Green and growing

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

US government shutdown a consequence of electoral system

Our good neighbours to the south are nearing two full weeks of government shutdown.  At issue, a split in power between the two "governing" parties means that a standoff has developed.  At a time when there is much work to be done, there is little being accomplished in Washington.

We might argue that this is an inevitable consequence of a bipartisan system.  When there are two parties, each will court the voters in the middle, and each will, in the long run, get about 50% of the vote.  In some ways, this is a reasonable and good outcome.  In Canada, we have only twice every had a government that had 50% of the vote.  Our current government wooed 38% of the voters, enough to give it a majority in parliament.

So there is the difference  In Canada, 38% is enough to give you near regal authority over the affairs of government, and in the USA, 50% isn't enough to guarantee that you can pass a funding bill.

So why, we might wonder, has the USA ended up with 2 parties in the Congress, and Canada has 5 in Parliament?  I believe it has to do with the extent to which the electoral system is non-proportional, or dis-proportional, if you will.

Canada's system is disproportional because 38% of the votes, properly placed around the country can create a majority government which wields 100% of the power.  The US system is similiar, although it is slightly more disproportional when we consider the electoral college system.  In this system, whoever gets 50% + 1 of the votes in a state essentially gets ALL the electoral college votes for that state, which is used to select the president.  In Canada, we call it first past the post, as you would declare the winner in a horse race.  In the US, if you are first past the post, you get to keep all of the other horses.

In Canada, it is very difficult for a new party to break in.  Usually, it happens when the party has a regional basis of support, because the effort can be focused on the local horse races, and the national parties must speak to the entire nation.  This is how the BQ came about, as well as the Social Credit, the Reform party and the CCF (forerunner of the NDP).  A local focus allows a party to take advantage of local disproportion.

In the US, it is even harder for a new party to break in.  Even a strong regional support will not offer up any electoral college votes until the state wide numbers get closer to 35% to 40%.  That's a lot of votes to get out for a new party.  They will not be getting the White House any time soon.

So the US remains a bipartisan electorate.  Canada is not far behind, in that every government since Confederation has been Liberal or Conservative.  Only recently, has the official opposition torch passed to the NDP .. a tremendous and historic accomplishment.  But it also places the NDP in the difficult position of needing to attract voters away from the Big 2, which means some politically centrist.policies may be in the offing.

To summarize, disproportional representation leads to a concentration of political power.  In the US, it has created a bipartisan system, and in Canada, a near-bipartisan system.  A true bipartisan split in power leads to the kinds of standoffs we see operating in the budget implementation process.

In Canada, we need to change.  If we don't start to give the other three parties some weight in the government proportional to their support, they will fade away, with a disinterested public having little time for those who cannot make a difference.  Then we can have standoffs and impasses, too!

Proportional representation is the only solution to this problem.  Yes, there will be minority governments.  But if only a minority of people support a party, isn't that what should happen?  Minority governments force real compromise.  Not the compromise of threats and stalemates, but rather the development of natural associations.  Parties will try to find their middle ground with all of the other parties.  And if it can't be made to work out, we can check back with the people through another election.

I wonder what the people of the US would say about the budget?