Post Electoral Musings

Source: firstpassthe

Well, thank goodness THAT’S over with! I suspect this sentiment is shared by many Canadians after what was the most vitriolic national election in living memory.

Since October 22, 2019, one would have had to have taken a vow of news silence not to have heard the renewed cry for “electoral reform.”

Generally, those calling for electoral reform want some form of proportional representation (PR), making two major claims: that our “first past the post”(FPTP) method in a multi-party system allows winners to receive less than half the votes and that when one looks at total votes cast across the country (or province) people who vote for the splinter parties are denied legislative representation.

In this short commentary I wish to raise two points which are rarely heard in the discussion on electoral reform. The first has to do with what political scientists call “interest aggregation” and the second with what they call “legitimacy.”

Interest aggregation is necessary in every political system. This is the process of recognizing the various divergencies of opinion among people and of then somehow combining these divergencies into a consensus broad enough to enact laws.

Inherently, this process involves give-and-take among the various opinion-holders.[1]  The pressures in a FPTP system push towards the creation of mass parties, parties which try to stake out an electoral position somewhere near the middle of the spectrum of voter opinion.

In Canada, these are the Liberals and the Conservatives.[2]The party which forms government is usually the one which has managed to aggregate the most interests; this aggregation is done through internal party give-and-take and so the party presents a united front with a platform appealing to a broad spectrum.

As you can see, this process tends to create parties with “moderate” platforms.

The PR system has interest aggregation, too. The difference is that this aggregation is done (if it can be done) by negotiation between the many splinter parties which PR creates. PR creates no pressure to create mass parties of the centre; rather, it encourages splinter parties which tend to focus on narrow issues of policy.

For example, Israel’s 120-member Knesset currently has 17 parties with seats. Israel also has a further 35(!) parties with no current Knesset representation And, of course, since April of this year, Israel has had two national elections (and is probably on its way to a third very soon) because no one has been able to aggregate enough interests to form a stable government.

My second observation concerns legitimacy. A system which has legitimacy is one in which the large majority of voters (at least 80-90%) accept that the rules for obtaining and exercising power are right.

The corollary of this is that even if a person’s particular political views are not represented by whoever governs, the person accepts the rightness of the government. At one time, for example, most of our ancestors found it quite right that decisions were made by hereditary monarchs or chiefs.

FPTP creates legitimacy because (1) there are geographically-based constituencies wherein (it is assumed) people share some common bond of neighbourhood and community; (2) the candidates are almost always people from that community; (3) the effect of a vote is easy to see and understand:  the candidate receiving the most votes goes to the legislature.

Proponents of PR do not base representation upon geographic/neighbourhood constituencies. Rather, they look at the whole nation or province as the constituency and apportion legislative seats according to the percentage of popular vote received by a party.

Each party has a ranked list of potential legislators, a list prepared by party authorities, and those on the list are assigned seats according to the percentage of votes the party receives. Legitimacy in PR is said to come because there are no “wasted votes.” “Wasted votes” are seen as those voters in a FPTP constituency whose candidates are defeated.

In essence, then, the FPTP system sees voters first and foremost as members of local communities while PR sees them as advocates of this or that ideological or policy position.

Would Canada be better off with a PR system? I doubt it. Unlike Israel or Germany (which uses a form of PR called “Mixed Member PR”) Canada is a nation of huge ethnic and geographic diversity. The pressures for the fractionalization which PR encourages are much greater here.

If you thought our recent federal election English language leaders’ debate was chaotic, imagine one with leaders from a hundred parties! Would national unity and good government be promoted when we have parties such as the Scarborough First Party, the Canadian Gunowners’ Party, the Sharia Law Party, The PETA Party, the Anti-Vaxxer Party and the Ford Nation Party?

And, if there were a threshold of popular vote necessary for a party to get any parliamentary seats (in Israel it’s 3.25% and in Germany 5%) you then have the same problem which PR was supposed to resolve, “wasted votes,” except that now it might take six months to cobble together enough aggregated interests to form even a shaky government.

1947 Winston Churchill quipped, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In the world of democratic governmental varieties, something similar can be said about FPT.


[1] This process of give-and-take does not occur only between people. It also (perhaps more importantly) occurs within an individual. For example, every time a person chooses to spend money, s/he must choose between alternative uses for that money. Every time a person prays, s/he chooses how to pray and what to pray for!

[2] In Manitoba where the two mass parties are the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP, the NDP behaves like a mass party, not like a splinter party.

3The PR requirement of a party list of ranked candidates for legislative seats would almost always create situations where no member in the government is from a particular province or major urban centre, thereby upsetting a major informal part of our constitutional practice. As well, PR would eliminate the possibility of the election of independent candidates like Judy Wilson-Reybould.

Johnston Smith is a retired teacher and an active spiritual director in Winnipeg.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 01:29h, 14 November Reply

    Thank you Johnston!

  • Maria Skarzynski
    Posted at 10:47h, 14 November Reply

    I’ll have to read that again, and again to understand this. Do you think of travelling the country to make sure people get it ?

    • Johnston Smith
      Posted at 17:27h, 14 November Reply

      Ms Skarzynski—Were I to travel the country to promote my point of view on this matter, I doubt I’d fill any local Legion Halls or church basements!

  • Johnston Smith
    Posted at 16:21h, 14 November Reply

    Ms Skarzynski—Were I to travel the country to promote my point of view on this matter, I doubt I’d fill any local Legion Halls or church basements!

  • Caroline Maloney
    Posted at 00:21h, 15 November Reply

    Results of a recent Angus Reid poll show that 90 percent of Canadians want parties to work together so legislation has majority support. That’s what you get with Proportional Representation!

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