First Past the Post – Majority Does Not Rule

Ideas and Issues

Vcanada-2011ancouver Sharing election night with my friends in Vancouver was a wild and bittersweet experience.  Earlier in the day hopes had soared on speculation of a rising number of seats being won by the New Democratic Party (NDP) which for some time has been the progressive voice of Canadians and the likelihood that they might displace the Liberals as the opposition party for the first time in their 50 year history.  As the polls closed in the West and results flooded in from the earlier time zones in populous Ontario, it seem true that the NDP was winning a record number of seats, but shockingly rather than having an outside chance at forming the government, the Conservatives though only marginally increasing their vote total were on the scoreboard with sufficient projected seats to form a majority government on this most recent election over the last 7 years when they have led with a minority.

How was this possible?  The answer is in the phrase “first past the post,” which means that whatever candidate or party has a plurality wins the seat without a runoff or achieving a majority vote.

The totals on the night were the following unofficially according to CBC:

Party Elected Leading Total Vote Share (%)

CON 167            0             167                         39.62

NDP 102              0             102                         30.62

LIB    34            0               34                         18.91

BQ       4          0             4                                6.05

GRN    1          0                 1                     3.91

IND              0              0                 0                            0.43

As a friend who is the organizing director of a provincial union pointed out to me in an email:  “If we were using a proportional representation system, Harper would have a minority government, or fail to form the government at all, Seat distribution would look like 122 Tories, 94 NDP, 58 Libs, 18 Bloc Q. and 12 Greens.”  She then added further, that he “gets a majority government even though nearly 8 million people voted against him….How could 5.87 million people vote for this guy?”   Well that’s more of a philosophical “take your meds” type question, since the earlier point is the more intriguing one:   how can it be democratic for one party to end up with a majority of seats even though polling less than 40% of the total vote?

If there were runoffs, which are common in many other democracies then the winner in fact polls the majority and like it or not, there’s no squawking.    Or, as my buddy says, if there were “proportional” representation, then the seat distribution would privilege the vote.

“First past the post” almost seems more a random act of geography than a pretense at democratic representation.

How can this be fair?