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Editorials Globe editorial: It’s time to examine the way we vote in Canadian elections

Quebec will hold an election on Monday and, if the polls are accurate, the result will be a minority government.

It would be the third one in Quebec since 2007. Still, the province is dealing with a novel situation: a four-way race in which the three leading parties could each draw between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of the vote.

That election will take place as New Brunswick’s legislature grapples over who will lead the next government, thanks to an election on Monday in which the Liberal Party won 37.8 per cent of the vote in a five-party race, but took one less seat than the Progressive Conservative Party, even though the PCs won only 31.9 per cent of the vote.

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It also unfolds against the backdrop of a referendum campaign in British Columbia, which itself elected a fragile minority government in 2017. Voting opens there next month on a proposal to overhaul B.C.’s electoral system and switch to a form of proportional representation.

Similar efforts could soon follow in Quebec, where three of the four main parties have promised to scrap the first-past-the-post system that is used in every provincial legislature and in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself promised on the night he was elected in 2015 that he would put an end to first-past-the-post, but then reneged for reasons that have never really been made clear.

His flip-flopping on the issue has now been overtaken by what is happening in the provinces. They are living laboratories in the emergence of a modern political reality that is characterized by a fracturing of the centre, and which is testing the limits of our majoritarian democratic institutions.

In first-past-the-post elections, the candidate with the most votes in a riding takes the prize. This works in two- or three-party environments, but isn’t ideal in races involving four or more viable parties, where it’s possible to capture a riding without garnering even a third of the votes.

That math has led to firm federal majorities won with less than 40 per cent of the vote (1997, 2011, 2015), or to situations like B.C., where the governing party won fewer votes and seats than the Official Opposition.

There is no question that Canada, a healthy and prosperous democracy, has done well under the first-past-the-post system. But it’s also true that there has been a noticeable shift in our voting practices since the 1950s, in that nine of 20 federal elections since then have resulted in minorities, compared with five of the previous 22. And of the last five federal elections, three have produced minorities.

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Part of the explanation is that, since the 1950s, a growing number of viable parties have competed for votes; the CCF, the NDP, the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois come to mind.

Modern parties have learned that, because vote swings as small as three percentage points can result in large majorities in multiparty elections, they have an incentive to narrow-cast their messaging. Pandering pays, in other words.

You can see it these days in the way government agendas and priorities often diverge substantially, if not wildly, from election to election. That, in turn, has an impact on Ottawa and the province’s ability to set medium- and long-term goals for, say, putting a price on carbon or modernizing a sex-education curriculum.

The atomization of electors, further exacerbated by identity politics, is only growing. The barriers to entry in our political system are lower than ever. All it takes to become a viable political actor is a little infamy, some social-media savvy and a crowdfunding account – former Conservative minister Maxime Bernier didn’t need offices, ad budgets or even a meeting to establish his People’s Party. All he needed was a Twitter account.

In the past, critics of proportional representation have argued that the enforced coalitions it produces lead to either stasis or instability. But exactly how is that different from what’s going on in, say, New Brunswick, where a niche upstart such as the populist, bilingualism-skeptic People’s Alliance may hold the balance of power? Or from B.C., where the NDP minority government’s existence depends entirely on the co-operation of the Green Party? And who know what will happen in Quebec next week.

We already have the downsides of PR, without the benefits of first-past-the-post. It is time to seriously examine the way we vote in Canada.

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