all their well researched ideas about Proportional Representation, as if they ever voted in a country with that uses such a system. My question almost always is: “Are you a citizen of a country that uses it?” The answer is almost always: “Huh…no…”. Almost always an inaudible …no. I pride myself being the citizen of country that uses PR: A country that looks after its citizens and citizens looking after their country.

  12. I find it really interesting to see all these people in Canada with all
    their well researched ideas about Proportional Representation, as if
    they ever voted in a country with that uses such a system. My question
    almost always is: “Are you a citizen of a country that uses it?” The answer is almost always: “Huh…no…”. Almost always an inaudible …no. I pride myself being the citizen of country that uses PR: A country that looks after its citizens and citizens looking after their country.