This fall British Columbia will have a referendum on electoral reform. The government is currently conducting consultations, and both advocates and opponents are making their voices heard on the matter. Despite the subject’s complexity, nuanced viewpoints are disappointing rare in debates over electoral reform. Advocates of proportional representation tend to suggest that it can fix all of democracies problems, from increasing voter turnout to increasing women’s and minorities’ representation, to making government’s more representative of the population. Opponents suggest that proportional representation will ruin democracy, paving the way for the emergence of extremist parties and the creation of legislatures with so many parties that functional government becomes impossible. Much of this debate misses the complexity that is involved with electoral reform. No electoral system is perfect, all involve making trade-offs, and the extent to which an electoral system accomplishes any particular goals depends on the details regarding the way the system is designed. British Columbians should pay careful attention to these trade-offs and details.
An essential thing to consider when debating electoral systems is the trade-offs that need to be made when deciding between systems. Every electoral system has its costs and benefits. Advocates of proportional representation often point to disproportionality as one of the central problems with first past the post, and are right to do so. It is problematic that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals can win a majority government with 39% of the vote under a first past the post system. The small proportion of the vote needed to win a majority creates further problems as it incentivizes parties to focus their campaigns disproportionately on a narrow groups of swing voters that live in swing ridings. The fewer the number of voters needed to win a majority, the lower the incentive parties have to run broad-based campaigns that reach across the electorate. By ensuring that a parties’ vote share equals its share of the national vote, proportional systems give parties incentives to reach out to swing voters across the electorate, not just to those that live in swing districts.
At the same time, first past the post electoral systems ensure voters have local representatives that they can vote out of office and increases the likelihood that majority governments will be elected. Variations on proportional systems such as mixed member proportional or single transferable vote (STV) can create space for regional representation within proportional systems, but they either dilute regional representation by adding members of parliament (MPs) elected off of party lists or dramatically increase the complexity of the system making it harder for voters to understand.
Because it is rare that a party ever wins more than 50% of the popular vote, proportional systems inevitably reduce the likelihood of the election of a majority government. There are merits to minority and coalition governments, as they force parties to work together in government. At the same time, coalitions can be difficult to form if a large number of parties win election to a legislature (as has been the case in both Germany and the Netherlands after recent elections in both countries). They can also be unstable, as Israeli coalitions often are. In some cases, minority governments and coalitions work very well, reflecting the views of a broader range of voters better than majority governments do. In others, they can be unwieldly and unstable. It is hard to tell which will be the case until one sees how a particular set of parties works under a particular electoral system.
Opponents of proportional representation will often to point the fact that such systems make it easier for extremist, particularly far-right, parties to enter a legislature. These claims are generally true as proportional systems usually make it easier for small parties of all types to win seats by reducing the number of votes a party needs in order to win their first few seats. At the same time, one should not over-state the extent to which first past the post guards against such extremism. The Front National, UK Independence Party (UKIP), and Donald Trump have all demonstrated that far-right parties and candidates can be successful in first past the post or similar systems (France uses a run-off system that is different from first past the post, but is not a proportional system). Extremist movements that end up forming their own parties in proportional systems often find their ways into mainstream parties in first past the post systems. The Canadian Conservatives, for example, saw far-right leadership candidates in Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney. Significant numbers of Euroskeptic anti-immigrant voters in Britain that may have supported UKIP in a proportional system have found their way into the British Conservative party. First past the post systems can make it harder for extremist movements to form their own parties and win seats in a legislature, but they cannot erase such views from society nor can they prevent them from having any influence on politics.
Finally, proponents of proportional representation often argue that such systems increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in legislatures. This is only partially true. Whether a proportional system increases the representation of women often depends on the design of the system and the importance different political parties attach to women’s representation. It is certainly true that countries with proportional systems such as Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands have some of the highest proportions of women in their national parliaments in the world. At the same time though, proportional systems in Ireland, Israel, and Slovakia have not kept those countries from having lower levels of women’s representation that non-proportional systems in Canada, France, and the United Kingdom (here is a full ranking of countries with their electoral systems noted). Ethnic minorities in British Columbia and Canada might have a more difficult time getting elected to parliament if either switches to a proportional system. First past the post creates districts in places like suburban Vancouver with large numbers of immigrant and ethnic minority voters. The need to win these seats gives parties strong incentives to be responsive to minorities’ interests and to run minority candidates. Under a proportional system the number of these ridings would be reduced (in order to allow for the list seats needed to make parties’ seats proportional) or would disappear entirely.
The details regarding how electoral systems work are also important. There is a tendency amongst both advocates and opponents of proportional representation to divide systems into proportional and non-proportional systems with little reference to how different proportional systems work. This is problematic because some of the effects of proportional systems will depend greatly on the design of the system. The extent to which voters will be able to remove MPs they do not like and the level of party discipline will change depending on whether British Columbia adopts an open or closed list system. Open lists provide voters with the opportunity to choose which MPs will enter parliament for a party, closed lists allow the party to make such a determination. The decision whether to adopt a party list, mixed member proportional, or single transferable vote system will also shape the incentives MPs have to represent constituents in local ridings. In list proportional systems, all MPs are elected off of a party list, giving them limited incentives to respond to be concerned with local issues. In mixed member proportional, around half of MPs come from ridings similar to first past the post ridings, giving some MPs some incentive to be responsive to local concerns. In single transferable vote, all MPs come from ridings that elect multiple members. To get elected, MPs must compete, not only with candidates from other parties, but with their own parties as well. The need to differentiate themselves from other candidates from the same party gives MPs in STV systems particularly strong incentives to be responsive to local concerns and makes it easy for voters to remove MPs they do not like. Indeed, MPs elected under an STV system may even be more responsive to local concerns than those elected under a first past the post one.
Public debates over electoral systems are challenging. They are highly complicated, require voters to make careful trade-offs, and require that voters understand highly technical details regarding how different electoral systems work. At the same time, they are essential. It is problematic to allow politicians to choose the rules that they compete under with no public input. One of the challenges that British Columbians will face in the run up to the referendum will be carefully understanding how each system works and the trade-offs involved with each electoral system. In the interests of having a productive debate advocates of different systems should be cognizant of the importance of trade-offs and the details of the different systems when making the case for different electoral systems.