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Complicating voting system
Jan 08, 2016

An old adage that can be associated with the advocating of a new voting system for Canadian federal elections is, “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.”

Historically, changes to the way Canadians vote in elections is nothing new, although solely on the provincial and civic level. That is not to say that such proposals have not been prompted at the federal level. In fact, there was a push for proportional representation (PR) some 100 years ago. Most recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that 2015 would be the last time that a federal election would use a first-post-the-post (FPTP) system that has been around since 1867, saying his government would change the way Canadians vote within 18 months.

Clifford Sifton, the Brandon MP who was the Minister of the Interior under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, endorsed proportional representation at the federal level. He proposed a PR plan to have two-thirds of the MPs in the House of Commons elected in single-seat constituencies and one-third elected on the basis of party popular support. The federal Liberals adopted PR on February 17, 1919. The party was in turmoil at the time, so it had little to lose by endorsing what was becoming a growing popular movement. But a Liberal resurgence allowed Prime Minister Mackenzie King to conveniently forget about implementing it and PR soon became an afterthought.

The Manitoba experience showed such changes have not always been as successful as originally conceived. In  1920, Winnipeg was made into one large constituency where 10 candidates were elected at large by using a preferential voting system, the hallmark of PR. In contrast, rural ridings for provincial elections still elected members by the FPTP system. It wasn’t until 1927 that preferential voting was introduced into rural Manitoba, but single constituencies were retained, meaning that unlike Winnipeg, one member was elected for each riding.

Preferential voting refers to the system of marking ballots with choices 1, 2, 3 and 4, etc., depending upon the number of candidates running. According to the amendment to the Manitoba Election Act, which made its way through the legislature in March 1920, a Winnipeg candidate was elected by dividing “the total number of valid paper votes polled in a division by a number exceeding by one the number of members to be elected and the result, increased by one, disregarding any fractions, shall be the number of votes sufficient to return a candidate.”

The rather confusing amendment can be readily translated as meaning that for the 1920 provincial election in Winnipeg’s one big constituency (previously there had been six single-seat ridings in the city), the returning officer set a quota derived by totalling the votes and dividing by 10 and adding one vote to form a simple majority. If any candidate received more first-place votes than the quota, he or she was declared elected.

The system became more complicated when a candidate during the first count obtained more first-place choices than required to be elected, which was called a surplus. All the candidate’s votes were sorted out according to second choices. Any ballots without second choices were set aside and were not used during the subsequent counts. The second choices were then allotted to the candidate for whom they were indicated, but not in their entirety. A complicated mathematical formula was used to portion the second choices with the remaining candidates receiving their share of the top candidate’s surplus. When their was no surplus to portion out, the low candidate was dropped and all his or her votes were distributed based upon second choices. The process continued until 10 candidates received the necessary quota. In 1920, it took 37 counts before 10 out of 41 candidates were elected in Winnipeg. In 1932, it took two days to count all the ballots before a result could be announced.

Since the government realized that voters would be confused by the great number of candidates on the single ballot, it was decided to have the candidates listed alphabetically and their party affiliation indicated by colours: red for Liberal, blue for Conservative, pea green for Labour and Socialist, and Independent in black.

In the 1920 election, the United Farmers of Manitoba (UFM) won 12 seats despite running candidates in only 26 of 55 ridings. The Conservatives took seven seats, labour 11 and four independents were elected. The Liberals formed a minority government by electing 21 candidates. It was a disastrous result for the Liberals, who lost nearly half the seats they held prior to the election.

An editorial in July 5, 1920, Winnipeg Free Press ran under the headline, PR Vindicated, asserting that the election had demonstrated the “practicability and merits of Proportional Representation.” The editorial called for PR to be expanded into rural Manitoba. When PR reached rural Manitoba, individual constituencies were retained and candidates in each riding were elected by a single transferable vote (STV), a voting process far less cumbersome than the one used in Winnipeg. The newspaper did admit that the presence of so many candidates on the Winnipeg ballots did make the voting process “a formidable affair.”

The fractured legislature meant little consensus was reached and the Norris government fell two years later when it lost a vote of confidence. What arose was an era of non-partisan UFM government and coalitions under a variety of banners, all of which fell under the term Brackenism, derived from the political philosophy of Premier John Bracken. This era only ended in 1958 with the election of Duff Roblin and the Conservatives in the first election after PR was dropped.

In the 1953 provincial election, the ballot for Winnipeg Central was 18 inches long since 14 candidates were running in the four-member riding.

PR and coalition governments had an unanticipated side effect upon voter turnout. In rural constituencies, voter turnout was often less than 50 per cent and many candidates were returned by acclamation. In the 1949 provincial election, 20 of the seats in the legislature went to the coalition through acclamation. In the 1941 election, of the 45 seats outside Winnipeg, 16 were won without a challenge.

An Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission, set up in 1957 to review the electoral system and address voter apathy, recommended abandoning PR and creating FPTP results in each Manitoba riding. Historian Ed Whitcomb said the demise of PR ended “the hopeless splintering of the Winnipeg vote.”

The hybrid system used in Manitoba may not have reflected the best intentions of PR, but it was experimented with for over three decades and was eventually deemed a dismal failure.

PP is not as simplistic as its promoters lelieve. Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc admitted that there is “a high level of confusion and misunderstanding about options.” Adequately outlining the options to avoid confusion among Canadian voters is quite a daunting task.