We’ve recently come through a federal election where there appear to have been very few winners.
Certainly not the Liberal party, who saw their seats in the House reduced and must now attempt to govern with no majority and little support from the three prairie provinces.
Certainly not the Conservatives who failed to capitalize on what many saw as a golden opportunity to unseat the incumbent government.
Certainly not the NDP who saw their number of seats reduced drastically despite having a charismatic and articulate leader.
Certainly not the fledgling People’s Party of Canada, who won no seats, not even the one contested by their leader.
Probably not the Green party, although they did gain a seat outside British Columbia.
In fact, the only party that could be assessed as having emerged with a positive result is the Bloc Quebecois, whose main goal is to protect the interests of a single cultural group within a single province, even if it means breaking up the country.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this election is the voter turnout or, perhaps more accurately stated, non-turnout. Fully 34% (that’s one in three!) of eligible Canadian voters decided to take a pass on this election. This is not exactly new. Voter turnout in the 43 Canadian federal elections that have been held since confederation has averaged 70.3%, ranging from highs of 79% in the early 1960s to a low of 58.8% in 2008. In that light, our current results might not seem too disappointing, if not that they appear to be part of a concerning downward trend which seemed to begin in the late 1980s.
And so, we must ask, what is it that keeps folks from exercising their right to influence our country’s government in the only way that will be available to most of them? It’s certainly not any lack of significant contemporary issues or a sense of satisfaction with the conduct of our current government. It’s certainly not that voting isn’t as easy as possible, including widespread availability of advanced polls. So what is it?
That very question was the subject of a 1989 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform. The authors identified a number of factors that prevent people from voting. Many are very practical, logistic issues such as illness, being away from home at the time, or just being too busy. However, a leading cause that emerged was simply labeled simply as “wasn’t interested”. A leading author of the document, Jon H. Pammett, described what he termed “administrative disenfranchisement”, meaning that the procedures involved in the voting process inhibit participation.
The results of the recent election highlight another cause of voter discontent that has been the focus of increasing attention and political lobbying over the past few years. Our parliamentary, party-based system combined with the marked variations in population density that exist in our country gives rise to a disturbing disconnect between the popular vote and final outcome.
For example, the Liberal party’s 33.1% of the popular vote translated into 46.4% (157) of the seats in the House of Commons. The Conservative party, which actually received a higher percentage of the popular vote (34.4%), won 26 fewer seats (121 or 35.8% of the available seats). The NDP’s 15.9% of the vote, in a proportional sense, should have earned them 54 seats, but they’ll go into the next parliament with only 24 seats, whereas the Bloc Quebecois’ 7.7% of the vote yielded 32 seats in voter rich Quebec. Perhaps the most egregious injustice relates to the Green Party. In an evenly distributed system their 6.5% share would translate into 22 seats, rather than the 3 seats they won. Even the fledgling People’s Party, which won no seats at all, can cry foul given that their 1.6% of the voting share would proportionately correspond to 5 seats.
Regardless of your political affiliation or preferences, it’s easy to understand why so many people are finding this disturbing, and why voters, particularly those is less populated parts of the country, are left feeling frustrated, discouraged and the sense that their individual votes are devalued or even meaningless. Adding to all this electoral confusion is the persisting problem that, in a parliamentary system, the voters don’t directly elect the highest political office in the country. This brings, with every election, the perennial and vexing conundrum of whether to vote for the local candidate on the basis of their personal capabilities, or the party they represent. In a democratic society, should voters be forced to make that choice? Might that be contributing to their frustration and apathy?
Changing such a deeply established process will, of course, not be easy. It would require determined action from the very politicians who have benefited from the status quo. Nonetheless, it seems that the time has come for at least an open debate on the issue. Those with the courage to take this on might be worth voting for!