The recent New Brunswick provincial election has more people talking about electoral reform than any other provincial election in recent memory. With less than half of the popular votes, the Conservatives won 76 percent of the seats. The Liberals received 34 percent of the popular vote but only 13 seats-not the 19 seats that 34 percent of votes could yield.
Then there are the 62,000 New Brunswickers-17 percent of voters who cast ballots for one of the other three parties?the ones later heard saying, ‘What are we, chopped liver?’ Their vote will not be reflected in the House.
Not that this election was the worst example of skewed results from our archaic way of counting votes. There have been worse examples. The difference is that, this time, more and more of us have heard about – and understand – the proportional representation forms of vote counting, which most other democratic countries use.
As Larry Gordon, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, said after the New Brunswick election: “The voters said one thing and the voting system did another.” He called for Canadians to “connect the dots” between our anger and understanding that something is wrong with the voting system. Some say this sense that something is wrong is the real reason for voter discontent. It may well play a role in the low number of people who vote on election day, especially young people. Have we stopped caring about our political representation, or is it that we care so much we don’t like to think of going to the polls only to be disappointed again by the distorted results of our outmoded first- past-the-post electoral system?
In the mixed-member proportional representation that was recommended for New Brunswick by the Commission on Legislative Democracy in 2005, about 35 MLAs would be elected, as per usual, from ridings and 20 regional seats would be filled from a list of candidates presented by parties, according to each party’s share of the vote. Each voter would cast two ballots, one to elect a local MLA, and one to choose a party.
Under such a system, in the recent election, the Conservatives would still form a majority government, but four parties would be represented in the House. For the last four elections, the PCs obtained the largest number of votes, though they only formed the government after three of those elections. Each of the two major parties has been at times favoured, and other times disadvantaged, by our current system. In 1987, the Liberals won 100 percent of the seats with 60 percent of the popular vote. In 1999 the PCs had 53 percent of the vote, but obtained 80 percent of the Legislature seats.
Without a clear relationship between the parties’ share of the vote and its share of seats, the debate in the House is poorer and less representative. For example, in most countries with some form of proportional representation, there is more gender balance in the House. With the recommended form of mixed member proportional representation, a party with 20 percent of the vote would end up with about 20 percent of the seats. How complicated is that? As Browen Bruch, president of Fair
Vote Canada, said, proportional representation would require parties to work together and find commonalities to agree on. “That’s what we learn in kindergarten, right?” asked Bruch.
And that might be another major benefit from proportional representation: getting elected officials and parties to work together collaboratively-something that might also attract more women, as opposed to the confrontational style which our current system encourages. The question remains, how could such a change come about in this province? It will require a champion. When Doris Anderson came to Saint
John on a stormy winter night in 2003, the former and famed editor of Chatelaine and lifelong activist drew hundreds of women to hear her speak on electoral reform. Privately, she confided something that, years later, still strikes me as important.
She was more than 80 years old then, feisty as ever, and she said if she had it to do all over, she would spend all her energies on electoral reform. She had many causes and careers, several to do with advancing Canadian women’s equality, and she had become convinced that without an electoral system that better reflected the actual votes, women would not gain political equality.
Elsie Hambrook is the new Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women.