So much for that majority government. With numerous polls now showing the Conservatives and Liberals in a statistical tie, an election campaign that was supposed to be smooth sailing for the governing party has now gotten deadly serious. And once again, just as in 2019, its ability to win — or even survive — this election may depend on the willingness of Canadians to vote strategically.
In a poll taken after the last election, more than one-third of Canadians told Leger they voted strategically in order to stop another party from winning. “Of the respondents who ultimately voted Liberal, 46 per cent said they had considered voting for the NDP at some point during the campaign,” The Canadian Press’s Joan Bryden wrote. “About 30 per cent of Liberal voters also considered voting Bloc and 29 per cent thought about going Green.”
In some respects, this validates the Trudeau government’s decision to punt on its promised electoral reform. If the first-past-the-post system serves as a kind of safety net for the Liberal Party and is able to force progressives to hold their nose and support them rather than voting for the NDP or Green Party, you can see the political calculus behind preserving it.
But that calculus ignores the damage it does to the vitality of our democratic culture and the longer-term impacts it may have on people’s willingness to participate in it. And as we’ve seen south of the border, that democratic culture isn’t nearly as solid or steadfast as we might like to imagine. If the system loses its legitimacy with enough of the public, it opens the door to those who might suggest other ways of governing ourselves.
We need to inoculate our democracy against that sort of cynicism, and the people — populists, mostly — who would prey on it. And while it may not suit the government of the day or its ambitions, electoral reform remains the best way to protect democracy and those who value it. Canadians should have the ability to vote for the party they genuinely like, not the one they fear the least. And parties should have to compete for everyone’s vote, rather than playing to a narrower base.
That’s why, if we get another minority government, the NDP should use its power to demand a change in the electoral system. And not just any change: a ranked ballot, one that will allow people to cast a ballot both for their preferred party and a fallback, if they so desire. Under a ranked ballot, a candidate would only be elected if they had more than 50 per cent of first-choice votes. If they didn’t, the second-choice votes of the candidate with the lowest totals would get tallied up and added to the other candidates’ counts, and so on until someone crossed the 50-plus-one threshold.
Dave Meslin, a longtime activist in Toronto and the creative director of Unlock Democracy, has been advocating for ranked ballots for years now. His pitch to people is simple: “Canada is the only member of the OECD that uses first past the post for all three levels of government,” he says. “We are an outlier amongst outliers. A dinosaur.” Ranked ballots, he says, would be an important step along the way to a healthier and more responsive democracy. “Ranked ballots at the federal level would increase civility, choice, and engagement. Our current voting system forces millions of voters to abandon their true values, and vote strategically.”
Implementing a ranked ballot system would also improve the diversity in our national legislature. As Canada’s National Observer’s Morgan Sharp noted last year, the first election held in London, Ont., using a ranked ballot produced a much different looking council. “The slate of councillors elected in the province’s first ranked ballot experiment include newcomers who are young, gay, Black and Indigenous, boosting the claims of the preferential voting system’s advocates that it creates a more democratic, more equitable, and more inclusive political system.” The recent Democratic primary for New York City’s mayoral race, one in which a ranked ballot was used for the first time, is another data point in a growing body of evidence that suggests ranked ballots improve representational diversity.
That sort of diversity is still sorely lacking in the House of Commons. As the CBC noted in a recent data journalism project, white men represented 62 per cent of winning candidates in 2015 and 2019 despite only making up a third of the population. And while there have been some improvements in recent election cycles, Marc-André Bodet, an associate professor of political science at Laval University, says the House of Commons still looks like Canada did at the turn of the century. “It means that maybe in 10 years we will have a House of Commons that will look like the Canadian population today.”
Strategic voting is back. It’s time we sent it away for good, writes columnist @maxfawcett for @NatObserver. #Elxn44 #Election2021
That’s not nearly good enough, and it’s just one area where a ranked ballot can help us improve. It would reinforce the national consensus on climate change, promote a politics that revolves more around consensus than conflict, and give millions of Canadians the opportunity to vote with both their heads and their hearts. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals whiffed on their first attempt at electoral reform. If they get another opportunity, they shouldn’t pass it up.