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Opinion Proportional representation: fair, but unsatisfying

André Blais is professor of political science at Université de Montréal where he is the Research Chair in Electoral Studies.

The present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is unfair. The system overrepresents big parties and underrepresents small parties. In the last federal election, the Liberals obtained 54 per cent of the seats with 40 per cent of the votes while the NDP had only 13 per cent of the seats with 20 per cent of the vote. With a more proportional system, a party with 20 per cent of the vote would win about 20 per cent of the seats. Clearly, a more proportional system is fairer. Many politicians and academics suggest that Canadians would prefer a fairer system. Thus the inference that Canadians would be happier under a more proportional system.

But can we make such an inference? There is a body of empirical research, some of which I recently presented to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, that has examined the question whether citizens in more proportional systems are more satisfied than those in voting systems like the one we have in Canada. Most academic election surveys now include a "satisfaction with democracy" question that asks people how satisfied they are with the way democracy works in their country. This indicator allows researchers to compare citizens' satisfaction with democracy in many different countries and to determine where satisfaction is highest and lowest.

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One question that researchers, like myself, have examined is whether citizens' satisfaction is higher under more proportional (or less disproportional) systems. The degree of disproportionality is defined as the discrepancy between vote and seat shares. The greater the discrepancy the more disproportional the outcome. So do we find that citizens are more satisfied (happier) in less disproportional systems?

The answer is: No. If we look at the simple relationship between the degree of disproportionality and overall satisfaction, we see no correlation. People are not happier under a fairer system. The relationship is more complex than what proponents of proportional representation have suggested.

When we take into account many different factors and control for them, we find that people are slightly more satisfied under more proportional systems. So what is going on? We find that the presence of coalition governments also affects overall satisfaction. People are less satisfied with the way democracy works when there is a coalition government. So more proportional systems make people happier because they are fairer but they also produce coalition governments, which tend to make people slightly less satisfied. These two contradictory effects cancel out so that in the end satisfaction is not higher overall in more proportional systems.

So why are people less satisfied with coalition governments? We do not have a definitive answer for this but there are some interesting findings to report. First, it is important to keep in mind that everywhere there is a winner/loser gap, that is those who voted for the party(ies) that form(s) the government are more satisfied than the losers (those who voted for the parties that are not in government). Interestingly, however, when there is a coalition government, those who voted for a junior partner in the coalition (not the main party) are not more satisfied than the losers, because they perceive that their small party will not have that much influence even if it is part of the government.

Another finding is that the winner/loser gap in satisfaction is weaker in more proportional systems. The implication is that while overall satisfaction is not higher in more proportional systems, the losers, that is, those who did not support the governing party(ies) in the election, are less dissatisfied. It thus seems that more proportional systems manage to reduce dissatisfaction among those who lose the election.

In short, the empirical evidence suggests that Canadians would not be happier if we were to adopt a more proportional system. But having a more proportional system could contribute to making the losers less dissatisfied.

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The issues Prof. Blais raises in this article will be addressed at an Oct. 20 public forum on electoral forum in Montreal, held at the McGill New Residence Hall with a special appearance by Maryam Monsef, the federal Minister for Democratic Institutions. It will be live streamed on http://www.cpac.ca Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. EDT.

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