Make Your Vote Count

Why Alberta needs proportional representation now

By Ian Urquhart

In the 2012 provincial election, 55 of the 87 members elected to Alberta’s legislature received less than 50 per cent of the vote in their ridings. Ten members were elected with less than 40 per cent. Progressive Conservative candidate David Dorward won his seat with only 33 per cent; Liberal leader Raj Sherman retained his seat with only 35.5 per cent support in Edmonton-Meadowlark; New Democrat MLA Deron Bilous won his constituency with only 37 per cent. Some call Alberta’s electoral system “first past the post,” because winning candidates don’t need a majority of the votes cast in their riding; they only need one more vote than the second-place candidate.

How we translate votes into representation in the legislature depends on the rules of our electoral system. Rules matter. Rules prioritize and institutionalize values. When we campaign to change political rules, we’re struggling over power, influence and the relative standing of different values in our public lives. The rules governing electoral systems emphatically make this point. Canadian electoral history offers many disturbing reminders of how governments unreasonably limited the right to vote in order to promote some interests and values over others. Women, Asians, South Asians, Aboriginal people, men without property—all were denied this basic democratic right at one time or another.

In 2012, 1.3 million Albertans cast votes for nine parties plus independent candidates. Our electoral system determined how those votes translated into the specific parties now represented in the legislature and the specific members who gather under their respective banners. What outcomes, interests and values are promoted or recognized by Alberta’s electoral system? Does the system respect the values we expect it to?

I believe the answers to those questions are troubling. Albertans deserve a richer, more democratic politics. It’s time we considered proportional representation (PR)—an electoral system where party standings in the legislature closely mirror actual support among voters.

If you’re fascinated by Alberta’s unique qualities, consider adding our electoral system to your quiver of examples. Canada and 33 other countries belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a global intergovernmental organization. Only two countries, the UK and the US, join Canada (and Alberta) in using what political scientists call the single member plurality (SMP) electoral system. When it comes to electing governments, most developed countries don’t do it the way we do.

Perhaps most OECD nations are missing out. Our electoral system is simple and easy to understand and it often delivers stable majority governments. These are two of the arguably positive characteristics of the SMP system. Our ballots ask us to vote for one MLA—a “single member.” Winning candidates only need one more vote than the second-place candidate—hence, “plurality.”

“First past the post” offers simplicity and stability but sacrifices fairness and equity for individual voters and political minorities.

Our system tends to produce powerful majority governments. But 43 years of PC majorities in Alberta is a function of how imprecisely an SMP system rewards competing parties. Parties capturing the largest percentage of votes normally capture even larger percentages of seats in the legislature. In five of the 12 elections from 1971 to 2012 (1971, 1989, 1993, 2004 and 2012) the PCs won majorities without securing majority support from voters. In 1971, the year Peter Lougheed started his party’s dynasty, the PCs secured 65 per cent of the legislature seats with only 46 per cent of the popular vote.

This disproportionality between vote and seat percentages is a vital contributor to the stability and power of majority governments. Large majorities empower government to introduce controversial legislation without fear of defeat, and the magnitude of a disproportionate majority neuters opposition in the legislature. After the 1982 election, the NDP was the only opposition party to the Lougheed PCs, but they had only two seats. The SMP system translated their 19 per cent of the provincial vote into barely 2.5 per cent of the legislature’s seats. Lougheed’s party claimed 95 per cent of the seats—a 33 per cent electoral system “bonus” for the resounding win the PCs recorded in the popular vote.

Disproportionate majorities also protect governments from falling due to internal strife and dissension. Defections from Alison Redford’s caucus, and her own abrupt departure from the premier’s office, never threatened the life of the PC majority. The party’s 44 per cent of the vote in 2012 delivered 70 per cent of the seats in the legislature. For the opposition to have had a real chance of bringing the government down in a non-confidence vote, 18 PC MLAs, or 30 per cent of the caucus, would have had to abandon ship.

Some—myself included—believe SMP delivers simplicity and stability at too high a price. We pay for these features by sacrificing fairness and equity for political parties, individual voters and political minorities. Critics also accuse SMP of fuelling voter apathy.

Doug Bailie, president of the electoral reform advocacy group Fair Vote Canada, says party representation is fair if it “roughly reflects [each party’s] share of the popular vote.” Or, as University of Lethbridge political scientist Harold Jansen puts it: “I’d just like the views of Albertans to actually be reflected in their legislature.” What radical ideas!

