First Past the Post in Canada has got to go, but it’s not Enough

The problems with Canada’s first past the post electoral system are all too familiar to Canadians. One need only look to the last federal election where the Conservative party gained 100% of the power in Parliament with only 39.62% of the votes. Politics aside, it doesn’t take a mathematician to conclude that a system which allows a party full power against the will of the vast majority of voters is utterly undemocratic.

Many advocates like Fair Vote Canada have been advocating for and educating Canadians on electoral reform for years. Now, with three of the four major parties entertaining the idea of electoral reform in some fashion, it is clear that this is an idea that not only makes logical sense, but that people desperately want.

Although proportional representation would fix a lot of the problems with Canada’s democracy and is objectively less flawed than our current system, it is hardly a complete fix. There is still one huge problem with our democracy: our culture of voting. By this I simply mean our general ideas and behaviors about our electoral system.

Problem number one is voter apathy. When I went canvassing for one of the major parties in Ontario’s last provincial election, the most recurring response from people was that they simply didn’t intend to vote. Usually they gave reasoning such as “politicians are all liars”, or “my vote doesn’t matter anyways”. People seemed defeated and indifferent because either the person they vote for doesn’t ever seem to win or that politicians never seem to deliver on promises once they are voted in.

While a change from our first past the post system to proportional representation would largely remedy these issues of proportionality (i.e. your vote actually counting for something), it doesn’t address the wide spread disdain for our political institutions and the people representing them. While I understand this sentiment, enacting upon your frustration by simply not participating only perpetuates the problem.

Most successful politicians act in such a way to maximize their electability, meaning they do that which they feel will most increase their chance of winning at the polls. Thus, when frustrated voters choose not to participate, their needs are only further ignored, because listening to non-voting constituents does not help politicians win elections in any way. Of course this is not right, as the goal of politicians should be to do what is right as opposed to what wins votes, but alas this is most often not the case (at least not completely).

This leads us to our next major problem in Canada’s culture of voting: the disparity between voting demographics. It’s no secret that certain demographics vote in much greater numbers than other demographics. Elections Canada did a report after the 2011 federal election that outlines this disparity well. Essentially, it shows that the younger the voter, the less likely they are to vote by a wide margin. In the last election only 38.9% of those aged 18-24 voted compared to a voter turnout of  71.5% for those aged 55-64.

Voter Turnout by Age Group for Federal Elections 2004 to 2011. Shows a steady increase in voter turnout as age increases.

Voter Turnout by Age Group for Federal Elections 2004 to 2011

There are so many potential explanations for the age disparity in voter turnout, but most certainly our first past the post system is not to blame (at least not entirely). This renders a proportional representation system less effective than it could be, because large demographics don’t cast their votes anyways.

So what do we do? I think we first need to recognize that having an inclusive and enthused culture of voting is a good thing for democracy in Canada. To accomplish this, we need to do away with the notion that politics isn’t something to bring up as a subject in polite conversation. Discussion is a good thing, as long as it is respectful and all parties try to be as objective and open minded as possible. Heck, even some heated debates can be healthy as long as things don’t get too out of hand. Most importantly, parents and educators need to be sparking conversations in classrooms and dinner tables with children, teenagers and young adults. It is imperative that the intent of these conversations not be to indoctrinate youngsters into our own belief systems, but to encourage independent and critical thinking. Further, these conversations should be mutually beneficial. In developing a voting culture of open discussion that spans age demographics, older voters can gain interesting insights from a youth-voter perspective. As much as our elders have useful knowledge and experience that can only come with age, I feel that there is also much to learn from a youth perspective.

In addition to more discussion, we need to change the way we talk about politics. The major problem with political discourse whether it be two people talking in a coffee shop or newspaper articles, is the negative tone that seems to dominate such discussions. And I get it, believe me. There is a lot of problems with Canada’s democratic system and I’m not saying we should just ignore this and be ignorantly optimistic about it, but rather, we should be focused on building solutions. It’s far too easy to dwell on the problems, but this tends not to lead to any sort of progress. Thus, a new culture of voting should be solution focused, building towards positive change rather than complaining about what is already broken.

Our first past the post system is absolutely undemocratic and has to go, but we cannot treat proportional representation like a cure-all for our democratic woes. Far to often I hear people prefacing their political statements with “If only we had proportional representation” or something similar, as if this would fix everything. We need to advocate for electoral reform, but we must not lose sight of the bigger picture, which includes our broken electoral culture.

One comment on “First Past the Post in Canada has got to go, but it’s not Enough

  1. To a greater extent than many other electoral methods, the first-past-the-post system encourages tactical voting . Voters have an incentive to vote for one of the two candidates they predict are most likely to win, even if they would prefer neither candidate to win. A vote for any other candidate is considered to be likely ” wasted ” and bear no impact or benefit on the final result they would prefer—and in many cases, harm it.

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