Fair Voting Part 1: Why Vote Splitting Helps Nobody

Posted on May 17, 2011

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This past week I have demonstrated my ability to get up at 6AM on a regular basis if my employment demands it. But if there’s an important rally about reforming our voting system, you can count on me to show up at least an hour after the speeches start. That was the case this past Saturday, when about a hundred dedicated Torontonians braved the rain and showed up at Queen’s park to take part in one of several Canadian rallies demanding electoral reform. I showed up a bit late, so I while I can attest to the energy of the rain-soaked speakers, I didn’t get a great sense of their content. I can tell you that the crowd, while small and subdued thanks to the downpour, demonstrated an impressive amount of communal rage at the fact that forty percent of our country just somehow elected a prime minister with a near-dictatorial mandate.

This issue has been getting a lot of attention since the election, and for good reason. Harper’s victory was nothing if not a clear demonstration that our electoral system is hopelessly flawed. I don’t think I can adequately explore this in a post of a length that you’ll actually read, so I’m going to make this a three-parter. First, I’m going to look at why change is needed, then I’m going to talk about possible solutions, and finally I’m going to do some strategic thinking about how we can actually make electoral reform happen. Hopefully I can get all that done in the next few days. Life in Markham doesn’t leave much else to do in the evenings.

At the rally, many of the speakers pointed out that this is not a partisan struggle, and that with time we should even be able to bring Conservatives on-side. Maybe that’s a bit naive given the party just won an historic victory thanks to vote-splitting on the Left, but I’m going to take a shot at that particular challenge. What follows is an explanation for why the first-past the post system is bad for the country, regardless of your political stripe.

Any given political, economic, military, or ethical problem can be rendered unsolvable by our system so long as it incorporates a large number of possible solutions, all of which involve some pain for at least one reasonably large political demographic. Climate change fits this description, as do both the national deficit and the epidemic of skyrocketing tuition fees. Each of these has a large number of potentially valid solutions, as well as a large group of people who would rather just see them swept under the rug.

If the ballot question is a simple one of whether a given issue is worth acting on, then first past the post works just fine, if only in theory. Those who want to act vote for the candidate who will act, and those who don’t want to act will vote for the candidate who does not want to act. In this vastly oversimplified demonstration, the winning candidate will then act according to the simple wishes of majority of voters that put them in power.

This only works for binary issues, however. Let’s take climate change as one example of an issue that is not binary. The majority of Canadians want to do something to reduce our Carbon emissions. Unfortunately, that majority is split on the question of what exactly should be done. Some favour cap and trade, others want a carbon tax, and still others want more radical solutions like a fundamental re-shaping of transportation or agricultural infrastructure. All of these people, however, would agree that any of these schemes is better than a total ignorance of the issue. The problem is that there is, in addition to the proactive majority, a large reactionary minority that thinks that Ezra Levant is a scientific authority, and would rather maintain their high-carbon lifestyles at the expense of the planet. We can, and should, debate the relative merits of possible solutions to the climate crisis. The problem is that as long as those debates are expressed through rival political parties, the party that ignores the issue is going to leverage that disagreement and clean up, leaving the issue unaddressable despite the fact that the majority of the country would rather see some action on global warming. This means that the issue can only ever be properly addressed if it is oversimplified.

This is true of any issue fitting the description I set out above, whether the impetus to act comes from a right-wing or left-wing ideology.The first past the post system is not only hostile to small parties and niche issues; it is hostile to complexity. Our current system is perfectly suited to solving political questions for which there are only two possible answers. There are no such issues, and so we must change the way we vote. Tomorrow will be a discussion of the direction of that change.

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