Small Federal Parties and the Voting System (2001)

Green Party of Canada’s Contribution to Parties Panel at “Votes and Seats” Symposium sponsored by Institute for Research in Public Policy,
May 3, 2001, Ottawa, Canada, Chris Bradshaw, Interim Leader, Green Party of Canada [published in Policy Options, August  2001]

Small parties can too easily be seen as whiners, collectives of people with poor platforms and weak candidates all too ready to blame “the system.”  And by resorting to the courts, as our party has recently done, we are seen as running to our mother’s apron strings any time things don’t go our way.  We do so, however, because we know that we play an important role in the body politic by providing new political options and expanding voter choices, both of which attract more voters and allow for Parliament to address comprehensively and timely the problems that face the people.

As you have heard at this conference, the single-member plurality, or first-past-the-post (or as I nickname it, “FoP ToP”), has two problems: 1) candidates can win a seat with less than a majority, and 2) the total seats won by parties with more than 40% of the popular vote usually exceed 50% (with as many as 95% of seats going to parties with only 60% of the vote), while national parties with less than 4-% receive far less than the seats their popular vote earned them, with those less than 5% usually getting no representation at all.  The two features together discourage citizens from supporting the smaller parties, which ensures they never get even the votes they earned, and means they can never break through, a virtual systemic self-perpetuating prophecy.

It is my contention that this voting system doesn’t just hurt small parties, but also big ones, not just the voters who turn their back on the favourite, a “fringe” candidate, but those who sincerely back the eventual winner.  The reason is that the large-party bias of FoP-ToP means that the parties favoured by the system wins not only a mandate larger than it earned, thanks to a voter base diluted by “insincere” votes from those practicing “strategic voting.”  The winner gets power, but not a clear mandate for what it is to do with that power.

I would like to remind you that the Green Party is a young party that has very successful slightly older siblings around the world, the most successful being the Green Party of Germany which is part of the ruling coalition and whose leader is its Foreign Minister.  In 2000, we were the fifth largest party, of 11, in candidates, and the sixth most successful in votes garnered, getting almost as many as the other five non-Parliamentary parties combined, enough to elect 3 members under pure proportional representation, even though we ran candidates in only a third of the ridings..

When we formed in the early 80s, we used the slogan, “The Politics of Ecology.”  Today, I would like to explore “the ecology of politics.”  I’d like to explore four ecological principles that I feel the present system is ignoring.  My main contention is that FoP-ToP is so poor at reflecting the political will of citizens, parties, and even parliament, that all three must shift to “strategic” behaviours to make up for the system’s shortcomings:

1.    Strategic Voting — Democracy requires that citizens use their vote to honour the candidate they deem has the best qualifications and platform.  We don’t allow candidates buy people’s votes, but FOP-TOP allows candidates of the larger parties to discourage citizens from voting their small-party first choice on the grounds that a vote for a candidate that is almost certain to lose will have no more impact than if they had not voted at all.  [Of course this argument is ingenuous, since larger parties very carefully note the size of the votes for the smaller parties.].  Every insincere vote is a blank cheque issued to a winner, or a false form of encouragement for a high-ranking loser.  It is not a politically sustainable practice, for the voter or for our democracy.

2.    Strategic Politicking — The parties, in noting FoP-ToP’s propensity for “wasting” the votes it receives in ridings it does not win, become more strategic themselves.  Their funds and parachuted candidates are allocated according to expected election results in the ridings.  Safe seats are allocated to “stars,” who make the party look more qualified to govern and whom its leader wants in cabinet.  “Swing” seats are given more than their share of funds.  And the rest of the ridings are written off, with the nomination going to a faithful supporter who will not complain, but hope for a miracle or perhaps a patronage “thank you” later.  Because of regional media “markets,” resources are often directed to several adjacent seats, a reality that encourages new parties to limit their geographic appeal, rather than try to develop sensitivity to their platform across the country.  Unfortunately, regional parties often base their campaigns on anti-government or anti-federal appeals, part of a growing “politics of resentment.”