Greater respect for fairness would have dramatically changed the complexion of the legislature after the 2012 provincial election. For example, the Wildrose would have received 30 seats, since 34 per cent of voters across the province put their mark beside the name of a Wildrose candidate. This would have been substantially more than the 17 seats SMP delivered to the party. The PCs would have formed a minority government.

The 2008 provincial election results demonstrate that a proportional system wouldn’t prohibit majority governments. But PR makes winners earn their majority by attracting a majority of voters. Ed Stelmach’s PCs did that in 2008, winning 53 per cent of the popular vote. A majority with 44 seats, not the whopping 72 that SMP delivered, would have been the PCs’ just reward. That majority would have faced a vibrant and diverse opposition in the legislature, an opposition able to hold the government accountable for its actions.

In five of Alberta’s 12 elections from 1971 to 2012 the PCs won seat majorities without securing majority support from voters.

Cross-national electoral studies also suggest that proportional electoral systems are more likely to promote equity between men and women, as measured by their respective presence in legislatures and ministerial positions. Canada began 2014 with a higher percentage of women in the House of Commons than the UK and the US had in parallel houses. But Canada’s Parliament was still only 25 per cent women, making us 55th worldwide, just behind Kazakhstan and Mauritania. Canada’s rank was lower than that recorded by 18 OECD nations with some form of proportional representation. Alberta, with women occupying 26.4 per cent of our legislature seats, would tie Turkmenistan for 47th place, still lower than most OECD countries using PR systems.

For the individual voter, fairness is contingent on choice. In the SMP system I may abandon my preferred party’s candidate because I foresee my support for her increasing prospects for the party I oppose unconditionally. Strategic voting was especially important in Alberta’s 2012 election, when Alison Redford’s PCs recovered during the last few days of the campaign from trailing badly in public opinion polls, and defeated the Wildrose on April 23.

Imagine I’m a social progressive living in the riding of Edmonton-South West. During the last week of the 2012 campaign I learn that Allan Hunsperger, a Wildrose candidate, believes public education is wicked, that public schools shouldn’t offer a safe, inclusive environment for gay students and that gays are headed for a lake of fire in the afterlife. Wildrose leader Danielle Smith refuses to condemn Hunsperger. Voting for my preferred candidate from the NDP may allow Hunsperger’s party to win the seat. I hold my nose, vote PC, and help Matt Jeneroux record a win over the Wildrose candidate. I become a strategic voter—someone who tries, as Jansen puts it, “to game the system to try to stop someone else from getting in.”

Strategic voting isn’t the only psychological effect laid at the door of SMP. Voter apathy is another. Cross-national election studies tell us that voter turnout in SMP systems tends to be slightly lower than in PR systems, systems where popular vote and legislative seat percentages roughly mirror each other. Imagine I’m now living in Edmonton-Whitemud, the riding Dave Hancock represented from 1997 to 2014. I now think the Alberta Party is the party best reflecting my values and interests. Is it rational for me to take the time to go out and cast my vote for their candidate? Not really. My preferred candidate doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in a lake of fire. My vote for the Alberta Party candidate would in a very real sense be a wasted vote; it simply wouldn’t count when it comes to determining the parties’ relative representation in the legislature. In terms of choice, supporting that candidate is not a real option for me.

If these concerns for fairness, equity and increasing voter turnout trump the benefits of the single member plurality electoral system, let’s consider proportional representation. Proportional representation can take three forms: party list, mixed-member proportional and single transferable vote. The following bare-bones descriptions are taken from Mount Holyoke College professor Douglas Amy’s excellent introduction to PR.

Party list systems, with large, multi-member constituencies, are the most common. Hypothetically, Calgary would have five large constituencies, each with five members, instead of 25 single-member constituencies. In the original version of this system, parties listed and ranked their five candidates. Voters cast one vote for a party, not a candidate. If a party received 40 per cent of the constituency vote, 40 per cent of its candidates—i.e., the candidates ranked first and second—would be elected. Since parties rank candidates, this “closed list” system gives the party leadership tremendous power.

