Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Voters Get It Right - Except When They Get It Wrong

Nation, I was scrolling through my morning election news - doesn't everyone? - when this gem caught my eye.

Of particular note was THIS little nugget, from a Liberal Party member and area lawyer:

"Does that mean that the voters who don't really know her but have voted for a Liberal, in effect, lose their vote?"

No... it means they should have paid attention in social studies class.

Nation, we've gone over this before, but it's election time and our visitor numbers have skyrocketed, so I can forgive if the entire country hasn't read my thoughts on the subject yet - at least, for a little while longer.

The reality is, NOBODY gets to vote for a party in our system. NO ONE. You can go to the polls thinking "I'm going to vote Conservative". You can walk into the booth with every intention of electing Stephen Harper as Prime Minister. But when you open your ballot to mark your "x", there's no box that says "mark HERE to vote Conservative". There's no ballot with the heading "Prime Minister of Canada - Mark an 'X' beside one candidate only". There's a list of 4 to 7 names or so, with party affiliations listed after the name of the candidate. You want to vote Conservative. You want to vote for Harper. But your ballot doesn't give you either choice, so you vote for the candidate on the ballot with "CPC" after their name.

Guess what? Stephen Harper didn't just get your vote. Neither did the Conservatives. That CANDIDATE (oh, say, Rob Merrifield) just got your vote. You just gave him permission to exercise your franchise as he sees fit. And if he crosses the aisle to join the Rhinos or the Marxist-Leninist Party or the Marijuana Party, he takes your consent WITH him - because, in the booth back on October 14th, you voted for Rob Merrifield, and no one else.

(Note: People who intend to vote for Merrifield, I'm pretty sure you don't have to worry about Rob crossing the floor. You're probably pretty likely to get exactly what you expect from Merrifield.)

It's a function of our system that political parties don't get votes - candidates do. What those candidates do afterwards, they do with the full implied consent of everyone who cast a ballot for them - so make sure you know for whom you're voting. And if you DON'T, don't claim you were mislead... the reality is, you failed to educate yourself, you cast an uninformed ballot, and the only person who robbed you of your franchise was YOU, when you gave it away thoughtlessly.

Those candidates, when elected, speak and vote formally on behalf of every voter who cast their vote for the candidate. Every elector in Calgary West who thought they were voting for Stockwell Day or for the Canadian Alliance in 2000, rejected Nelson Mandela being granted honourary Canadian Citizenship.

Now, as I understand it, one of the big proposals being put forward in the area of electoral reform is to allow people a chance to vote directly for the party of their choice (MMP - Mixed-Member Proportional representation). The idea, as proposed, would allow people to vote directly for a local candidate, but also to vote, on a separate ballot, for the party of their choosing. If the Liberals receive 30% popular support (as a PARTY, not as result of all of their candidates' votes combined) nation-wide, but only elect 25% of the MP's, then members-at-large, representing no particular constituency, would be "added" to their totals off of a party-supplied list of candidates, to reflect the will of the national electorate.

The drawback to this, of course, is that there's still nothing to stop one of the "traditionally" elected MP's, who just flat-out got the most votes as a candidate in their riding, from crossing the floor and screwing up the proportions again. What if Canada went to MPP (ensuring minority Parliaments in perpetuity), and the Tories got 38% of the House, but convinced 6 MP's elected from other parties to cross the floor? Would we need to add more seats to the House and proportionally give them to the opposition parties, to maintain our percentages? Would the Tories need to "fire" 6 MP's, to make room for the new recruits? What about the ridings represented by the fired 6 MP's - those voters democratically CHOSE those Members of Parliament, and they should be allowed to sit - but as independents who vote with the Tory caucus on everything?

There are a lot of things about MPP to like, but there are also a lot of unanswered questions and unfortunate side effects (slavish devotion to the Party Line from candidates, to get moved up the "priority line" for the proportional "bonus seats", as an example). That's the system we may eventually end up with. But right now, we're in a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system. That's the system we're in right now, today. The one we've had for over a hundred years. The one we all learned about in school (in Alberta, it's Grade 6 social studies).

