Continuing my promise to briefly explain different forms of electoral reform, this following the Liberal party’s promise to examine different electoral options if they win the federal election in the fall. Last time I looked at First Past the Post (FPTP). This time, let’s look at proportional representation (PR).
What is it?
PR is a popular option with a lot of people, particularly political science undergrads, and it has an easy hook: the number of seats you get equals the percentage of votes you get. So if you get 30% of the votes overall, you get 30% of the seats in the house. There are a few different types of PR systems, but the main two are list PR and MMP. List PR operates on a non-geographic constituency basis. A party provides a list of people in the order they are to be elected. So if a party wins 25 seats, the first 25 names on that list get elected. Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) operates slightly differently. A party provides a list for some of the elected members, but others continue to represent specific constituencies (this is the system they use in Germany). Overall, the seat count remains proportional because the number of constituency representatives is ‘subtracted’ from the party’s list.
What are the advantages?
The main advantage to PR systems is the inherent fairness. Everyone understands that version of democracy: you get so many votes, you get so many seats. It eliminates the issue of having majority governments elected without a majority of votes. In PR systems, the party that forms government (often in a coalition with other parties) has to represent an actual majority, unlike in Canada, where the governing party may not represent 60% of the electorate.
Because parties often have to form coalitions to form government, PR systems may also be less polarized. If there’s a chance you need another party to help you form government, you’re less likely to be abrasive towards them. In theory, at least.
PR systems also eliminate the issue of ‘wasted votes’ that exist in our FPTP system. Now, I don’t personally consider voting for a non-winning party to be a ‘wasted’ vote, but for a lot of people, if the winner seems certain, voting against them seems like a waste. FPTP is a winner-take-all system, and that discourages some segments of voters. NDP voters in southeast Manitoba, for instance, may not see a point in voting. That changes with PR. Because the most important number is total overall vote count, there is no ‘wasted vote’. Even if you’re in a very Conservative area voting NDP (or vice versa), your vote still counts towards the end result.
By the same token, it also could potentially force parties to be more pan-Canadian in their appeal. FPTP benefits from regional concentration of votes, which means parties can tune their appeal to winning in specific regions while ignoring others. But if they’re trying to simply maximize their vote everywhere, they may be forced to pay more attention to populations they would otherwise have written off.
A final major advantage to PR systems is the opportunity to rectify historical inequalities. Instead of depending on the local constituency to nominate enough women candidates, for instance, the party provides a list which ensures that women represent a certain percentage, minority groups represent another percentage, and so on. It may seem a bit rote and impersonal, but it’s a very efficient way of changing the demographic make-up of elected chambers.
What are the problems?
Well, like with FPTP, a lot of the positives can be perceived as negatives depending on your point of view. On my point about the pan-Canadian appeal of parties, you could argue that it’s right and reasonable for parties to represent regional concerns, and some regional concerns may be incompatible with others. So maybe this idea of pan-Canadian appeal is a myth.
Coalitions are also potentially problematic. In some countries (Israel and Italy come to mind), major parties are forced into coalitions with very small parties who represent some fringe group. So a tiny party that represents 5% of the population may end up being a kingmaker and having its power inflated, which is not really any ‘more’ democratic than FPTP in some ways. Most PR systems have a threshold of 5% of popular vote before receiving seats, so you don’t get the very outer fringe parties gaining seats, but the truth of the matter is that PR systems often see very small parties in larger roles than their vote share would dictate.
Like I mentioned when I discussed FPTP, one of the advantages of that system is the ability to well and truly ‘throw the bums out’. When a government loses, it loses, full stop. Members change, leaders are sacked, and so on. In a PR system with coalitions, the ‘losing’ party may hold on to power with new partners. Or it may become the minor partner in a new coalition. Or even if it loses completely, the same people may stay on in the party and live to see another political day.
That’s part of the problem with the list system as well, the inability to control the list or to even care. In a pure list PR system, the party provides the list, which takes away a major connection between politicians and people. They aren’t members with connections to their communities, they’re names on a list. Now, part of that is admittedly corrected by MMP, but the potential is still there. Of course, that also assumes that people care about who their MP is now, which is demonstrably not the case: in survey after survey, Canadians demonstrate that the vast majority of them don’t vote according to the local candidate. Oh well.