Every electoral system has benefits and costs. One of the trade-offs that is is often asserted between different electoral systems is one between regional and proportional representation. It is often argued that first past the post systems provide strong regional representation while proportional systems sacrifice regional representation in order to provide accurate partisan representation. The extent to which first past the post systems provide for regional representation and the extent to which proportional systems cannot include regional representation are often over-stated. This post will examine the 2015 federal election and show how a multi-district list proportional system could lead to stronger regional representation than the current first past the post system.
The major problem with regional representation in first past the post systems is that, like national representation in such systems, it is rarely an accurate reflection of the diversity of opinions within a particular region. The winner-take-all nature of first past the post means that parties that are strong in a region can dominate it, winning most or all of a region’s seats even if there is a substantial support for other parties. Because of this, parties in first past the post systems tend to be over-regionalized. The Conservatives, for example, because of their strength in Alberta and Saskatchewan, end up having proportionally more parliamentary members from the prairies than they do voters and fewer members from Ontario and Atlantic Canada than they have voters form those regions. The result is a parliament where regional divides fall along party lines to a greater degree than they do in reality. It is also a parliament in which important and substantial regional populations are under-represented or not represented at all. Regional representation under first past the post, like national representation, is highly distorted.
This is problematic for two reasons. The first is that it tends to polarize conflict between parties in parliament along regional lines. Because a large proportion of the Conservative parliamentary caucus is from the prairies they tend to see as their job to defend the interests the prairies. Conversely because the Liberals have weak parliamentary representation from the West there are fewer voices advocating Western issues in their caucus and they often are perceived as weak when it comes to Western issues. This can lead to a political discourse that over-emphasizes the divides between different regions. The second is that governments can often have difficulty building cabinets that are regionally representative. When a party has few or no representatives from a region they have few or no people to appoint to cabinet to act as representatives for those regions in discussions over government policy, and few people in caucus to challenge policies that do not reflect that region’s interest. The Harper Conservatives when they were in government struggled to find cabinet ministers that could serve as representatives for Montreal or Vancouver because they won few seats in either city. Given the amount of control that governing parties have over policy making, regional under-representation in governing parties can do significant damage to regional representation.
List proportional systems are often noted for their lack of regional representation. Such a system, however can include significant regional representation if a list system is designed for multiple districts. Rather than taking the entire country as single electoral district (as is done in Denmark or Israel) the country can be divided into several electoral districts in which multiple members are elected (these systems are used in countries such as Finland and Sweden). Each party submits a list of members running for each district and seats a apportioned to parties based on the percentage of vote that the party wins in that district. A city, such as Edmonton for example, could be made an electoral district with 10 seats. If the Liberals won 40% of the vote in Edmonton they would win 4 of Edmonton’s seats and the first 4 candidates on the Liberal’s Edmonton list would be elected into parliament. Such a system could not guarantee the riding by riding representation that exists in first past the post, but it would ensure that the different regions of the country are represented. Since parties rarely win 100% of the vote in a particular region, it would also ensure more regional representation within each party in parliament.
In order to illustrate this I look at the 2015 federal election. I combine different ridings into larger regional districts* and calculate the number of seats that a party would have won under a multi-district PR system in each region. The calculations are based on the sum of the votes for each party over all of the ridings grouped into each region (data is taken from Pundit’s Guide). Seats are apportioned using the D’Hondt method. This method of counting limits the number of seats that small parties win because it effectively rounds down when translating vote percentages into seats. This means that a party that wins 3% or 4% of the vote in a 10 seat district is unlikely to win any seats. Below is a table with the number of regions and number of seats each region would have under a multi-district PR system. Because different regions have different populations each will have different numbers of seats. Also, because I have simply grouped together existing ridings within districts, I have done nothing to change the number of seats each region has. Finally it should be noted that this is not a simulation of what would have happened if the 2015 system had been run under a multi-district PR system. Running an election under an electoral system that is so different from the current system would dramatically change the way that voters and and parties behaved (and might even change the number of parties contesting the election). This is, rather, a demonstration of how a different electoral system can produce broader regional representation within parties even if the vote choices of individuals does not change. The point of this piece is to show how multi-district PR can correct for the way that first past the post over-regionalizes party representation in parliament, it is not a what if scenario.