3.    The Strategic Parliament — At the most senior levels, this strategic thinking causes Parliament itself to be less than it could be.  The governing party will have more seats than its share of the popular vote earned it.  That party will also have very thin representation from certain regions, meaning they will have to give cabinet posts strategically to less capable MPs in order to give the government a national look.  These ministers will not be given senior portfolios, the ones that their supporters back home need help from.  Also, the government will most likely not need any help from any other party, thus putting the latter into the role of outsiders, or attack dogs, limited to fault finding rather than a constructive role.  Of course, both parties, the government and the opposition, require strong party discipline, which comes easily when so many successful candidates benefitted from funding strategically distributed by the national party.  And, of course, there are other perks that keep backbenchers in line, including  parliamentary secretaryships, committee chairships, and an easy ride to nomination the following election.

4.    Strategic Citizen Participation — FoP-ToP also has negative impacts on voters’ decision to participate in the democratic process at all.  Studies have shown that voter turnout is highest where voter choice is highest, in the sense that the ballot provides them the opportunity to have the greatest impact and broad choices.  Why would someone turn up on voting day just to feel bad about choosing between voting for a small party that has almost no chance of electing any of its candidates, or to make a “strategic” choice between the lesser of two (or three) evils?  And, if the choices are narrow or the results not much in doubt, why follow the media or read the candidates’ literature or websites?  And if Parliament is so top-down, with the party strategists controlling so much, why even try to make contact with your MP over an important issue of the day?  What power does he or she have to do something about it?

Voters are also consumers, and will naturally compare their political-choice environment with that for meeting their needs in the marketplace of goods and services.  In the latter environment, they know that, by making one selection, they don’t pre-empt another (except that money can’t be spent twice, but it can be split between a range of items).  As a consumer, would you like being told you can buy only one item in the store or that there is only one size of each kind of good?  Or that some of the things you choose will not be provided, depending on others’ choices?

I would ask, if FoP-ToP is so satisfactory, why is it not used by any Canadian party to elect its leaders or its candidates?  The parties use serial ballots for a simple reason.  It ensures that the winner has a clear majority.  Without it, the integrity of the party would be hurt by having a choice that was not supported by at least half the participating members.  Otherwise, the leader or candidate could never overcome the sour grapes of losers and their supporters.  The serial ballot also encourages more candidates, whose supporters find the ballot process fair, and thus they are more willing to work for the eventual nominee, regardless of their first initial choice.  That optimizes the number of people drawn to the party rank-and-file.  Although serial ballots are rarely used federally, many countries replicate them with preferential voting (the alternative ballot).

I wish to end by offering two somewhat humourous alternatives that do not require meddling with ballots:
1.    The first I call “Parliament, Inc.”  Under this system, votes in parliament would not be one-member-one-vote, but instead each party would be awarded “proxies” for all the votes they received across all ridings, and would divide them equally among their members.  In today’s parliament, the PC members would have the most proxies each.  This would ensure parties would not overdevelop their ties with one region, since their MPs influence would depend on votes from ridings his party lost as well (and presumably, they would feel they represent those otherwise disenfranchised voters).

2.    The second I call the NPL, or National Parliamentary League.  I worked for 25 years in public participation in municipal planning.  I saw how planners and engineers cynically viewed low participation as a tacit endorsement of their policies.  But it too often reflected the lack of public interest, the poor way the proposals were communicated, or the low level of the citizens’ political efficacy.  In contrast, the NPL, like sports leagues, would use various mechanism to strengthen weaker parties and candidates, to accentuate the differences in platforms, and to provide more information on the candidates.  This would bring out more people, just as the level playing field between teams in a league ensures exciting matches.  But rather than mandate the specific measures, I would simply make the winner’s salary and budget equal to the percentage of voters who actually showed up (with those who spoil their ballot counting for, say, half of a voter).  This is not needed in sports, since the dollars that go to owners and players are only partially dependent on their win-loss records.

Our party and other small parties attract additional people into the system.  We also come up with ideas for public problems that other parties would not have thought of or not think workable unless forced to.  We also raise issues larger parties ignore (perhaps that is the result of corporations giving to all major parties?)  For Parliament to be all it can be, voters have to feel they are free to vote as sincerely as the secret ballot and rules against buying votes were supposed to ensure.  And parties have to know that they will not get a mandate they didn’t earn.  Anything else would not be sustainable.  We could do these things so much better if we had a more level playing field, and all participants knew each vote was equally important.  FoP-ToP has to go!


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