A Brief History of Democracy

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Charest Holds Quebec's Regional Voters Hostage

The primary reason to get rid of the first-past-the-post voting system is that it is fundamentally unfair. Only the votes that give the winning candidate the number of votes necessary to edge past his or her nearest rival are significant with regard to representation. All other votes, including the votes cast for the winning candidate over and above what is required to declare victory, have no impact whatsoever on the composition of the legislature. As a result, most of the votes are wasted.

Even a child can understand that there is something fundamentally unfair with an electoral process that denies effective representation to the majority of voters by allowing the winner of the electoral contest to take the seat with less than 50% of the vote. How is it that someone can claim victory when the majority of electors voted against his or her candidacy?

Multiply this method across a large number of electoral districts and some serious distortions of the popular vote will occur: a party with less than 50% of the popular vote gets more 50% of the seats and forms a majority government, other parties receive less seats than their share of the popular vote warrants, smaller parties get no seats, and occasionally the party that came in second with regard to the popular vote goes on to form a majority government.

Notwithstanding this argument, there is a second reason to change the voting system here in Quebec. In short, the changing distribution of the population in Quebec -- there is a exodus from the outlying regions to the urban sprawl around Montreal -- means that to maintain the same number of ridings in the periphery without adding a significant number of seats to the electoral map will violate the principle of the equality of votes. In other words, the weight of a vote cast in a large sparsely populated riding can be two or three times the weight of a vote cast in an urban riding.

This dilemma can be avoided entirely by abandoning the exclusive use of single member districts. Once multimember districts are introduced those living in regions where the population is in decline can be compensated by having their votes used in electing representatives from a large multimember district. This is the case in the proposed mixed member model for Quebec that reduces the number of single member districts from 125 to 75 and uses the remaining 50 seats form a single multimember district in which all the votes cast in the province will be used to distribute the seats proportionally amongst the political parties.

This is a simple and elegant solution to the problem; however, there is a catch. Majority governments will become much more rare and, as a result, the quid pro quo between a political party and its financial contributors will be difficult to maintain. Simply put, without the ability of making good on promised interventions into the market, political parties will be less apt to attract donations from the business sector. For political parties that have a considerable advantage because they can outspend their opponents during electoral campaigns, this is not an attractive scenario. So, as is the case with the Quebec Liberal Party, the use of multimember districts must be avoided at all costs.

In fact, what Jean Charest is doing in Quebec is to play off the plight of those living in the outlying regions against the democratic principle of voter parity. For instance, given the constitutional limits with regard to undue dilution of the vote (the number of voters in a riding shall be no more, or no less than a 25% deviation from the provincial average unless there are exceptional circumstances), Quebec's Director General of Elections (DGE) made the reasonable choice by transferring three ridings away from the less populated regions and placed them where the population warrants. However, Charest is trying to pass himself off as the protector of the regions when unilaterally suspending Quebec's electoral laws and throwing out the DGE's proposed electoral map without having obtained the approbation of the legislature.

He hinted that when he finally introduces a new law that the number of seats would be increased, but the public has yet to be told that for those ridings in the outlying regions to remain, the average number of electors per riding must drop considerably so that the contested ridings remain within the 25% deviation limit. To do so, it will be necessary to add 26 additional ridings to the existing 125 seats for the redrawing of the electoral map at hand, with more seats to be added to the electoral map in the future as the demographic trends in Quebec continue.

Essentially, Charest is prepared to go through with this ill advised process so that he can save the first-past-the-past method and preserve the quid pro quo relationship with Quebec's business sector. As far as the well known discriminatory practices inherent to the system, Charest is more than prepared to let them continue as long as he can cling to power.

What we need in Quebec is a not so quiet revolution or an enlightened decision from the Courts to have the first-past-the-post method declared null and void.

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