Making Every Vote Count:
Reassessing Canada's Electoral System

200 pages,
ISBN: 1551112566

Post Your Opinion
First Past the Post
by Amir Abedi

As the last two federal elections pointed out only too clearly, Canada's "first-past-the-post" (FPTP) electoral system has often exacerbated the extremely regionalized political party representation in the House of Commons. Then, in 1997, when the Liberals were able to form a majority government on the support of only thirty-eight per cent of the electorate, and when in both the last B.C. and Quebec provincial elections, the party that received most of the votes ended up in the opposition while the party that came in second formed the government, renewed interest in the shortcomings of Canada's electoral system was sparked. This interest is no longer confined to political scientists but has increasingly permeated mainstream media. Henry Milner's edited collection, Making Every Vote Count, then, is a timely contribution to a debate that has recently resurfaced in Canada.

Milner has assembled fifteen scholars from Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and the United States to provide some background to this discussion. In the first chapter, Heather MacIvor gives the reader an excellent overview of the features and effects of the main electoral system types. This chapter is complemented by a very useful appendix that provides readers who want more in-depth knowledge about the workings of the various electoral systems with more technical detail. While the purpose of an electoral system is simply to translate votes into seats, it is nevertheless more than just a technical detail. As the individual contributions to this edited collection so convincingly point out, the choice of electoral system affects the workings of a country's political system.

Different electoral systems provide voters with different incentives. For example, under Proportional Representation (PR), seats are distributed in proportion to the share of votes a party receives. Thus, voters can more freely express their political preference because they know that their vote will have an effect on the overall outcome of the election, even if they support a party that under an FPTP system would have no chance of winning a seat. The choice of electoral system can consequently affect not only the way people vote but also the number of people who turn out to vote. Rates of electoral participation are generally higher in countries that use PR than in countries with FPTP. Moreover, by affecting the composition of parliament, an electoral system also influences the kind of interests and issues that are represented there. As Donley Studlar and Thérèse Arseneau explain, parliaments that are elected under PR generally have a higher share of women and minority MPs. The representativeness of parliament in turn has an impact on the types of issues that enter the political debate and eventually on the policies that result from that debate.

Milner points out that the choice of electoral system can also affect the behaviour of parties and political elites. While FPTP generally leads to the formation of single-party majority governments, elections under PR usually result in no single party winning a majority. In order to enact legislation a government needs the support of a coalition of parties. This fosters compromise and a generally more consensual approach to policy-making, which is in stark contrast to the antagonism that characterizes the political process in classical "Westminster-style" democracies.

Making Every Vote Count is subdivided into two parts. In the first part, Henry Milner, Tom Kent, Lawrence LeDuc, Kent Weaver, and Tom Flanagan make the case for reforming Canada's electoral system by putting forward their own proposals. John Courtney favours retaining the current system, while Richard S. Katz cautions prospective reformers that changing the electoral system is not as easy as it seems and might bring unintended consequences with it.

The second part tries to put the electoral reform debate in an historical and geographical context. Denis Pilon examines the fate of previous attempts at electoral system reform in Western Canada. Donley Studlar argues that women and minorities should be more actively pushing for electoral reform as they stand to gain from it in terms of enhanced legislative representation. Thérèse Arseneau pursues this argument further by examining data from New Zealand's experience with electoral system reform. Jack Nagel and Andrew Reynolds recount the recent electoral system changes in New Zealand and Britain respectively. Finally, Rob Richie and Steven Hill give us some insight into the uphill battle that electoral reform proponents are facing in the United States.

Most of the proposals for electoral system reform concentrate only on the national level. That is where the book falls short. With the exception of Pilon's historical study, none of the chapters examine electoral systems on the provincial or municipal levels. It would have been useful to learn more about lower levels of government that have experimented with changing their electoral system or are currently considering a reform. Provinces and municipalities often serve as laboratories where innovative ideas and institutions can be tested before they are introduced on the national stage. Proponents of electoral system reform might consequently want to redirect some of their lobbying efforts to lower levels of government. For example, increasing public pressure has eventually led the opposition parties in B.C. to endorse holding a referendum on electoral reform should they win the next provincial election.

In his introduction, Milner states that "[t]he main purpose of this book is to stimulate public discussion of our present electoral system and the possible alternatives". I have no doubt that it will succeed in this endeavour. The fact that all the articles this book have been written in a style that is accessible not only to political scientists but also to other interested readers makes this edited collection all the more valuable a contribution to Canada's electoral reform debate. 

Amir Abedi received his Magister Artium from the University of Hanover, Germany and his M.A. from the University of British Columbia. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at U.B.C.


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