With the election of Donald Trump, it’s become clear that the American system for choosing a political leader — which has much in common with the Canadian system — is in serious trouble, and needs to be changed.
If we're to avoid the mess in the U.S., we need a system that generates proportional representation (PR), in which political representation is in direct proportion to the number of votes a party receives.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to change the current system during the 2015 election campaign, fuelling hope among millions of Canadian voters. But Trudeau then reneged on his promise, claiming disingenuously, and against abundant and clear-cut evidence, that voters weren’t interested in change. Now B.C., with an upcoming referendum on proportional representation, has an opportunity to show the rest of the country — and the U.S. — what they have been missing.
The U.S. system, and ours, is called the "first-past-the-post" system (FPTP). It was inherited from our common British colonial masters a couple of hundred years ago. It’s a system that leads inexorably to black-and-white, winner-takes-all outcomes. It's a system that pressures power-seeking insiders to aggressively seek to control voting outcomes.
Many of the countries in the world that use this system are former British colonies, although some of those have switched to a proportional model.
FPTP is a system that spreads widespread disenchantment among minorities and even many mainstream voters. It leads to the twin scourges of apathy and cynicism on the one hand, and a deep and sometimes violently expressed discontent on the other.
There are, of course, other malign factors affecting political conduct in the U.S. There’s media too often focussed on melodrama and sensationalism instead of serious reporting, which remained superficial throughout most of the last national election campaign. There is a pernicious system of secret political contributions that would be criminal in many countries, and should never have been allowed to co-opt the political sphere. And there are vast swathes of the citizenry who have only a simplistic grasp of political realities and the larger world around them (remember Rick Mercer’s hilarious interviews on This Hour Has 22 Minutes?)
But the fundamental fly in the ointment, is the way elections are run and outcomes decided in the U.S. and all those other former-British colonies.
British Columbians are heading towards a referendum on our provincial electoral system next year. We should heed the leadership fiasco south of the border, since we will soon have an opportunity to steer clear of that kind of turmoil and disruption.
Speaking of ex-British colonies, we can look across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand to see a better way.
What first-past-the-post does
“First-past-the-post” has links to horse racing in which the absolute winner is the first horse whose nose reaches (and then passes) the final marker (“post”) in the race. This system also has a more academic name: “single member plurality”; but the popular term is far more widely used, and more explicit.
B.C. currently uses the FPTP system, as do the other Canadian provinces and our federal government.
In FPTP voting systems, any person running for office who gains one more vote than all the other candidates, wins the election. The supporters of any other candidate, lose any representation.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that such a system leaves a lot of people out in the electoral cold.
Take ten candidates running in an electoral race. Each garners ten votes. An eleventh candidate receives 11 votes – and there’s your winner. Eleven voters are happy, and 100 voters are left with no representation.
In Canada, on average, about half of voters at the federal level are disenfranchised. In countries with proportional voting systems, by contrast, that number shrinks to less than 10 per cent.
Since Canada’s confederation, fewer than half of election victories have been won by a party that won a true majority of votes. Anywhere from 50 to 65 per cent of voters have “wasted” their votes, because they have elected no one.
In an effort to address this unsatisfactory system, many voters, knowing that their favoured candidate is unlikely to garner the most votes, hold their noses and vote for the most likely/least bad alternative, in a distasteful manoeuvre known as "strategic voting."
With high stakes, party brass often resort to desperate tactics
Facing these these kinds of hard realities — where coming second, even by a single vote, means an utter loss of political influence — it’s easy to see why political parties go to extreme lengths to maintain their grip on power.
It is now well documented that the core establishment of the U.S. Democratic Party favoured Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, who had profound appeal for young voters seeking change.
Disenchantment with the status quo was in the air in 2016, and became a powerful contributing factor in Trump’s victory.
In the FPTP system, the stakes are so high that political players often gravitate towards safe choices, and away from candidates who represent important and valuable change, even if that's exactly what a majority of voters want.
FPTP distorts regional differences — a Canadian example
Another well-known effect of this system is its tendency to give exaggerated power to parties with regional strength – but national weakness. That means that a party with lots of supporters in one part of the country will get a lot more seats than a party with almost the same number of votes, but with support spread out across the country.
The 2008 federal election provides a very dramatic example of that effect. The Bloc Québécois earned 1,379,991 votes, and the Green Party of Canada earned 987,613 votes — nearly 3/4 of the Bloc total. But the Greens didn’t get 3/4 of the seats the Bloc won. In fact, the Greens didn’t win a single seat while the Bloc won 49 seats.
Why? Because the voters who supported the Bloc were concentrated exclusively in Québec, while support for the Green Party was dispersed across the country.
The nearly one million voters who cast their ballot for the Greens gained nothing. On the other hand, just over a million voters in Québec gained nearly 50 seats and, until the following election, their separatist party held the balance of power with respect to the Conservative minority government.
