On Proportional Representation Essay, Research Paper
Electoral systems are the oldest and arguably the most important institution of a democratic nation. The right to vote is quintessential to democracy itself, however, how that vote is translated into political power depends on what type of electoral system is being used. For example in a proportional system (PR), 40% of the vote will translate into 40% of the seats in the legislature. This does not occur in the first past the post (FPTP) system whereby percentage of votes does not equal percentage of seats. Single majority plurality systems or first past the post system uses a ‘winner-take-all’ single seat district system whereby votes going to a losing candidate are wasted. For example if a candidate earned 49% of the vote, and the winning candidate takes 51% those 49% of votes are unrepresentative. Nonetheless, each system has its own unique advantages and each system will yield different impacts on the politics and the complexion of a nation. The key arguments about electoral systems revolve around the questions of democratic quality and the effectiveness of decision-making. Democratic quality is the means by which a system meets such democratic values as representativeness, accountability, equality and participation (Lijphart 2). Consequently, we shall examine the argument for Canada to reform its electoral system from a single-member plurality system to a proportional system with respect to which will ensure greater democratic qualities and effective leadership.
Canada’s political system resembles its British counterpart, as was the intention of the 1867 British North America Act. Consequently, Canada inherited the same electoral system, a single member plurality or first past the post system. Some parties have rallied for a reform of the electoral system, usually smaller and under-represented parties such as the Green parties. The reason for this is that it is in general agreement that PR systems yield greater proportionality and minority representation (Lijphart 2). Canada arguably faces shocking measure of voter apathy, citizen ignorance and distorted representation (Richie 1). Therefore, there is a growing movement to support change to a proportional representation system to tap into values such as fairness, opportunity and choice.
Proportional representation system is a broad category of electoral types. Some forms are based on voting for candidates and some are based on voting for political parties. Many combine both features. For example, Germany’s mixed-members proportional representation system guarantees geographic representation, as half of the seats are elected from Canadian style one-seat district and the other half in the multi-seat districts. Germany also sets a five percent threshold for parties to win representation, to avoid small splinter parties. The Irish parliament and the Australian senate use preference alternative voting system, which is based on voting for candidates rather than parties. Germany has used the Mixed-member PR system since it was instituted with American and British guidance after World War II. Germany’s successful experience with the system has led to many other nations adopting variations of MMPR in recent years including; Japan, Italy, Mexico, Hungary, Russia, New Zealand and Venezuela (Richie 2). Furthermore, mixed-member PR systems have a fairer representation of communities of interest not defined by geography. Such communities are more likely to be organized by how voters think, organize and choose to vote. Thus, voters have more freedom of association and choice because they need fewer votes to elect representatives.
The principle of proportional representation is that parties should win seats in legislative assemblies in proportion to their share of the popular vote. In a proportional representation systems, voters in each district are represented by several elected officials rather than just one, as in the winner-take-all system. PR will ensure that voters in the majority will earn a majority of seats, but voters in the minority will also earn their fair share of representation. For example, in a ten seat district elected by PR, a party that wins ten percent of the popular vote becomes critically significant, however in a FPTP system, this number becomes virtually irrelevant especially if these votes are not geographically concentrated (Richie 4). Thus, we shall examine which system provides for ‘fairer’ representation.
First, democracy allows a person the right to vote and also the right not to vote. However, one cannot be represented if he chooses not to vote. In the first past the post systems found in Canada and the US voter participation is only about a 50% turnout. This is a stark contrast to the 75-95% turnout rates typical in Europe where mixed member plurality systems exist. The effects of wasted votes may explain the problem of voter apathy found within FPTP systems. In a FPTP system third, fourth and fifth parties do not help to strengthen democracy. Smaller party candidates are usually ignored and such parties are trapped in a cycle of marginalization, many potential supporters will not want to waste their votes on sure losers because it would take votes away from their ‘lesser of two evils’ (Richie 7). A proportional representation system would change this calculation. Consequently, voters will have more choice and feel their votes are more legitimate representation of themselves. This would break the two-party stranglehold on representation and promote new ideologies and political platforms (Lijphart 3).
For example, in the 2000 Canadian elections, the polls would indicate that the two major parties most likely to win government is either the Liberals or the Alliance. Many have felt that voting for a party such as the PC would become a wasted vote. Therefore, one is left to vote for either Liberal or Alliance, usually deciding which party they least like to see in power and vote for the other party.
Proportional representation has a more direct impact on political power because winning seats means winning a direct share of power. Thus, PR increases the number of effective votes and the diversity of winners. Consequently, PR forces major parties to compete with smaller parties to maintain their vase of support and thus encourage parties to organize and educate voters. The benefits include greater voter turnout and voter understanding of government policy (Franklin 126).
While proportional representation would help empower neglected minorities and create a more democratic political system, critics argue that plurality systems promote one-party executives, which promote effective policy-making and firm leadership (Lijphart 11). PR systems would in contrast break people apart into smaller parties and lead to an increasingly fractious and destabilized political system. Consequently, a coalition government is more likely to form and thus policies are ‘watered down’ due to political compromise and in fighting (Lecture notes). Douglas argues that political fractions are unwarranted because they already exist in our current system. Moreover, a deeply divided political cleavage already exists between whites and minorities, men and women, the poor and upper-classes and between religious groups (Douglas 4). With respects to effective leadership Lijphart has points out that PR systems do not lack effective policy making but instead illustrates that alternation in office between two competing parties leads to too frequent and abrupt changes and that multi party coalitions are far better for long-term policy-making. Consequently, government tends to have greater stability, continuity and moderation in policy (Lijphart 3).
The means to a true multi-party democracy is replacing the first past the post or winner-take-all electoral system and replace it with proportional representation. According to Lijphart PR systems are superior in performance with regard to ‘quality’ factors, including better minority representation, a higher representation of women in legislatures, a higher voter turnout and greater income equality (Lijphart 4).
Spreading political power, providing voters with more choices and allowing more segments of society to earn a seat in the legislature are all important in providing long-term stability for democracy. When government is not representative, it is more likely to ignore large segments of society and citizens are more likely to reject the legitimacy of politics. Canada in particular has a responsibility to allow for fair representation of such a vast and richly diverse multi-cultural society.