On Wednesday January 11, the Niagara Council of Women held a public discussion at the St. Catharines Public Library where concerned citizens shared doubts, concerns and ideas surrounding the Liberal Government’s promise to change the federal electoral system before the next election.
Speaking at the event were David Siegel, Professor at Brock University and Interim Dean of Education, and Linda Babb, a community activist and advocate of proportional representation within Canada’s electoral system.
Siegel opened the discussion by referring to what he calls the “democratic deficit” within Canadian politics. People potentially feel disenfranchised by the first-past-the-post nature of the electoral system, according Siegel, which leads to lower voter turnout and an overall feeling of alienation from the political sphere.
In the last election, the Liberals managed to capture 54.4 per cent of the seats, a clear majority, with only 39.5 per cent of the popular vote. Meanwhile, the Green Party secured 3.4 per cent of the vote, but managed to only capture a single seat, notes Siegel.
“This kind of disparity may lead people to feel as though their vote may not necessarily count as much as it should,” said Siegel.“ There is a sense of unfairness about the popular vote versus the seats awarded.”
Voter turnout in federal elections has been going down since 1988, falling into the low 60 per cent range, and even below 60 per cent in the October 2008 election.
While voter turnout has improved the last two elections, we do not yet know if this will constitute a larger trend in turnout, or if this is one of the many “blips” that periodically appear in polling data.
Lower voter turnout is a worldwide trend among democracies and that trend gets worse when we look at provincial and municipal politics.
“What do we have to do to get people interested in the political process?” asked Siegel.
Babb added to these issues, discussing the importance of accountability and legitimacy within an electoral system.
“It’s important for us to remember and keep in mind at all times that our electoral system is how we select our representatives, and delegate to them our power,” said Babb. “The majority of voters have forgotten their role in the democracy.”
She noted two interesting cases in Canadian politics where the popular vote and the resulting legislature differed greatly.
First was the British Columbia General Election of 2001, where the Liberal Party won 77 out of 79 ridings, or 97.5 per cent of the seats, while only receiving a much more modest 58 per cent of the popular vote.
Second was the New Brunswick General Election of 1987, where the Liberal Party won all 58 seats of the legislature with only 60 per cent of the vote.
“These cases highlight the problems with our current electoral system, and the need for one that has greater proportional representation,” said Babb.
“Votes are not equal. Many votes elect no one. The vote is distorted, and turn out is lowered.”
Feeling their vote may not count, said Babb, Canadians will turn to strategic voting or “negative voting” in order to have an impact. Instead of voting for a party they believe in, Canadians will simply vote against a party they do not want in power.
Another issue Babb raised is that the current system encourages parties to play it safe and avoid taking risks. This causes parties to choose candidates they believe to be more electable, potentially instead of those who would be better suited for the job.
“When parties select just one candidate to represent them in a riding, they tend to play it safe,” Babb said. “As a result, we have fewer minorities and women in our politics.”