Florida in disarray
It is widely believed that Donald Trump won the US election when he carried the electoral college and the popular vote of the state of Florida. That state has sided with the eventual winner of the U.S. presidential election in all but one campaign since 1964 (nine out of 10 times).
But in the last few years something unusual has been happening in Florida, which has a diverse population, often construed to represent, in a microcosm, the complexity of the entire country.
In 2016, Trump won Florida's 29 electoral college votes (the college system is a peculiar wrinkle in U.S. politics that you can read about elsewhere). He also won the popular vote over Hillary Clinton in the Sunshine State, but only by a margin of 1.2 per cent. Voters who did not vote for either Trump or Clinton or whose ballots were spoiled numbered 3.2 per cent — enough to tip the balance either way if they all voted in a block.
Even before Donald Trump came to power, however, change had already arisen among Florida voters. The proportion who have abandoned affiliation with the two major parties — Republican and Democratic — has ballooned, now amounting to about one in four of all eligible voters. Turned off by the hyper-partisan behaviour of the two dominant parties, especially the Republican Party (with its takeover by the industry-sponsored Tea Party), young people in particular have dropped them both, preferring to either not vote at all, or to vote for candidates based on their qualities other than which party they belong to.
But in Florida, these independent-minded voters, who seek real change, meet yet another obstacle. Florida has a “closed primary” system, meaning voters have to register with one of the two main parties, or else declare themselves “NPA – No Party Affiliation”.
If that happens, then they aren't allowed to vote for either party’s candidate.
The United States in electoral disarray
Because the American system has, for 150 years, whittled the field down to just two options — Democratic or Republican, just like jolly old England's Whigs and Tories – there are usually no candidates outside the two major parties who have any hope of winning. “Third parties,” as they are called, usually simply steal votes from one of the two dominant parties, but never get seats or presidential victories of their own.
Faced with such sharply limited options, it's no surprise that throughout the U.S., voters are turning away from partisan politics in droves.
Now, according to Pew Research, more voters belong to no party than are registered as either Republicans or Democrats.
The divisions between generations and among visible minorities is even more stark. Among citizens age 18-33, unaffiliated voters number nearly 50 per cent. Members in this age group affiliated with the Democratic Party (28 per cent) or Republican Party (18 per cent) are far fewer.
When it comes to Hispanic voters, the level of citizens who reject both main parties is nearly as high (44 per cent), and membership in the Democratic (34 per cent) and Republican (a dismal 13 per cent) parties is far less.
This kind of voter dissatisfaction — another hallmark of FPTP systems — means voter turnout is low, not just in the U.S., but all over the world. In the States, it has been averaging just over 50 per cent for some decades.
Trump has made things much worse
Donald Trump’s behaviour has only exacerbated the problem of disaffected voters, arousing fear among immigrants, anger among women and minorities, and visible perplexity in relations with the rest of the world. But with no options besides voting for a representative from one of the two dominant parties, voters are often entirely shut out of meaningful engagement in politics.
As a result, they have turned to influencing their countries conduct from outside the political system.
As reported by the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher, while Palestinian-American civil rights activist Linda Sarsour was moderating a panel at the Women’s Convention in Detroit a few weeks ago, she received a startling cellphone message. It said that the first indictments related to Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government were about to be published.
When she announced the news to the audience of women in the “cavernous” conference hall the room erupted in a standing cheer lasting a full half-minute.
Then participants went back to the “slow, steady grind” of social justice activism against government, a process compelled upon them by the election of the misogynist Donald Trump — their deliberations tinged with despair that such activism might never have an impact.
There has been, since the Trump election victory, a surge in non-governmental, non-profit organizations with an express goal of shaping and influencing policy on a local and national scale. A new, broad and active “resistance movement” has developed - with support from established entities like Harvard University.
The #MeToo movement, that has erupted primarily in the U.S., and now become Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”, is a manifestation of the growth in civil society activism that has sprung up around and within the world of official politics — driven by a profound and growing sense of distrust in political institutions and elected officials.
The earlier Idle No More movement in Canada, founded in 2012 by four women, three of whom were Indigenous, was precipitated by disruptive unilateral action by the Harper government to remove protection from tens of thousands of watercourses across the country in one of the infamous “omnibus” bills — something Harper would have had serious difficulty doing in a proportional voting system, where the distribution of political power would have been more diverse and widespread.
In any nation that offers few formal avenues for political expression, a citizenry has no choice but to organize — and as the Johns Hopkins Centre for Civil Society Studies is showing, the uncertainties in our tumultuous world, and the trend for established institutions (including governments) to be co-opted by vested interests, has caused that development to be growing worldwide.
But how much more efficient it would be to change the system to allow more diverse and direct political expression in government channels!
Changing from the narrowness and hyper-partisan climate built directly into a FPTP system, to the more collaborative and negotiation-driven atmosphere generated by a proportional system, seems like the logical direction in which to move.
