A system that worked: first-past-the-post brought the change that voters were looking for.

AuthorPoschmann, Finn
PositionOPINION

I write in the aftermath of the May 2 federal election, amid a wide-eyed and surprised electorate. From that surprise I draw some thoughts on voting systems and behaviour, and make some predictions about agenda-setting.

The surprise, of course, is the product of an election that, at its outset, was quite emphatically an election about nothing--one which brought to the surface very few significant policy distinctions among parties and where no scandalous behaviour seized or held public attention. Political leaders and their spokespersons made mistakes, but there was no single vote-polarizing issue evident at the outset, and no single game-changer as the election wore on.

And yet this election-about-nothing drove a meaningful increase in voter turnout, delivered a clear majority mandate to Stephen Harper's Conservative Party of Canada, dealt a crushing blow to the near-term hopes of the Liberal Party, removed the Bloc Quebecois as a political force in Quebec or anywhere else, and firmly installed the New Democratic Party as the official opposition.

This unexpectedly clear outcome, this sharp delivery of change to the political landscape, reflects a system that worked. Our archaic first-past-the-post election machinery produced the sort of change that many voters seemed to want and expect.

My hypothesis, or claim, is that this unexpectedly clear outcome, this sharp delivery of change to the political landscape, reflects a system that worked. Our archaic first-past-the-post election machinery successfully aggregated voters' preferences, counting them up on a local basis, and produced the sort of change that many voters seemed to want and expect. And it did so in the context of regional differences, which the system reflected in a way that a proportional voting system would not have.

To sustain this argument, I begin by looking at vote distributions at the national level, then contrast those results with a view that separates Quebec's quite distinct distribution from the rest of Canada's. First, the national popular vote share for the Conservative Party was just under 40 per cent, a share that would not historically be presumed to deliver a clear majority. Yet the Conservatives won 167 seats, 54 per cent of the total. On this view, the Conservatives got a good deal, in that each percentage point of the votes won them more than 1 1/3 per cent of the seats. Their bang for the buck, or terms-of-trade, expressed as a seats-to-votes ratio, was...

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