With Canada's failed voting system, it's all about that base

Posted by Rob Richie on October 19, 2015
Canada holds elections today for its national parliament. As explained well by my colleague Sarah John over at the main FairVote blog today, Canada for years had been an instructive lesson in why its plurality, "top-of-the-heap" electoral system is a failed system when there are more than two  choices on the ballot: you can get illegitimate outcomes, heated debates over how best to vote and elections that are "all about that base" (cue soundtrack).

Stephen Harper's Conservative Party have ruled Canada's parliament -- including the last four years with an absolute majority of seats --without ever topping 40% of the national vote. Furthermore, there has been a consistent super-majority of opposition party voters that in fact oppose much of Harper's agenda. Here are the national vote totals for the past three elections "won" by the Conservatives:

  • 2011: 39.6%  for the Conservatives won a majority of seats even though more than 59% of voters backed one of the four main  opposition parties: New Democratic Party, Liberal Party, Green Party and Bloc Quebecois 
  • 2008: 37.65% for the Conservative Party more than 61% for those same opposition parties 
  • 2006: 36.3% for the Conservative Party over more than 62% for  these same opposition parties
To provide an indication of what voters really wanted in those elections, the latest polls out of Canada show 67% of voters want a change government -- barely higher than the 68% not planning to vote for the Conservatives. One can imagine the numbers of those seeking change were some 60% in both 2008 and 2011 as well.

Because there is a fractured opposition, talk of strategic voting has been rampant -- meaning many Canadians won't vote for whom they really want to represent them, but instead be figuring which "lesser of evils" might have the best chance to win.

The New York Times had a featured story yesterday all that says it all about "base" politics: Plurality, not Popularity is Paramount in Unpredictable Canadian Elections. That headline gets to core problem with Canada's electoral system- one that fortunately all the opposition parties seem committed to changing to either ranked choice voting or full proportional representation.

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