The Broadbent Blog


Voting for something

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Editor’s note: Debate on electoral reform loomed large at Progress Summit 2016. Broadbent Institute founder Ed Broadbent told delegates at Canada’s largest annual progressive policy conference that the fight for proportional representation is a fight that progressives can - and must - win.

And Postmedia News columnist Andrew Coyne and Alex Himelfarb, former clerk of the Privy Council, representing the Yes side in the Great Debate: Be it Resolved that Canada Needs Proportional Representation, argued persuasively about how the current winner-take-all system is broken and PR is the only solution to remedy the problems of first-post-the-post.

Below, Broadbent Institute Leadership Fellow Jennifer Hollett shares her perspective.

A week after the 2015 federal election, I spotted Santa.

I was still licking my wounds as an NDP candidate who ran and lost to the Liberal wave, but here was Santa crossing the street in downtown Toronto, in October. He was dressed up for Halloween, pushing a stroller with a kid decked out as a reindeer. Very cute and very clever. I stepped forward, took a photo and smiled.

“Are you Jennifer Hollett?” Santa asked.
“Why yes,” I replied.
“You’re great. We totally supported you. But, we voted Liberal in the end. What d’ya going to do.”

This stung. I sat with it for a moment, and replied. “This is why we need proportional representation.”

The problem

The system is broken when voters aren’t voting for the candidate or party they want. Often called strategic voting, in a winner takes all system, Canadians watch the polls and vote accordingly, in an effort to vote a leader or party out of office. A “Stop Harper” campaign led many voters to vote for the party who had the best chance of forming government, even if they had been actively supporting another candidate. Surely there must be a better way. Good news: there is.

The problem with the problem

Proportional representation (often called PR for short, since it’s long and clunky) is an electoral system where voters are reflected proportionately in the elected body. If 30% vote for party X, then roughly 30% of seats in the House of Commons will go to party X. Sounds good and fair, right? It is. Voting reform activist Dave Meslin breaks it down on CBC News with Lego.

The problem is many people don’t know this system exists, even though the most modern democracies (including Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom) has it in some form. Our current system, called first-past-the-post, is ubiquitous in North America from student council elections on up. People are familiar with it, designed in colonial times long before Canada was a country when there are only two main parties. Proportional representation can often feel confusing or academic in nature, especially the way we tend to talk about it, until you vote and you see your individual vote reflected in outcome of the election.

The solution

Because it’s 2016, we have a unique opportunity. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau actively campaigned on electoral reform. “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting. This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.” This means there is an election promise to review proportional representation, as well as other policy ideas that encourage people to vote.

Proportional representation is a game changer to make every voter count. Now it’s up to us to let people, including Santa and our elected officials, know about it.