LINDSAY: How Proportional Representation Divides Society

PR opens the door for fringe and extremist parties to win seats.

Christopher Lindsay Montreal QC

Many people can graciously accept defeat, but deep down, no one likes losing. No one likes getting dumped by their boyfriend or girlfriend. No one likes being fired from a job. And no politician likes being defeated in an election. When small political parties lose an election, one thing they often complain about is the electoral system. Because they didn’t win many (or any) seats, they want to change the rules.

The First Past the Post System and its problems

At both the federal and provincial level, the current electoral system in Canada is a single member plurality system, commonly known as First Past the Post (FPTP). Under FPTP, there is only one winner in each riding. The candidate who wins the most votes (a plurality) wins a seat, and everyone else is a loser. One major criticism of FPTP is the number of seats a party wins rarely matches the popular vote. Case in point: In the 2017 BC Provincial election the Green Party won 16.9% of the popular vote, but they only won 3 ridings. With 87 seats in the legislature, that is only 3.4% of the seats. To many people, that seems unfair.

Is Proportional Representation a solution?

A popular alternative to FPTP is an electoral system called proportional representation (PR). Under PR “parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them.” For instance, if the 2017 BC Provincial election were held under PR, the Green Party would have won 14 seats instead of 3. PR appeals to small parties because they don’t need to get the most votes in a riding to be a winner. It’s like in elementary school where everyone receives a medal in a race. Even if they came in last place. In British Columbia, a referendum is currently underway to possibly change the electoral system. Voters can choose between FPTP, or one of three forms of PR. If voters choose PR, a party that wins 5% of the popular vote will receive roughly 5% of the seats.

Proportional Representation creates room for more fringe parties

Because PR makes it easier for small parties to win seats, it incentivizes the creation of more political parties. A 2016 study of electoral systems found this to be true. From 2000 to 2015, PR systems had an average of 4.4 parties winning seats compared to 2.6 for plurality systems. What PR ultimately does is break up “big tent” parties, which are coalitions of smaller political tribes. The fracturing of mainstream political parties opens the door for single-issue, fringe, and extremist parties to win seats. With more parties elected, majority governments are no longer the norm. The same study found that elections held under PR resulted in a coalition government 83% of the time with an average of 3.4 parties. In a coalition, at least one small party becomes the kingmaker. And that party could be a fringe or extremist party. This is a serious flaw of PR, and why it is inferior to FPTP. Although PR is the “fairest” system in terms of representation matching the popular vote, it usually results in a small party holding the balance of power. (This can also happen under FPTP with a minority government, but it is far less common.)

Current system keeps parties close to the centre

Consequently, another flaw of PR is it consistently gives political power to small parties—and if they become part of a coalition, a disproportionate amount of power according to their share of the popular vote. They can force the government to change their policy positions, making election promises meaningless. Worse still, PR moves society away from the political centre. When fringe and extremist parties win seats, their viewpoints gain legitimacy in society and become normalized. Hence, PR serves to radicalize people on both the left and right. It increases division in the electorate—not unity—by dividing the political landscape into smaller tribes. FPTP produces different electoral outcomes than PR. To win an election under FPTP, a party must appeal to the political centre to win a plurality (or majority) of the votes in a riding. It usually results in majority governments that are either centre-left or centre-right, and it is extremely rare for a fringe or an extremist party to hold the balance of power. Image Credit:


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