The Canadian House of Commons

Let’s Talk about Proportional Representation

Proportional representation is a hot topic these days, especially with the Liberals having won the election after campaigning on electoral reform (among other things). I’ve been reading some discussion around the issue and I noticed that there are a lot of misconceptions that are being thrown around. So I want to try to do my part here and clear up a few things.

Note that I’m not an expert on the subject and really have no qualifications which would make me in any way authoritative in this domain. I’m just a Canadian who would like to see an electoral system that is truly fair to everyone, citizens and political parties alike.

Why I Think this is Important

I see a lot of statements like, “Proportional representation does X!” (insert lofty claim for “X”) which tries to label it — along with every possible means of achieving it — as good or bad.

For those who are diametrically opposed to the idea, this doesn’t matter. For the rest of us who are looking to explore it further, we must dig deeper than the top level concept and gain an understanding of the various methods that can go along with it.

The reason for this is our government is expected to propose a concrete electoral system that will likely have the label “Proportional Representation” slapped on it. In order to decide whether or not it’s right for us as Canadians, we need to understand:

  • What the proposal really entails
  • Whether or not it is fair to all Canadians and political parties
  • What some of the alternatives could have been

By doing this, we can ensure that we don’t reject an idea due to misinformation, and equally avoid supporting an electoral system that plays politics under the covers.

What Proportional Representation Is (and Isn’t)

Borrowing from Wikipedia, proportional representation is essentially the goal of having the members of parliament distributed proportionally to their parties’ popular vote (e.g. if 36% of people across the country vote Green :), then 36% of the seats would be held by the Green party).

That’s it. That’s all. Seriously.

Proportional representation is not itself an electoral system. You can’t count votes with it. It is only a result, or a characterization. You can use any method you want to count votes and assign MP’s to seats; that method will be considered “proportional” if it meets the above goal.

So if you hear something like, “Ranked ballots are better than proportional representation because…” then something isn’t quite right!

Methods

There are three major methods to achieving proportional representation.

Each of these methods has many variations and potential rules which can have a significant impact on an election outcome. I highly recommend following those links to the Wikipedia articles which provide (I think) fantastic descriptions of the methods which are pretty easy to understand.

Misconceptions

This section is just a summary of misconceptions I’ve seen regarding proportional representation. I’ll address them individually, and I intend to update this list as I encounter more.

Proportional representation doesn’t have accountability!

Accountability in this context is having an MP accountable to a discrete set of constituents (i.e. as a voter, it’s clear who your representative is, so you know who to yell and scream at). It is certainly more complex in proportional systems, but not necessarily absent.

  • Party list can ruin accountability pretty hard for very large districts. “Who, from this list of many, is my representative?”
  • Single transferable vote with reasonably sized districts preserves accountability to a greater degree. “I have six representatives. Which one should I yell at?”
  • Mixed member proportional systems can have a great deal of accountability, especially for candidates elected via the more traditional component. “My riding elected the[yellow] candidate, but I voted [purple]. Who is the [purple] MP I should be yelling at?”
Proportional representation doesn’t let Canadian minorities be heard!

False! Proportional representation can ensure that minorities have a voice. Parties who can’t win first past the post races, but get significant support across the country, get the seats required to adequately represent the minority that voted for them.

I’ve also heard this stated around the concept of parties prioritizing urban centres over rural districts. This is not a proportional representation issue and is even a reality in our current electoral system. Each riding is intended to have an approximately equal number of citizens within so that each Canadian’s vote is of roughly equal value. In some cases, these numbers are skewed, but this is not specifically intended as part of our democratic process.

Proportional representation makes government inefficient!

False! Proportional representation ensures that seats are distributed equitably amongst the parties. It doesn’t change how parliament goes about its business once elected.

This misconception is based on the fact that, in Canada, it would be unlikely for us to elect majority governments under a proportional system — a single party almost never takes the majority (i.e. more than half) of the popular vote. It also assumes that minority governments are inefficient. Thus, the question becomes, “Should we choose a system that tends to award majority rule — to those against whom the majority voted — in the name of efficiency, and how does that align with our notion of democracy?” I’ll let you answer that one yourself. :P

There You Have It

So that’s my take on proportional representation. If you made it all the way down here, then thanks for sticking with me and I hope you found something useful along the way!

I’m pretty clearly a solid proponent of adopting a proportional system. But I think we should all acquaint ourselves with the various methods (including how they can be exploited!) to help guide our country to a superb — and superbly fair — electoral system.