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John Pepall

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Proportional Representation Is a Waste of a Vote

Posted: 10/18/11 10:19 AM ET

The three quite ordinary provincial elections last week stirred up enthusiasts for proportional representation (PR). They pointed out what is obvious in all our elections: that parties did not get seats in proportion to their popular vote. And that, as often, a small edge in the popular vote produced comfortable majorities in Manitoba and PEI, and a near majority, with 16 seats more than the PCs, for the Liberals in Ontario.

The idea that parties should get seats in Parliament in proportion to their popular vote is the idea that won't go away, despite its resounding defeat in referendums in PEI, Ontario, and British Columbia. Voters in those referendums cannot have been under the delusion that we already get PR voting, as we do. The popular vote is always reported with seat counts and prior to elections all we have from polls are forecasts of the popular vote, which commentators and political scientists use to make seat prediction without a thought of PR.

Yet PR advocate persist in pointing out the obvious as if it were an argument for their schemes.

PR remains an official policy of the NDP and the Green Party. The late Jack Layton claimed that without PR "we don't get the government Canadians want." His NDP colleague Robert Aubin has said PR would "give real weight to each citizen's vote." The interest of the NDP in PR when they couldn't believe they could get more than 20 per cent of the popular vote was obvious.

Academic writing on electoral systems and much in the media makes a show of weighing up supposed advantages and disadvantages of different electoral systems. But the arguments for PR fail not because its proponents have made a mistake in weighing up advantages and disadvantages. They fail because PR's advocates have missed the point of voting.

Voting is a procedure for making decisions. Voting as we do now, we decide who will represent us and who will govern. If we don't like them, we're able to "throw the bums out."

Under PR, a multiplicity of parties are fostered and perpetuated, and who represents the voters is decided by the parties before the election, and who governs is decided after the election in coalition negotiations in which the voters have no say.

An election produces no decision, just a sampling of the opinions and interests of the voters.

Voters in Manitoba and PEI last week decided to stick with the devils they knew, and in Ontario they decided to do so with a caution and a chance of thinking again in a couple of years. If they had had the misfortune to face PR, they could hardly have decided anything and we should be waiting to find out what the parties would decide.

Where PR is used, parties are in government for decades. If they are thrown out of government, it is not generally because they are less popular with the voters, but because they are less popular with the party bosses who negotiate coalitions.

PR's advocates invented the concept of the wasted vote, claiming that votes for losing candidates, or surplus votes for winning candidates, are wasted, and that under PR "every vote counts." "Wasted votes" are the direct result of elections doing what they are supposed to do: producing a decision. There are winners and losers. Under PR, its advocates pretend, everyone is a winner. But there is no decision. And that surely is a waste of voting.

For the candidates and parties, voting as we do now, "every vote counts" is the constant refrain of campaign workers. Because candidates in our elections seek as many votes as they can get. Under PR, parties just seek their party votes, which will be enough to assure seats for the party insiders.

PR's supporters argue from the prevalence of PR that it must be best, pointing out that most democracies use some form of PR. Counting voters rather than countries the balance shifts towards what they dismissively call First Past the Post. The world's biggest democracy, India, uses First Past the Post. San Marino uses PR.

The argument that PR is prevalent and so should be adopted is worthless. Only in recent times have most countries been any kind of democracy. Even in 2010, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the commonest form of government was authoritarian. And whatever the electoral system, the quality of democracy varies. PR is used by Norway and Russia.

PR's advocates had a good run in the last decade. They got four referendums on their schemes. But millions of voters have now said no to PR by better than 60 per cent margins. PR is not just a misjudgment but folly. We should forget about it.

John Pepall is the author of Laying the Ghost of Electoral Reform, a study of different electoral systems, released by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.