The thing is, when we really stop to think about it, we KNOW we don't get to vote for a party. Think about... oh, Preston Manning's old seat, in Calgary Southwest. He won that seat, in the election of 2000, by 26,000 votes. At the end of January 2002, he announced he was stepping down as the MP for Calgary Southwest. Did the party get to keep the seat, and put a new Member in his place? No, of course not. A by-election had to be called, because the Canadian Alliance didn't get a single vote in 2000 - Preston Manning got 34,500 of them, and he was stepping down. Some guy named Stephen Harper won the by-election.

You don't vote for a party. You don't vote for Prime Minister. You vote for the candidate in your riding, and the chips fall where they may. In 1984, the Progressive Conservatives of Brian Mulroney won 211 of 282 ridings in the country. Mulroney was the Prime Minister, with a massive majority. You know how many people in that election actually voted for Brian Mulroney, out of 12.5 Million votes cast? 28,208. Twenty-eight thousand, two hundred and eight voters in Manicouagan cast ballots for Brian Mulroney, who went on the serve as Prime Minister. 6,250,000 other votes went to Progressive Conservative candidates... but none of them were for Brian Mulroney, or for the PC's. They went to the candidates. Nobody in Alberta or Ontario cast a ballot for Mulroney - our system doesn't allow it. Nobody in Manicouagan voted for the PC's, for that matter. They voted for Brian Mulroney, and if he had crossed the floor, he'd have taken their votes with him.

In 2004, almost 22,000 voters in Newmarket-Aurora voted for Belinda Stronach, who would go on to serve in Paul Martin's Liberal government. Those voters may have THOUGHT they were voting for the Conservatives, or for Stephen Harper, or against Paul Martin and the Liberals... but they were wrong.

They were wrong, and they should have paid more attention in social studies.

Class dismissed.


Wayne Smith said...

We don't get to vote for a party, so we have no way to hold parties accountable to voters. That's why emerging democracies in Europe developed proportional voting systems 100 years ago.

Under the current winner-take-all system, most of us vote for people who don't get elected, so we end up "represented" by somebody we voted against, and most MPs "represent" mostly people who voted against them.

How many of us will end up as "orphan voters" this time? Guess right, and you could win cash prizes from Fair Vote Canada:

Hint: Last time, more than 7.5 million Canadian voters were orphaned by our antique voting system.

Anonymous said...

49% of Canadians voted for winning candidates of all stripes in the 2006 election.

7,253,017 out of 14,845,680.

While 49% is not perfect considering that there 1634 candidates and only 19% of those could get elected.

Those 19% got 49% of the Popular vote. That's pretty darn good in my opinion. Instant run off would have fixed that percent, but for the price of simplicity in our voting process, I won't loose sleep.

Averaged out the Winning 19% = 308 candidates got 23,549 votes compared to the other 1,326 = 81% candidates who averaged 5,728 votes.

81% of the candidates got 51% of the vote vs 19% of candidates who got 49% of the vote.

Almost half of Canadians said the other 81% of the candidates were not viable.

Do you want the Olympic Medal system to be proportional too? Lets award extra medals to countries who simply sent lots of athletes but none of them were good enough to win anything.

How about Hockey, there is only one Stanley cup winner. By that logic assuming all 30 teams have roughly the same number of fans, roughly 97% of Hockey fans are disenfranchised because you can only have a single team win the cup.

Here is the solution for the half of Canadians who feel so disenfranchised, this is a democracy, find a candidate you like, get off your ass and work to help them get elected.

Wilf Day said...

Paul likes a system where a party can win 38.5% of the votes and 51.5% of the seats, as the Liberals did in 1997. The Progressive Conservatives got 18.8% of the votes and 6.6% of the seats in 1997. Democratic conservatives used to hate that system.

Now the worm has turned. Some conservatives hope to win a "manufactured majority." Stephane Dion used to say what a poor system this was, until he got elected as Liberal leader. Even though the Liberals are about to get shafted by winner-take-all, the Liberal leader isn't allowed to say so.

Democrats in all parties will realize that this skewed system, which works only in a two-party country, doesn't give Canadians the House of Commons we vote for.