Canada’s electoral system is so skewed, it fails to meet international norms.
As Canada approaches its third federal election in five years, Canadians are more skeptical than ever about their democracy. In the last election, more than 40 per cent of the voting population didn’t even bother recording their opinion at the polls. At 58 per cent, 2008 marked the lowest voter turnout in parliamentary history.
While it’s tempting, I’m not going to lay blame for declining levels of civic participation on Stephen Harper’s autocratic leadership style, or his government’s manipulation of parliamentary process, or even his being found in contempt of Parliament. And, while equally tempting, I’m also not going lay blame entirely on the polarized environment created by a minority Parliament and the growing intensity of party politics that forces representatives to draw party lines before defending their constituents – though they are certainly contributors.
But ultimately, party politics and an election campaign full of mud-slinging and reputation-crushing attack ads are not unfamiliar to Canadians. No, what I believe to be compromising Canada’s democracy and the willingness of Canadians to participate in it is much more fundamental.
The premise of a democratic governing system is that all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. One citizen = one vote. In 1867, Canada’s Constitution decided on a minimum number of seats per province, though no maximums – theoretically to allow representation in the House of Commons to expand alongside population growth. The Constitution also determined that each province would have at least as many seats in the Senate as it does in the House.
We’ve known for some time that as Canada’s population shifts toward urban concentration, the population distribution among electoral ridings has become skewed. But how skewed? According to a 2010 report by the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation – an independent, non-partisan public-policy research centre at the University of Toronto – so skewed that Canada’s electoral system no longer meets international democratic norms. No kidding. If you thought American politics is messed up, you’ll be interested to know that the relative equality of a Canadian vote deviates seven times more than in the U.S.! That means that the inequality experienced by Canadians is more than seven times as great as that experienced by Americans.
According to the Mowat report, a whopping 61 per cent of Canadians are underrepresented in the House of Commons. The report explains that the allocation of House representatives by population is what determines the overall “fairness” of a democracy. Canada’s current formula is not only substandard to international norms, but it violates the standard outlined in the Canadian Constitution.
Current rules state that provinces must have an equal number of House and Senate seats, and no province can have fewer seats than in did in 1985 – presumably protecting the voice of declining rural populations in Canada. The Mowat report notes that these rules have created “serious distortions in representation across the provinces.”
Particularly disadvantaged are voters in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario, with a relative vote weight of between 0.90 and 0.92. The concentration of youth, visible minorities, and newcomers to Canada in these more populated ridings also contributes to a targeted, though unintentional, disadvantage for these voting groups. Comparatively, Quebec voters weigh in closest to the average at 1.01. A vote in Nova Scotia counts for 1.18, while Saskatchewan voters are particularly influential, weighted at 1.39, along with P.E.I. at 2.88.
So how does the weight of your vote impact electoral results? Consider this: Fair Vote Canada – a multi-partisan national citizens’ campaign promoting fair voting systems for use in elections at all levels – highlight these statistics from the 2008 federal election:
- 940,000 voters supporting the Green party elected no one, while fewer Conservative voters in Alberta alone elected 27 Conservative MPs.
- In the Prairie provinces, Conservatives received roughly twice the votes of the Liberals and NDP combined, but took seven times as many seats.
- Similar to the last election, a quarter-million Conservative voters in Toronto elected no one and neither did Conservative voters in Montreal.
- The New Democrats attracted 1.1 million more votes than the Bloc Québécois, but the voting system gave the Bloc 49 seats and the NDP 37.
Fair Vote Canada notes that Canada is one of the few major nations still using the first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP). Most countries have implemented other fairer systems because FPTP generally fails to provide representation for all voters and it usually fails to provide legitimate majority rule. What it does do is “distorts the will of voters, exaggerates regional differences, results in low percentages of women and visible minority MPs and creates apathy, cynicism and negativity among voters.” Sound familiar?
As election results become increasingly distanced from how individual Canadians are voting, our elected government will become more and more distanced from the values of most Canadians. It’s no wonder that we’re having an election every two years and caring less and less each time. As the Mowat report points out, discussion around the issue over the last 30 years has focused primarily on protecting representation in areas with declining populations, while little has been done to address the weakened value of votes in more populated areas.
While achieving perfect representation is not necessarily feasible or the desired goal, the current situation is dangerously compromising Canada’s valued democracy. With democracy at the centre of many election campaign conversations this time around, the time is ripe for renewed discussion about electoral reform. So before you cast your ballot on May 2, ask your candidates how they will work toward electoral equality for Canada.
Until we correct the issue of representation in the House of Commons and legitimize our democracy, we will continue to elect governments we don’t really want.
Watch this short video produced by Fair Vote Canada to see how votes are counted using Canada’s current electoral system.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.