The following is an up-dated version of the discussion on first-past-the-post voting in the Democracy Papers of 2007. We will be running a series of these primers over the next few weeks. We welcome any questions or arguments you might have. We are always pleased to respond to serious questions.
When we wrote the Democracy Papers nine years ago, it was to help people in Ontario to understand the question being asked in the Ontario Referendum on Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) Voting. While there was a great deal of confusion as to what MMP meant, it became quite obvious early in the discussions that Ontario citizens were quite unlikely to vote in favour of the proposed voting system. It seemed that the more obvious that became the more strident the proponents of changing how we vote became.
One particularly group demanding change is Fair Vote Canada which is an offshoot of Fair Vote in the United States. As the name implies, these people do not do not think first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting is fair. And while they pose as non-partisan, it is important to recognize that this organization is mainly made up of New Democratic and Green Party supporters. These parties have the most to gain if we ever switched to proportional voting.
The premise that FPTP voting is unfair is based on the fact that all you need to win is a plurality (or simply the most) votes. They think it is unfair for someone to win if they do not have more than 50 per cent of the votes. They also think it is unfair if a party only wins 40 per cent of the votes and wins 60 per cent of the seats in parliament. They also think it is unfair if you win 20 per cent of the votes across the country but do not win 20 per cent of the seats in parliament. These people should really call themselves ‘Unfair Vote Canada.’
What they are really complaining about are some of the characteristics of FPTP voting. And those are only some of the problems.
FPTP voting is an awkward name for simple, single-member constituency plurality voting. It is almost too simple: you just go to the polls, vote for one person, the votes are counted and the person with the most votes wins.
But with a system that is simple, there is no confusion. What you vote for is what you get–if enough of your neighbours agree with you. If your candidate loses, you tried and you have nothing of which to be ashamed. Your vote was counted and you made a contribution to democracy.
FPTP is the most democratic method of electing members to government. Whether there are two candidates on the ballot or 20, FPTP means that in your constituency you elect the person preferred by the most voters. If it is fair when there are two candidates, why would it not be fair with 20? If you would prefer that the person be the choice of more than 50 per cent of the voters, it is a simple matter to have a run-off election.
FPTP is very easy to keep honest. There are no complicated formulas, no mathematical manipulations, just a plain simple, easy to understand, count of ballots for candidate ‘A,’ candidate ‘B’ and so forth. The one with the most votes wins. No questions. An occasional recount is needed when the vote is close but that can be as much fun to watch as a close horse race.
But there is far more than money at stake. In FPTP you are putting your trust in people. You do not have to vote for a party. You can vote for a person, a person you trust, one who works on behalf of the people in your riding. Parties do not have to keep their word. It is difficult to hold a party accountable. A person, your Member of Parliament, comes back for re-election and is accountable to the voters.
Politics is about people. It is there to serve people. Elections are not just about political parties, party platforms or any of the parties’ broken promises. To put parties ahead of the people we choose in our constituencies is to give political parties control of our lives. Political parties deal with ideology, broad solutions and power. It is people who can deal with our concerns as individuals.
In that vein, you have a good reason to support FPTP: It gets things done. An election is a call to action. It is when we sum the activities on our behalf of the previous government and our member and consider our collective needs for the coming term. It is a time for change or a time to consolidate and it is the voters’ decision to make.
FPTP gives the voters control. It means, the voters can remove a government that becomes so convinced its ideology is right that it ignores the needs of the voters. The ability to change governments is one of the most important capabilities of FPTP.
With FPTP, we know who to call. Your politicians are there to represent all the voters in their riding. They can ignore you, if they dare. They can even disagree with your ideas. They might have to tell you why they cannot support your ideas, but, if they are good at their job, they might have an explanation that satisfies you.
In FPTP our politicians are accountable. They cannot get away with an answer such as ‘my party leader said I had to vote for it, so I did.’ There are no excuses. The record of our politicians is there for us to examine. They have to meet our expectations.
And, finally, with FPTP it is hard to get elected and hard to stay elected. To be the first past the post in an election is no easy task. The voters are demanding and ruthless with those who think there are shortcuts to earning our trust. Should we ever ask for less?
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