One of the most disruptive features of a FPTP system is that policy changes between one government regime and the next can be extreme.
But the FPTP system in B.C. has generated its own share of sudden policy changes and even reversals, especially in association with the recent provincial election.
Before the election, the BC Liberal government had made LNG development a cornerstone of its platform, even though this policy initiative yielded no results. Now, since the election of the Green/NDP parties, there has been little or no mention of LNG development initiatives in the new government’s plans.
The previous government relentlessly promoted the Site C dam project, refusing to allow the BC Utilities Commission to assess it, and even passing an act of the legislature to do so. But after the election, one of the new government’s first steps was to reverse this decision, and refer the project to the BCUC. The Commission then presented a very different view of the project, suggesting that the dam could be scrapped entirely and replaced by a portfolio of renewable energy projects that could equal or outperform the Site C dam.
That the government has felt compelled to carry on with the project, despite the widespread expectation that it might cancel it, has resulted in the release of much pent-up disappointment and anger, stifled by years of unilateralism by the previous ruling party.
The most astonishing demonstration of an extreme policy change shift in B.C., however, occurred between the last provincial election and the establishment of the new government. In a move apparently intended to try and garner the support of the Green Party, the BC Liberal government introduced a policy platform that completely reversed almost its entire approach to governance, exciting a mixture of consternation and cynical dismissal.
The reaction to this sudden reversal of policy illustrates two things: first, how far apart platforms can and do become in the overly partisan world of a FPTP system; and second, how desperate attempts to retain power become in this system — even to the point of suddenly and inexplicably throwing out every principle a government has stood for, just for one last stab at clinging to political ascendancy.
Consider New Zealand
Some BC Liberal MLAs have spoken out against a proportional electoral system. One even resorted to criticizing the Green/NDP government as illegitimate — even though it had obtained over 300,000 votes more than his own party — and labelling advocacy of a proportional system a subversive Green Party plot.
But the more important outcome by far — which they are not talking about — is the fact that a proportional system will weaken the grip of both dominant parties: the BC Liberals and the NDP. As proof of this, a few staunch NDP supporters in both the province's south and north oppose proportional representation.
A proportional system will allow the currently under-represented voters in B.C., including those in rural areas (like the millions of disenfranchised and restless voters in the U.S.) to vote for a party of their choice, knowing that their votes will now count.
There is, in fact, very little to fear in transforming B.C.’s electoral system into a fairer, more representative pattern, one that encourages diversity, collaboration and a smoothing out of policy transitions between successive governments. Let's look at recent evidence from one of the few former British colonies that has embraced a proportional system.
That country is New Zealand.
In New Zealand, which adopted a proportional electoral system in 1996, it became clear after the last federal election that a minority National Party government would be hamstrung without political partners. As a consequence, the Labour Party, which had nearly as many seats, but a much stronger connection to other constituencies, fashioned a coalition with the Green Party and the New Zealand First Party.
And a political miracle took place. In the coalition-building process, there emerged a softening of many of the hard-line positions of the New Zealand First Party, and on the other end of the political spectrum, the inclusion of some of the progressive ideas of the Greens.
Not only that, but the new coalition is headed by a young and dynamic 37-year-old woman, Jacinda Ardern — the youngest woman government leader in the world, who describes herself as “a social democrat and a progressive,” with considerable demonstrated appeal to her country’s younger generation.
Citizens in the United States can only look on with longing as they see the built-in impetus to accommodation and flexibility of the proportional system at work in New Zealand. As British Columbians approach a referendum in 2018 on the province’s electoral system, they should draw encouragement from this example of the flexibility and consensus-building that a proportional system brings to governance.
The U.S. lesson: failed governance from a first-past-the-post system
As we look at the political debacle to our south, with its dangerously incapable leader, we must think hard about how that situation arose, and the electoral system that allowed it to happen.
Then we should look across the Pacific to the little country — New Zealand — that resembles B.C. in so many ways.
In doing so, we will see a country that has left behind the winner-takes-all FPTP system, and gained a more engaged electorate, greater political stability, a stronger emphasis on inclusiveness, and a greater spirit of cooperation.
Despite the United States’ powerful role in the global economy and in recent world history, it has today lost most of its capacity to act as a moral and ethical compass for other nations. Its corrupted political system — a system that invites corruption — has generated a leader who arouses equal measures of derision, intense anxiety and hostility in his own country and around the world.
Canadians, and now most particularly British Columbians, might well look away from our neighbour across the 49th parallel and, instead, direct our attention across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, whose capital is 14,073 kilometres away from the seat of American government. New Zealand has a population remarkably close to B.C.’s, and a similar post-colonial relationship with Britain. It has a long history of democracy, like Canada, but 21 years ago its citizens chose an electoral system that most Americans, and many Canadians, would very much like to experience in their own national context.
Proportional electoral reform will be offered to British Columbians in 2018. We would do well to seize this opportunity for positive change.
I’m entirely ready for an election upgrade.