12/04/2012 05:43 EST | Updated 02/03/2013 05:12 EST

The Voting System That Canada Needs (and Deserves)


Debating ideas on how to improve our political system is seen by some as a luxury that has little relevance to the daily lives of Canadians. Many believe that tackling economic challenges, social pressures and fiscal limitations need to trump everything else.

On the surface, it sounds like a reasonable demand. After all, those challenges are coming at us forcefully and will have measurable and significant impact on Canadians' quality of life.

However, it is precisely because of the nature and magnitude of the questions that are before us as a society, we need to take the matter of electoral reforms extremely seriously.

Inherent in the idea of democracy is a fundamental belief that citizens' participation in the political process leads to wiser decision-making process, greater accountability and better governance. Therefore, the more inclusive our democracy is, the better equipped we are to govern ourselves.

Prosperity is a critical responsibility of our governments, and ensuring citizens' engagement in a meaningful way in our political processes is a fundamental element for governments to fulfill their role.

I have proposed ideas to improve our political system, including the establishment of an association for politicians and mandatory voting.

Another opportunity to reform our system is to address the shortcomings of our current "first-past-the-post" electoral regime.

Currently, MPs (and other levels of government) only need to better their opponent by one vote to get elected. For example, in the recent by-election in Calgary, the winner garnered 37 per cent of the vote while 63 per cent of voters wanted someone else. This arrangement typically produces a mismatch between the number of seats won by a party and their proportion of the popular vote.

In the last general election, the Conservatives won 39.62 per cent of the popular vote but gained 53.90 per cent of the seats -- 166 seats -- in the House of Commons giving them the majority of the seats. Such disproportionality creates a sense that our system is unfair.

There have been many discussions on how to fix that apparent unfairness. One of the most popular ideas has been proportional representation (PR).

A PR system, however, would present some challenges. While it would ensure that the number of seats in the House of Commons allocated to each party reflect the popular vote, it would introduce a new class of MPs who don't represent specific ridings. Each party would have a list of candidates from which non-riding MPs will be selected to balance out their representation within Parliament.

Additionally, if the minimum threshold for winning a seat in Parliament under PR is, let's say, 5 per cent, then a party that collects that percentage would be guaranteed seats, which could encourage regional and single-issue parties.

Both B.C. and Ontario had referenda on implementing a PR system that were rejected because of the many unanswered questions that hover over it.

A more practical proposal would be a preferential ballot system (PB). The PB would require a candidate to win 50 per cent of the vote in their riding before they are declared a winner. Voters would be asked to rank their candidates of choice. If no candidate achieved 50 per cent of the vote then the candidate with the least number of votes would be dropped and their voters' second choice would gain those votes. If that still didn't produce a winner, the same process is applied again until a candidate garnered the coveted 50 per cent.

The PB system would ensure that no voter would be compelled to vote strategically because they would have the ability to rank their preferred candidates. This process would ensure that the winner was the choice of at least 50 per cent of voters. Also, it would preserve our representative parliamentary democracy where each MP would remain accountable to voters in a specific riding.

Political parties already use this method to elect their leaders, and I see no reason why we should not examine its introduction to our electoral process.

A PR system has merit, but it also has some drawbacks. A PB system would not require major and cumbersome changes to our traditional electoral system yet finds a way to ensure that each vote plays a meaningful role in determining the winner and that no winner could be elected without the support of the majority.

Enhancing our electoral system to become more representative sends a clear invitation to Canadians to increase voters' turnout. Such invitation is essential to confronting the massive economical, social and environmental choices we face together as a nation.

Correction: A previous version of this blog started that 73 per cent of Calgary Centre voters did not vote Conservative. This has been corrected to 63 per cent.