Green and growing

My story about being a Green politician in Canada, and why it was the best thing I ever did.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Just how big is the democratic deficit in Canada?

I did a little calculating on how votes really count. In our current electoral system of "first past the post" or "winner take all", voters cast a vote for candidates in their riding. The candidate with the most votes goes to Ottawa, and all the others go home. The votes that fell to the winner "count", and the votes that go to the rest, electorally speaking, might just have well have been set to another planet. (There is a funding formula which pays all parties a dollar amount per vote so that they can try harder next time, but this formula does not change who gets the power in parliament.)

So if you add up all the votes for MP's who got elected in the 2006 general election, you come to a total of 7.2 million votes out of the 14.9 million votes cast. At first glance this sounds pretty good. That means that 7 million Canadians voted for someone who ended up in the house of Commons. But if you look at it a little closer, then you see that that is only 48.5% of the votes cast. Canada is governed entirely by candidates who, all together, didn't get half the votes.

Now, if you look at parties, you will see that Canada's New Government, aka the Conservative Party, when you add up all the votes they have represented in parliament, you will find that this group garnered 21.2% of the votes cast in the election. Now, the party got more votes than that because they got some votes in ridings where they lost, and their votes got flushed down the pipe just like all the other non-winning candidates votes. The key here is that the government has a mandate from only 21% of the voters. This is not the Conservatives fault, it is an artifact of a dysfunctional electoral system.

Advocates of our current system (ie. the parties that benefit from systematic distortion) would argue that the Conservatives got 36% of the popular vote, the highest of any party, and that therefore they are entitled to the 40% of the seats in the house that they received. However, that does not fly with me. If you want to argue on the basis of popular vote, then you are de facto endorsing the idea that seats should be assigned on the basis of popular vote. This is called proportional representation (PR). Either it is a good idea or it is not. With Canada being governed by 21% of the votes, I think it is time for a change.

As you can see in the table above, there are three clear winners in this system. The Conservatives, the Liberals and the Bloc, for two different reasons. The Conservatives and Liberals have governed Canada since its inception and have no interest in having anyone else share this distinction. The Bloc benefits from regional focus, as did the Reform Party and the Social Credit Party.

There are two parties significantly disadvantaged by this system. The NDP and the Greens are parties with broad geographic support, both of which represent a different way of governing. A lot of people believe in these parties, and they deserve fair representation in government.


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