When B.C. voters cast their ballots on whether to replace their first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP) with some form of proportional representation (Pro Rep), they should know how ineffective their votes really are under FPTP.
Pro Rep supporters frequently claim FPTP enables a political party to get all the power with about four in every ten votes. But in truth our majority governments are routinely elected with far less support than that.
Categorizing voters by their effectiveness in electing a candidate—in providing an equal democratic voice for the voter—reveals a bleak picture.
In the 2017 B.C. election, four in every ten of those old enough to vote didn’t; three in every ten voted for a losing candidate; one in every ten votes were not needed for a winner to win. Only two in every ten eligible voters actually had their voice represented in the Legislature, a shade more than half by the Government parties and a shade less than half by the Opposition party.
Stop and think about what this means for our ‘democracy’. The Supreme Court of Canada defines an effective vote as being one that comprehends a voice in the Legislature. Yet eight out of every ten eligible
voters were rendered voiceless in the deliberations of the Legislature under FPTP’s plurality rule. Eight out of every ten voters made no difference to the outcome. Majority decisions of the Legislature are based on debate between the represented voices of two out of every ten eligible voters.
Understanding this low level of vote effectiveness helps us understand the pathological behaviours displayed in our democracy. Under FPTP, parties benefit more from suppressing opposition votes than from convincing voters to support their platform, because suppressing an opposition vote lowers the winning threshold. The base is shored up with promises, scare tactics, and dog-whistling, not to mention old fashioned pork-barreling. Meanwhile the opposition vote is suppressed through wedge issues, push polls, attack ads, robo calls, and shifting funds to targeted ridings. All of this is facilitated and fuelled by accurate polling and databases.
It’s not that political parties are naturally bad: FPTP simply rewards bad behaviour.
Moving to a Pro Rep system would upend the incentives FPTP provides to cater to special interests, and the opportunities offered to external powers to disrupt our democracy. Under Pro Rep, almost all voters would have a representative voice in the Legislature, having cast effective votes—votes that candidates needed to win. Majority rule in the Legislature would reflect a majority of voters’ voices, instead of some one-in-every-ten-vote minority that gamed FPTP well.
By forcing governments of all stripes to satisfy a broader set of voters, Pro Rep mitigates the perverse incentives that have generated so much disenchantment with politics in our country. Turnout increases because people value voting more when voting has more value.
Most of all, Pro Rep ensures the lives of all B.C. residents are improved in the long run.
Matt Risser and Denis Falvey are long-time advocates of more representative voting systems and frequently present to organizations exploring democratic reform. They live in Nova Scotia