By Conor McGrath
Last month, Canada’s Liberal Party swept to electoral victory, ending Stephan Harper’s 9 year-long Premiership. The Liberal’s victory garnered the party an impressive 184 seats, enough to form a Parliamentary majority with Justin Trudeau at the helm. However, a majority of Canadians did not vote for Trudeau’s Liberal party. Because Canada uses first-past-the-post voting (FPTP) to elect its MPs, the Liberals were able to win 54% of seats in Parliament with just 39% of the vote. In FPTP voting, the candidate who receives the most votes wins the election, regardless of how small that margin of victory is. If many candidates take part in an election, one only needs to win a small share of the vote to be declared the winner. Because three or more parties compete against each other in most Canadian elections, MPs are frequently elected with less than 50% of the vote, with some margins of victory as low as 28%. As a result, FPTP is considered by many to be a highly unrepresentative system of voting that stifles small party voices, especially in countries like Canada that have a strong multiparty political tradition.
To illustrate just how unrepresentative FPTP voting is, one can compute an election’s “misrepresentation error” by finding the difference between the proportion of seats a party won to the share of the popular vote it received. Because the Liberals won 54% of the seats with 39% of the popular vote, the party’s victory had a misrepresentation error of 15 percentage points. Add up the errors for the entire 2015 election and the discrepancy grows to 28.2 points.
FPTP voting is not unique to Canada. The United Kingdom and the United States use it as do dozens of other countries. In fact, the degree of misrepresentation in the most recent UK election was even more skewed at 47 percentage points. To visualize how much of a discrepancy that is, consider that in 2015 the Scottish National Party won 59 seats in Parliament with less than 5% of the popular vote while UKIP garnered 15% of the total vote but only managed to pick up one seat. Misrepresentation also occurs in the United States. In the 2012 elections for House of Representatives, the Republican Party was awarded 54% of seats despite only winning 47% of the vote nationwide.
Fortunately, there are other voting systems that are more representative. One is the “alternative vote” (AV) where voters rank a set number of candidates by numerical preference. If no candidate receives more than 50% of first preference choices, then the lowest scoring candidate is eliminated and the votes are tallied again accounting for second choices. This process repeats until one candidate reaches the 50% threshold. Under AV, majority support for a candidate is always guaranteed. Smaller parties also benefit because voters can choose the candidates they most agree with first while still indicating they support a more mainstream party as a “safe” option.
Others suggest adopting the more majoritarian-friendly two-round system. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in the first round, then another election is held some weeks later between the two candidates who receive the most votes. In Canada, this would prevent the left-leaning Liberals and New Democrats from stealing votes from each other. Like AV, a candidate will always receive a majority of the votes, guaranteeing a stronger mandate. Two-round voting is also more soundly established in North America than other systems of voting. The US states of Louisiana and California employ a variation of two-round voting as do dozens of municipalities.
Recognizing that FPTP is unrepresentative and outdated for the 21st century, momentum is growing in Canada, and the United Kingdom to move towards a fairer election system. Perhaps more people should be having that debate in the United States as well too.
Conor McGrath is a senior studying International Affairs with a concentration in Comparative Politics. He spent a semester abroad at Sciences Po, Paris where he studied European politics and the EU integration process. After graduating, he plans to pursue a Masters degree in Public Administration.