First-past-the-post delivers governments able to make decisions
October 11, 2011, Ottawa, ON – Recent provincial elections in Ontario, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island resulted in gaps between the popular vote and seat counts, causing some to revisit the idea of proportional representation. According to author John Pepall in MLI’s new paper Laying the Ghost of Electoral Reform, these calls for electoral reform miss the point of voting. According to Pepall, voting is a procedure for making decisions. Voting as we do now decides who will represent us and who will govern. In the recent elections, first-past-the-post delivered governments that are able to make decisions and if we don’t like them, we can “throw the bums out”.
In contrast, he said, “Under proportional representation, a multiplicity of parties are fostered and perpetuated, and who actually governs is decided after the election in negotiations in which the voters have no say and which they cannot anticipate when voting.”
Many proportional representation advocates claim that votes for losing candidates, or surplus votes for winning candidates, are wasted in the current system. However, “wasted votes” are the direct result of elections doing what they are supposed to do: producing a decision. Votes for losing and winning candidates are markers for the future. They either reveal a base from which future winners may emerge or, for winning candidates, excess votes show strength to spare (i.e. “political capital”) should unpopular decisions be necessary.
Pepall concludes, “To govern is to choose, to decide. In a democracy there are always winners and losers, whatever the electoral system. No electoral system can get around that fact or its results: most people, most of the time, will be unhappy with much of what governments do. Decisions must and will be made, and by voting, the people can decide who will make them, and who will uphold them.”
John Pepall is a retired lawyer and writer. He is the author of Against Reform, published by the University of Toronto Press. Laying the Ghost of Electoral Reform is the latest paper in MLI’s Canada’s Founding Ideas series.