Canadians question electoral system bias

VANCOUVER, Canada – With voting rates falling across Canada, there is growing public discontent with the electoral system and renewed interest in adopting some form of Proportional Representation.

In recent years Canada has been beset with falling voter turnout. In recent provincial elections in Ontario and Manitoba, voter turnout fell to around 55 percent. Voter turnout in Quebec, Novia Scotia and New Brunswick has recently fallen to the mid- to upper-60s. In the last federal election held in 2000, only 60 percent bothered to vote.

Global and Mail political analyst John Ibbitson writes, “Since these percentages only refer to registered voters, and many voters might never have made it onto the voters list, actual turnout of eligible voters in some of these elections might have dropped below 50 percent.”

Under the Canadian “first past the post” electoral system, the candidate who wins the most votes in a constituency becomes the Member of Parliament, while those who voted for the losing candidates receive no representation at all. As a result, a party’s strength in parliament depends on how many constituencies it can win, not its popular vote.

In the last federal election, the Liberal Party garnered 40.8 percent of the vote and 57.1 percent of seats in Parliament. The Progressive Conservative Party received 12.2 percent and only 4 percent of the seats. In the 2001 provincial election in British Columbia (BC), the Green Party won 13 percent of the vote but did not acquire a single seat.

Because the Canadian electoral system disenfranchises voters and distorts election results, many say it’s an important factor in discouraging people from voting.

Bill C-24, passed by Parliament in June, threatens to further contort election results. It bans corporate and union donations, caps individual donations to federal political parties, and institutes a system of public financing whereby political parties receive $1.75 for every vote they receive, creating a windfall for large, right-wing parties. In contrast, small political parties which receive under 2 percent of the vote will not receive any public funding, preventing them from competing on a level playing field with the old-line parties.

Political pundits observe that such measures will move Canada even closer to a U.S.-style system, where elections are simply bought by those with the deepest pockets.

Canada is one of the few countries in the world that does not use some form of PR. With PR, a party’s representation in parliamentary bodies is determined by the percentage of the vote it receives. For example, a party that gets 10 percent of the vote would obtain 10 percent of the seats in parliament.

The provinces of BC, Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick are considering changes that will include PR. In BC, for example, the government has formed a citizen’s assembly to discuss PR and other options. Should the assembly make specific recommendations that embrace PR, a referendum proposing the changes will be put to voters in the 2005 provincial elections. Changes could take effect by 2009.

So far the governing federal Liberal Party has rejected electoral reforms that would embrace PR, having rebuffed a pro-PR motion put forward in September by the New Democratic Party. However, a Green Party lawsuit before the Ontario Supreme Court may force the issue on a national level.

Ed Morgan, lawyer for the Greens, contends that the current system discriminates against minor parties and their supporters. Colin Feasby, a lawyer specializing in electoral law, says, “not only may the court’s reasoning provide a basis for challenging the newly acted campaign finance legislation, it may also increase the success of a constitutional challenge to our entire first past the post voting system.”

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court – addressing a court challenge launched by the Communist Party of Canada – ruled that sections of the Elections Act denying small political parties the right to appear on the ballot and receive tax receipts was unconstitutional and ordered the Federal Government to rewrite the legislation within a year.

The author can be reached at tpelzer@sprint.ca.