Monday, 10 March 2008

Alberta Votes (1 of 3): Representation

This past Monday, there was a provincial election here in my home province of Alberta, Canada, in which the reigning Progressive Conservatives (the "Tories") advanced their majority, ending up with 72 of the 83 seats in the provincial legislature.

I am troubled by the fact that this 87% legislative majority was won with 53% of the popular vote*. (Another horror is the fact that only 41% of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots, but I'll leave that for an upcoming post.)

If we break down the popular vote by party, and translate it to proportions of seats (as, for example, happens in Proportional Representation), we would see a very different legislature. The PC party got 53% of the vote. If they got 53% of the seats (still a legitimate majority), they'd have 44. That's 28 fewer seats than they actually got. If we follow this through, the Liberals would be up thirteen seats, at 22; the NDP would be up five seats at 7; and two parties that didn't get any members elected would get in: the Wildrose Alliance won 6 seats worth of the popular vote, and the Greens won 4 seats worth. (Nobody else won a seat's worth of the vote.)

So, is the new legislature representative? Only in that the parties with more votes got more seats - the proportions are wildly out. Part of that is due to the fact that the PC stronghold - the rural ridings - have smaller populations. At the extreme, the largest riding is Calgary North West with 60,511 voters and the smallest is Dunvegan-Central Peace with 23,649, just over a third as many voters, according to this academic source.

But a big part of the problem is the plurality (or first-past-the-post) voting system. It is the most simplistic, least representative sort of ballot used in modern democracies. For example, many of the seats won by the PCs in the recent election were won with less than half of the popular vote. That means representatives sitting in legislature, representing a riding where more than half the voters voted against them. Disadvantages of our plurality voting system include split votes and the necessity of tactical voting.

There are so many alternative voting systems that I won't even mention them all - just a couple I have recent experience with.

The recent Scottish Parliament elections used a mixed plurality and proportional-representation system to combine individual representation with party-proportional balance. Most people found it fairly straightforward, and I for one felt much more empowered than I have in simple first-past-the-post elections.

The local council elections held at the same time used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which is even easier to understand and implement. In it, a voter marks the candidates in order of preference. You can follow the above links to find out more, but the consequence is that, on one paper, you can express not only who you would most like to get in, but also who you would least like to get in. As an example, there are several seats (at least 9 by my count) in this election that had more people voting for "left-ish" parties (Liberal, NDP, Green) than for "right-ish" parties (PC, Wildrose Alliance), where the PC candidate got in because the left vote was split. STV would allow "left" (and "right") to effectively vote as a block, without abandoning the important distinctions between the different individual parties - 9 more seats in legislature toward the 47% of Albertans who didn't vote PC.

It is true that any reform towards greater representation would take seats from the current party in power, and so it is always an uphill battle to get the government in power to enact such reforms. But it has happened in countries and regions not unlike ours. In fact, it happened right here in Alberta in 1926. But the reforms were discarded without public consultation in 1959 by a government keen to consolidate its own power. (I'm happy to say that that party, Social Credit, is all but extinct in Alberta - they haven't had a seat since 1982.)

And I'm not alone in being disappointed with the non-representative flaws in our representative democracy. Fair Vote Canada is campaigning for federal and provincial voting reform.

My question to everyone out there (Albertan or not) is this:

Is there a legitimate, ethically-justified defense for maintaining the current voting system, when the alternatives are easy, well-tested, and more representative (ie, more democratic) than what we have now?

* Alberta election data used here is taken from Wikipedia's comprehensive 2008 election page. Please let me know if my numbers are wrong.

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