The Democracy Papers.

This is the sixth of the Democracy Papers written in 2007 in answer to the Ontario referendum that year on electoral reform.  The referendum was defeated but the need for reform continues to rankle.  We believe Canada must have an elected Constitutional Conference.  Electoral reform is just one of the topics to be brought to the gathering.  For this reason, the Democracy Papers are being updated and rerun.

Chapter 6 – Examining proportional voting.

Have you wondered why those who support proportional voting in the October referendum only mention two examples of legislative bodies that are elected by that method?   There are other examples and some of them have important lessons to share with Ontario voters.

The poster child of proportional voting is New Zealand.   That country has had mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting for the past ten years.   All most Ontario voters know about New Zealand is that the people speak English, the South Island has the mountains and the small country exports a lot of frozen lamb.   The Ontario voters who could name the prime minister of New Zealand might not be more than two in a thousand.

The other example, only mentioned in passing, is Germany.   Proportional voting has existed in some of the German states and in that country’s federal government since the days of the Weimar Republic.   MMP was just a temporary compromise after the Second World War.

Proportional voting is one of the most common voting systems in the world as many third world countries use it to overcome low literacy rates among voters.   It is much easier for an illiterate voter to choose a party symbol rather than deal with the complexity of candidates’ names.   Ontario does not have a major problem with voters’ literacy.

There are many variations of proportional voting.   The best example of pure proportional voting is the system used to elect the Knesset of the State of Israel.   This has been the system used since the first election in the new state in 1949.   The number and make-up of political parties shift as the do sands of the desert areas of the country.   The large cabinets are usually made up of representatives of various parties.

An important example of mixed-member proportional representation is the House of Representatives that forms part of Japan’s Diet.   The appointed members and elected members do not always enjoy friendly relations.   Riots in the Diet are an embarrassment to their countrymen.

A closer example of proportional voting is in the United States where the system is used to select the President.   The Electoral College, charged with selecting the President, is elected state by state on a proportional basis.   If the Americans used FPTP voting for President, Al Gore would have won the election in 2000 against George Bush.

A number of cities in the United States have also experimented with proportional voting systems.   Most notable was New York City.   It implemented proportional voting in 1936 in an attempt to clean up imbedded corruption in the city government. This voting system was revoked after a decade by what many claimed were the elites who were unhappy about the number of radicals, blacks and communists who were getting elected.   More importantly, the proportional voting system earned the enmity of the major newspapers and the experiment ended.

Most of Europe, as well as the European Parliament, use proportional systems of one sort or another.   One notable exception is France.   The French instituted proportional voting after the Second World War but switched back to FPTP in the late 1950s.   With the exception of the federal election of 1986, the French have preferred their system of run-off elections that ensures all successful candidates have a majority of votes.

The mother of parliaments, Great Britain, has held onto first-past-the-post voting in single candidate ridings.   Despite this, the country has gone along with proportional voting on representatives to the European Parliament.   The devolved governing bodies of Scotland and Wales which could be looked on as provincial bodies (unless you are a Scot or Welsh) are using MMP voting.

While the majority of countries in South America use proportional representation to elect their governments, only Bolivia and Venezuela use mixed (both constituency and list candidates) representation similar to what has been suggested in Ontario.   Closer to home, the next major country to use mixed representation is Mexico.   It is possible that those promoting MMP have decided not to say to people in Ontario: “Let’s have a government just like Mexico’s.”

What becomes clear as you examine the various countries and their electoral systems is that the dynamic countries that offer the leadership to the rest of the world are mainly those countries that have retained first-past-the-post electoral systems.   The countries that have opted for proportional systems are mainly countries that are trying (though not always succeeding) to develop a consensus approach to governance.

For all the weaknesses and frustrations of first-past-the-post, the conclusion is that North Americans like it.   They know it is a system that forces candidates to take the time, make the effort and show the determination to win.   Our first-past-the-post electoral system challenges the candidates, not the voters.   It is the voters who benefit.

©Copyright 2007, 2011, Peter Lowry

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