Sumeet Khanna, Co President, McMaster Debating Society

versus Andrew Terefenko, Opinions Editor

 

Which system of voting is better, first-past-the-post or proportional representation?

 

SUMEET: First-past-the-post (FPTP) is a system of democratic voting that has recently come under a lot of scrutiny in Canada. Operating as the primary voting system at the provincial and national level, critics allege that FPTP is an unfair method of electing representatives to their respective legislative bodies, because it is not proportional to the numbers of votes cast for each party. Although this criticism is fair, it fails to take into account the ways in which FPTP balances pragmatic and democratic ideals in order to produce – more or less consistently – majority governments that are more stable and effective at passing legislation.

 

ANDREW: Proportional Representation (PR) is another method of determining the make-up of a representative body, and one that I feel  better encompasses the collective needs of the voters. With a FPTP system, we may have a greater representation of the exact government that the voters elected in a literal sense, but the votes that did not go towards the elections’ victors go completely unheard.

 

SUMEET: There are many variations of PR as an alternative system to FPTP, but they all share the same fundamental flaws. The first myth surrounding PR is that it is more representative of voter choices in terms of actual seat-distribution in Parliament. Indeed, PR does allow for smaller parties to secure seats in Parliament, and if there are not enough seats won by a single party, a minority government must be formed. Several parties may need to form a post-election coalition in order to exert majority voting power in the legislature. Independently, these parties may represent their electors, but as a coalition, they do not enjoy any type of definitive support, in that voters did not initially vote for a coalition government. Contrast this with FPTP, where governments like the current Conservative federal government enjoy a clear majority via winning a majority of regional seats. On the topic of constituencies, with most types of PR, citizens vote for parties on the ballot, and the parties then proportionally distribute seats based on a pre-determined list of representatives. This system eliminates the traditional MP-constituency relationship; without this relationship, there is no MP accountability, and further, constituencies lose MPs as advocates on the national stage.

 

ANDREW: The greater flaw present in FPTP is the idea that voters are forced into choosing between the two most popular political parties, because they know full well their vote will be wasted otherwise. It encourages them to vote against the party they dislike, even if they do not fully want the leading opposition in power either. In this sense, the incumbent party would greatly benefit from people voting for minority parties in a FPTP system, as any vote cast to a “throwaway” tertiary party is a vote not cast for their main opposition. The MP distribution under a theoretical PR system may be flawed to a degree, but if a region casts a vote for a party, for the principles they stand for, then the representative can be counted on, to an extent, to work towards fulfilling the party promises in his or her region as best as they can, just as much as a representative that the voters knew beforehand.

 

SUMEET: Minority governments, which are often the product of PR systems, pose their own inherent problems. Without a majority party, smaller parties can stymie the ruling party and effectively bring the house to a state of non-confidence in order to trigger an election. This state of constant flux can lead to an unnecessary amount of elections held within a short period of time, even when public opinion has not necessarily changed. The slew of elections since the Martin minority in 2003 highlights this fact. Moreover, smaller parties that hold swing votes can effectively hijack legislative debates with extremist points of view. Take for example the general trend in Israel’s PR system, where the center-right Likud party has traditionally been forced to turn to right-wing and religious parties in order to obtain coalition governments. These coalitions are dominated by extremist politics because of the influence of these smaller parties, leading to more ideologically charged, gridlocked legislative assemblies. Proponents of PR hail these coalitions as a “triumph” for democracy and pluralistic representation, when in fact they foster gross inefficiencies.

 

ANDREW: While proven to be flawed in practice, the same can be said of any theoretically beneficial idea. Communism, at the ideals, is a system that everyone can agree is beneficial to each person equally, yet is negatively portrayed because of its poor execution elsewhere and in the past. While PR is prone to extremism at the minority levels, FPTP is just as easily a victim of problems that the theory could not anticipate. A FPTP system inevitably leads to a two-party struggle, where one is constantly working to undermine the other, with no third or further parties to break ties and help quash the petty bipartisan antics that plague an otherwise civilized nation.

 

SUMEET: PR may be more ideal than FPTP in a purely democratic sense, but it certainly increases the likelihood of producing ineffective governments that are drowned-out and watered-down by smaller parties that may not hold more than a tiny fraction of the popular vote. FPTP is by no means a perfect system. However, it does manage to infuse the democratic principle of majority voting with a sense of pragmatism, in that it tends to produce more stable, action-oriented majority governments.

 

ANDREW: While I agree with the need for stability in the representative bodies of a nation, I also feel that each and every voter should have a voice in parliament. If every vote literally counted, and your wishes would be somewhat effectively represented, the youth and other non-voters would likely feel more compelled to show up to elections and we might escape the measly 49 per cent voter turnout of this recent provincial election. Both systems have merits and flaws, but I feel that PR is the best fit for any nation that grows as fast as ours does in both population and cultural diversity.

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