by Noel Keough
One of the Hall Marks of a sustainable community is well-functioning, fair and transparent institutions of governance. One of the pillars of our system of governance is the electoral process. In a representative democracy we expect that the people who represent us do in fact mirror the popular will expressed at the voting booth. There has been a rising chorus of concern that in Calgary, at the provincial and federal level, this is just not the case. The culprit has been rightly identified as the first past the post, winner take all electoral system.
The usual response to a critique of this system is that it has served us well for a hundred years, or that other systems are just too complicated.
But there is a well-developed alternative with a track record in most of the developed countries of the world. It is proportional representation. Though there are various types of proportional representation, the most basic premise of the system is that the proportion of seats any party occupies in legislatures or parliaments should, as close as possible, equal the popular vote received.
The Representativeness of Electoral Systems indicator for State of our City 2013 demonstrates that in Canada, Albertans and Calgarians are not well served by first past the post, and have not been for a long time now.
The attached table, Federal Electoral Representativeness, shows the numbers for the past six federal elections going back to 1997. It shows a woeful discrepancy between percentage of votes cast for each party and the percentage of seats awarded in Parliament. The case of Alberta is akin to the case in Quebec – one party dominates the seats way out of proportion to the actual percentage of voters who support them.
In Alberta the Conservatives routinely win 90 – 100% of the seats with support from 65-70% of voters. Examining this discrepancy with an eye to voter turnout is also instructive. Only 52-62% of Albertans voted in the previous 6 elections. So in fact the Conservatives are awarded 90-100% of seats on the basis of between 35-45% of eligible voters casting a vote for them.
These statistics tend toward the absurd at times. In 2006 the Conservatives got 65% of the vote yet were awarded all 28 seats – no representation for the other 35% of Albertans who voted for other parties. In the 2010 federal by-election the Conservative winner was sent to Ottawa to represent citizens of Calgary Centre on the basis of less than 10% of eligible voters expressing their support for the candidate.
For this State of our City indicator we have coined a new measure – unearned run (seat) average[i]. This is a measure of how many more seats the party was awarded compared to the seats it would have held if seats were proportional to popular vote. What we see is that in the past 6 elections at least 25% of the Conservative seats were unearned. In 2006 it was 36% and since 2004 it has been at least 30%.
For more on proportional representation, check out these links: