It’s the System, Stupid

With the latest election campaign well underway in Canada, I’ve found myself being increasingly drawn into “social media” such as twitter in order to keep up (fans, I know that’s no excuse for my lack of posting). Twitter has made the election much more engaging because the normal barriers in exchanging ideas are gone. I’m able to instantly send messages to some of the people with klout in the twitosphere, and the message snowballs from there. For example, when getting the word out for McGill’s latest votemob, I got some retweets from the Montreal Gazette and a few of the Canadian journalists active on twitter, which definitely reached a wider audience than my hundred followers. That twitter leverage was possibly translated into the success of the Vote mob movement at McGill, where we put together a video that even got a shoutout from Rick Mercer on twitter.

The vote mob movement is concerned about mobilizing the youth vote. In a climate that is already defined by 41% of eligible voters staying home on election day, among my 19-24 demographic, that number shoots up to 63%. To get that number just to the national average would be a huge achievement for our youth movement, but there is a more fundamental problem with our Canadian electoral system that would not see the extra youth votes translated into seats outside of key ridings. That those key youth swing ridings are subject to voter intimidation and  suppression tactics by the Conservatives is troubling, but the fact is that even without those dirty tactics, Election 41 is going to go to another Conservative minority government, if not a majority government. This means that key issues like education and the environment that are so important to youth will continue to be safely ignored by the governing parties, and voting apathy among youth will continue to rise to record highs.

The structural problem implicit in all this is the first past the post system. For those unfamiliar, Canadian voting works by casting ballots in the riding of the MP (Member of Parliament) who will sit in the house of commons. The party that recieves the most votes within that district gets the seat. Simple, right? That system would be ideal if our system had two parties to choose from, but in reality, Canada has 4 or 5 parties running in each riding. As a result, the mandate for the seat can come from a distinct minority of citizens,  like in Kitchener Center, where 60% of voters chose ABC (anything but conservative) but the seat went to a Conservative anyway.


I understand the rationale behind the FPtP system —  it leads to more majority governments which tend to be more stable and result in fewer elections. But by its nature, it is incapable of reflecting the true political makeup of Canadian voters, especially if the supporters are evenly spread out through the entire country. This is why we see the Bloc Quebecois get just under 1.4 million votes in the 2008 election and recieve 49 seats (as all their supporters are concentrated in quebec), whereas the Green Party recieves over 900 thousand votes all across Canada and gets no seats at all.  That Green vote represents 6.8% of all Canadians voting, and yet they have zero representation in our democratic process.

Worse yet, the FPtP system rewards gaming the system. In the 1990s, Canada had two seperate Conservative parties which tended to split that 40ish% conservative vote and result in liberal governments. In 2003, those two parties entered into a formal coalition agreement to “unite the Right” and created the new Conservative party of Canada. This consolidated that 40% vote while the larger ABC vote continued to be fractured between Liberal, NDP and increasingly the Green party. I have no doubt that the conservative successes in the decade that followed has more to do with manipulating the broken system to their advantage, (oh, and don’t even get me started  on the Senate) than any fundamental change in Canadian demographics.

Symptomatic of this problem are the various ‘strategic voting’ and ‘voteswapping’ campaigns that have been started, mostly in an effort to form an ABC government. The fact that we youth feel the need to collude with other youth voters just to get a few people representative of us shows you why apathy is so high among us. Even though there are 3 million students in Canada, because we are spread out, the FPtP system will not reflect our wishes. For the record, if our democraphic had actual power, our preferred government would be radically different than the one we have:

There is a solution: proportional representation. Something like the single transferrable vote system that has been used for years in Australia. I know, I know, it’ll never happen. The NDP, who suffer from the same ‘smeared support’ and ‘fracturing the left’ problems as other minority parties have been calling for this for years, and nobody ever listens to Jack Layton. It would certainly result in more minority governments, and GOD FORBID, working together with the socialists, environmentalists and seperatists that make up the fabric of our country in order to get things done for all Canadians. What it would also mean is that when you cast your vote (even for a party that isn’t the favored one in your region), IT WOULD COUNT. That system would be more chaotic, fragile, but dare I say it, democratic.

The powers-that-be have a vested interest in keeping FPtP intact — it keeps them in power. As long as nothing changes, the clear message to youth will be “your votes don’t matter, so you might as well stay home.” Unless we get serious about creating a system that is truly democratic, I expect that voter apathy will continue to rise, especially among the next generation of leaders. We can, and we are fighting it with the youth movement and our vote mobs, but even our complete mobilization of those 3 million students will be powerless to address the structural problems of our electoral system.

We can, and ought to do better to reflect the true political nature of Canada. Anything less is a failure of the democratic process.

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~ by Andrew on April 16, 2011.

4 Responses to “It’s the System, Stupid”

  1. I agree, Canada needs proportional representation! I’d like to see mandatory voting too…

  2. I agree, FPtP is a very crude form of representative democracy. The New Yorker had a good article on the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of election methods.

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2010/07/26/100726crbo_books_gottlieb?currentPage=all

    This may be blasphemous but in many respects I find US Presidential election to be more democratic. The party primaries allow a slew of candidates with loosely correlated stances to all face their like-minded counterparts first, letting their supporters decide exactly which direction they want for the “runoff” election. Don’t get me started on the electoral college system, but at least there are already a couple states who have passed laws to reallocate their electorate to the popular majority winner, pending enough other states passing similar laws.

    • My issue with the primary system, particularly in the republican circles is that the people vetted are often waaaaaay to the right of what the political lifeblood, I.E. moderates, would ever realistically elect. Sharron Angle in Nevada or Joe Miller in Alaska being just two examples. Also, I don’t like how third party candidates are essentially a national joke in the States, especially when the Repubs and Dems offer essentially the same policy on some key issues like continuing war or indefinite torture :S The binary of choices doesn’t reflect the spectrum of policy issues, which is why I prefer the canadian system, flawed though it may be. Thanks for the New Yorker link, v interesting!

  3. Here is the Wikipedia article about the so-called “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact,” which could serve to remediate some of your concerns.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Popular_Vote_Interstate_Compact

    Also, I wouldn’t mind if a crazy tea-bag nutjob won the Republican Primary because I think that they would essentially scare aware the moderate vote. I don’t like however, that they push the dialogue so far to the right that moderates become “socialists!”

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