Gotta Get First Past the Post!

by | Jul 10, 2024 | Deep-ish Dive, Special Days | 0 comments

Are you worried about democracy?

This seems to be a popular concern these days, with elections coming in both the US and Canada – and the forces of disinformation and subversion on the ascent. This week, those concerns seemed to be somewhat allayed – or at least, delayed. Both Great Britain and France rid themselves of their governments in landslide “change” elections. For the first time in almost two decades, the Liberals will have the majority in Parliament by a margin unseen since their last win in 1997. In France, a left-wing alliance grabbed the most seats in the French parliament, thwarting the (anti-democratic) far right which was expected to win.

However, if you dig into the numbers a little, you’ll find that there might not be reason to celebrate all that much about the results or crow about how voters’ faith in democracy has been restored.

In France, no party reached an absolute majority, which means that parliament is effectively gridlocked. The left-wing New Popular Front scored 182 seats. President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Ensemble alliance won 163 seats. The far-right National Rally and its allies looked like they were going to dominate based on the first round of voting, slumped to third place due to tactical voting. They eventually secured 143 seats, sliding into a distant third.
As for Great Britain, in absolute numbers, the Liberals who racked up a “smashing victory” actually attracted fewer votes than it did under the “disastrous” campaign led by Jeremy Corbyn in 2019. Labour’s share of the vote, at 34 percent, was the lowest level for a governing party since at least the First World War.

How is this possible? How do you win 411 of 650 seats by attracting fewer votes than in 2019?

The answer is simple. It’s because of “first-past-the-post” (FPTP).

Yes, this voting system’s name is catchy and it has the advantage of being somewhat self-explanatory.

Let’s take my home province of Ontario as an example. Ontario is divided into 124 ridings (or districts, or wards or whatever name you’re more familiar with…) The candidate in each riding who gets the most votes (i.e.,”first past the post”) is elected. If one party wins more than 50 per cent of those ridings, it forms a majority government. If not, it can form a minority government or make a deal with another party to form a coalition. Either way, it will need support to pass legislation. For many, “first-past-the-post” is a successful, stable and simple electoral system.

However, FPTP also sucks. (And so does the American electoral college, but that is a rant for another day…)

First, let’s look at how the votes are counted. Let’s imagine a hypothetical Ontario riding where three candidates are running for provincial parliament. According to FPTP, the candidate who gets the most votes is elected. But what if our hypothetical incumbent does not garner 50 percent of the vote, but 34 percent? And what if the two non-incumbent candidates each get 33 percent? According to FPTP, the incumbent is the “winner take all” with 34 percent, even though 66 percent of the voters supported someone ELSE to represent that riding. The anti-incumbent votes are effectively thrown in the garbage.

Second, because FPTP is “winner take all,” it encourages voters NOT to vote for candidates and policies they actually support, but for candidates they believe can win (or, even worse, AGAINST candidates they wish would lose). How does this form of voting promote democracy and representational government? How does it encourage discussion and debate when we’re not sending our best to represent us, but the least-worst?

Third, FPTP distorts the results of the election. As we saw in Britain this week (but also in Canada in 2015 and 2019), it doesn’t matter how many people vote for you. It matters WHERE they vote for you. If you can cluster enough of your voters in enough ridings to eke out slim wins, you can convert 34 percent of the vote into 63 percent of the seats in Parliament. Minority becomes whopping majority in the blink of an eye!

So, yes, FPTP is how we’ve always done it and it may be easy to understand and explain, but HOW IS IT FAIR?

Justin Trudeau acknowledged the fundamental unfairness of FPTP in his first campaign as Liberal Party leader. He promised that 2015 would be Canada’s last FPTP election. He lied. And the Conservative Party of Canada is no better on this issue, even though they could have gained more seats and could even have won the election in 2019 if electoral reform had actually happened.

With an election in Canada coming next year, it’s time we held our representatives on the left, right and centre accountable to us by enacting a system that counts every vote and expands the possibilities for debate and decision.

With all the crises that are coming our way, we don’t have a minute to waste on nonsense.

This article shares INSIGHTS into the types of topics we teach in our online high school courses.

Have we peaked your curiosity to learn more about our virtual school?

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