An electoral thought experiment

I think I’ve made it clear in previous posts that I think democratic reform is the most important issue facing Canada today. And the more I think about it and the more I look at how recent Canadian elections have gone, the more convinced of this I have become.

I’ve been working on a post about electoral reform, complete with charts created from results I pulled from elections Canada, but it’s getting a bit out of hand at this point. I think I’m trying to tackle too many points at once and losing some coherence, so I thought I would give that a rest and try something a little more speculative.

While I was working through the data, particularly results from the 2011 Federal Election broken out for certain provinces, I had the idea to do a kind of electoral thought experiment. When I saw the results from Alberta laid out in front of me it really hit home just how much the First Past the Post system distorts the results of elections. The graphs below, which I created from data from Elections Canada, compare the percentage of vote parties received in Alberta ridings in the 2011 Federal election with the percentage of seats the parties were awarded. As you can see, the two graphs are pretty different.


Obviously Alberta is a pretty unique place electorally, but it certainly isn’t the only province in Canada that produces large distortions in Federal election results. Quebec is another example, as you can see in the graphs below.


Producing these graphs got me thinking about the sorts of extremes that might be possible in a first past the post system.

## The Worst-Case scenario

The reality is that, in a riding with four strong candidates, it is theoretically possible for a party with only 26% of the popular vote to have their candidate elected. It follows that, if more than half of the ridings in Canada were to be competitive in this way, it is possible that a Canadian government could be elected to a majority government with substantially less than 25% of the vote, particularly if the 153 ridings they didn’t win went strongly against them.

Let's pursue this rather hypothetical thought experiment and suppose that in those 153 ridings the new governing party did not win, not a single person voted for them. With the 155 ridings they would have won amounting to about 50.3% of ridings, if we take that percentage of the votes cast in the 2011 election (13,929,023) we get 7,006,299 votes in those 155 ridings. Remembering that the new governing party won these ridings by a mere 26%, we can calculate that they would have received 1,821,638 votes, or 13.1% of the votes cast. And, in this theoretical and highly improbably scenario, we would have a majority government in Canada, elected by less than 15% of those casting a ballot.

Lets go one step further and say that in the 153 ridings the new governing party does not win, there is a single party that wins every seat, but only by a margin of one percent, while the other two parties share the remainder of the vote (34%, 33%, 33%). Now we get a disturbing result that looks something like this:



While the above scenario is extreme (to the extreme) it clearly exposes the fundamental structural problem with the First Past the Post system: It delivers results that do not reflect the wishes of voters as reflected in the votes they cast, and has the potential, however unlikely, to allow a party that receives the least votes out of four parties to form a majority government.

## Ok, but what can I do to change this?

I know: The First Past the Post system has been with us for so long it’s hard to fathom how we could ever change it. The good news is that democratic reform is finally starting to get some attention, and there is momentum behind the concept of proportional representation, as evidenced by the concept’s recent appearance in Liberal party caucus resolutions. Fair Vote Canada’s Campaign 2015 features a list of distinguished supporters from across the political spectrum. Democratic reform will be one of the main issues in the coming election, but it needs to be the main issue.

If you’re tired of ridiculous election results like these and want to do something about it, visit Fair Vote Canada and add your voice by signing the Declaration of Voters’ Rights and join the growing movement to finally bring truly representative elections to Canada.