The graph below shows the increase in overall proportionality that is achieved under a multi-district PR system. Multi-district PR does not create perfect proportionality because in each district there is some rounding that goes on when translating votes into seats. The result is that the largest party in most districts, the Liberals, win slightly more seats than their share of the popular vote (44% of seats instead of 39%). Conversely the smallest party in most districts, the Greens, win slightly fewer seats than their share of of the vote with over 3% of the vote getting them less than 1% of the seats in parliament. The problem the Green Party has is that in every district other than Vancouver Island, their share of the vote is lower than the share needed to win a seat. In Edmonton, where 1 seat is given to a party for every 10% of the vote it wins, the Green Party is under 10% and in Toronto, where 1 seat is given to a party for every 4% of the vote a party wins, the Greens are under 4%. The results produced by a multi-district PR system, however are far closer to the share of the vote each party receives than the results produced by a first past the post system. Multiple district PR would not manufacture majorities from under the 40% of the vote the way that FPTP does.
The benefit to regional representation that results from multiple district PR comes through in the graph below. Under this system each of the major federal parties becomes less regionally homogenous. The Liberals see the share of their caucus that comes from Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and Ontario decrease, and the Western share of their caucus increase. The party goes from having only 15.8% of their caucus in the West to having just under a quarter of their members from the West. The Conservatives, conversely become less of a Western party, increasing the percent of their caucus that comes from Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Finally the NDP becomes less of Quebec/BC party, increasing the extent to which its caucus includes representatives from Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Under first past the post just under 70% of the NDP’s caucus is from Quebec or BC. Under multi-district PR that number drops to just under 50%.
The results produced by a multi-district PR system would increase the Western voice within the Liberal government. This is important given the extent to which governing parties are more responsive to their caucuses than they are to parliament as a whole. The increased proportion of Westerners in the governing party would increase the incentive for the Liberals to take into account the interest of Western Canada when making policy. The same is true when it comes to opposition parties and their critiques of government. Opposition parties with broader regional representation are more likely to put forward critiques of the government that reflect the interests of all regions and not just the one or two where they have the majority of their members from. Parliamentary debate in a multi-district PR system would be less regionalized as all parties parliament would craft policies and critiques that take into account the interests of a broader number of regions.
A look at the number of seats that each party would win in each district underlines the extent to which multi-district PR would improve regional representation within parties. The Liberals get seats in each district while the Conservatives are shut out of only Newfoundland, Halifax, and Northern Canada. The Liberals would win one seat in both Northern Alberta and Southern/Central Alberta, regions where Liberals have rarely had representation under first past the post. The Conservatives would win seats in both Montreal and Vancouver, two cities that the Harper Conservatives struggled to find cabinet ministers to represent while they were in office. This has two important implications. The first is that it increases the likelihood both rural Alberta and all of Canada’s major cities will be represented in cabinet or at the very least in government caucus no matter which party is in government. This is important because both cabinet and caucus have significantly more influence over government policy than parliament as whole. Increasing regional representation in government parties increases the extent to which governments include voices from every region in the country, and as a result, the extent to which every region is able to influence policy. Second, increasing regional representation within parties creates a parliament that is a more accurate reflection of the diversity of Canadian opinion. While rural Alberta is indeed mostly Conservative, there are some Liberals in rural Alberta and their ideas an interests ought to be represented in parliament. The same is true for Conservatives in Montreal and Vancouver. Under the current system these groups of people are almost never represented in parliament.
None of this is to say that there are not still some advantages to first past the post and some drawbacks to multi-district PR. Under a multi-district PR system citizens would lose the link to an individual MP that they have under first past the post. Some of the regions created under a multi-district PR system would have to be very large, which carries with it the possibility that smaller regions would lose representation. There is no guarantee under this system that there would be an MP from Northern Saskatchewan because there is no district dedicated only to Northern Saskatchewan. To some extent the size of each district could be shrunk in order to create more specific regional representation, but that would come at the cost of proportionality. The smaller districts are and the fewer the number of MPs elected from each district, the less proportional each parties’ share of overall (and regional) seats is going to be. Finally this system will create either minority or coalition governments. The extent to which a majority government is good or bad is debatable (and so this is not going to be much of cost for those that prefer minorities), but for those that dislike minority situations this is a cost of the more accurate regional representation multi-district PR provides. Proportional representation systems, especially pure PR systems are often accused of hurting regional representation. The extent to which they do this, and the extent to which first past the post provides accurate regional representation are often overstated. A multi-district proportional system can indeed provide more accurate regional representation than first past the post does.
* For a list of existing ridings in each district see the data page where I have the calculations for the seats won in each district in a spreadsheet.