Mixed-member proportional (MMP) systems can marry features of SMP with proportionality. Germany, for example, elects half of its lower house through single-member constituencies. The other half of Bundestag members comes from party lists. Candidates are selected from the party lists to ensure parties receive the same percentage of seats as their share of the popular vote. An MMP ballot lets an elector cast two votes, one for an MLA and one for a political party.

If these two systems seem complicated, they are simple compared to the single transferable vote (STV) system. STV, like the party list option, would establish multi-member constituencies. Rather than cast a vote for one party, however, STV asks voters to rank the candidates. If there are six candidates running for three seats in a multi-member district, you could make up to six marks on your ballot—ranking the candidates from one to six. On election night, the ballot counting begins by determining if any of the six candidates received enough first-choice votes to be elected. Assume one candidate has more than enough first-choice votes to be elected. In SMP, all the votes for other candidates are wasted. But in STV, the second choices on those winning ballots live on. They are distributed to the respective remaining candidates to see if they produce another winner. If not, then the last-place candidate is dropped and her second-choice votes are transferred to the remaining candidates. Eventually the second-most popular candidate is elected as well. Got it?

Other than much greater proportionality, is there anything recommending one PR system over another? That depends on your values and interests. If you worry that a party list system will increase party discipline in the legislature, a frequent criticism of today’s party system in Canada or Alberta, then you may like STV. University of Calgary political scientist David Stewart prefers STV, since, unlike a closed party list system, it “diminishes the power of the party leadership.” The U of L’s Jansen, on the other hand, prefers MMP because it retains the single member representation important to many people, while promoting a system where parties can develop principled programs. MMP increases the likelihood we could see more parties that “stand for something and present real choices” to the electorate.

Any of these PR alternatives, systems used in the majority of today’s liberal democracies, offer better representation of parties in legislatures, better representation of political minorities, fewer wasted votes and greater voter turnout. They better promote the values of fairness and equity. Is their greater complexity too high a price to pay for improving the democratic character of Alberta?

Fair Vote Alberta’s Bailie notes how Alberta’s demographic profile has changed and how the province exhibits more social diversity than in the past. He thinks demographic change is generating “a value shift that will really demand a political system that reflects and supports the diversity of Albertans.” While proportional representation isn’t inevitable, Bailie thinks modifying the voting system to keep pace with social change is crucial.

Experiences elsewhere tell us, though, that evolving demographics on their own are not enough to get electoral change onto the political agenda. Political leadership from major parties—parties that have benefited from or hope to benefit from SMP’s ability to manufacture legislative majorities—is a vital catalyst. U of C’s Stewart says “perfect storms” are generally needed to push major parties in this direction. These occur when, over the course of several successive elections, an SMP system fails to deliver what’s expected of it: majority wins for parties gaining the most votes and/or a functioning opposition—one that has the members needed to hold the government accountable.

New Zealand’s journey to replace SMP with MMP began with such a storm. In the 1978 and 1981 elections, the centre-right National Party received fewer votes than Labour but won majorities in the legislature. These “wrong winner” elections and the personal commitment of Labour’s Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer helped put PR on the political agenda. In a 1993 referendum, New Zealanders approved the switch to MMP 54 to 46 per cent.

In recent history, BC has come closest to adopting proportional representation in Canada. Again, a perfect storm thrust the issue onto the political agenda. In 1996 the NDP won a majority despite receiving a smaller percentage of the popular vote than the Liberals. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell committed his party to turn the issue of electoral reform over to a Citizens’ Assembly if and when they were elected. The pressure to fulfill this promise remained after the 2001 election because, courtesy of the SMP, the Liberals decimated the NDP. The NDP received only two of the legislature’s 79 seats despite getting 21 per cent of the vote. They were a legislative opposition in name only.

Could citizens force change? Perhaps. The Lieutenant Governor can require the government to hold a plebiscite on electoral reform.

The BC Liberals kept their promise and referred the elections matter to a Citizens’ Assembly, which recommended the province abandon SMP and replace it with STV. In a 2005 referendum, 58 per cent of voters endorsed the switch. This impressive level of public support, however, wasn’t enough to usher in change, since the Liberal government had decided that 60 per cent of voters would need to support the change in order for it to be implemented. Some suggest this unreasonable hurdle was raised to appease Liberal MLAs who were quite happy with the current system. Better in their minds to look like reformers than to act like reformers.

A second referendum was held in 2009, and support for STV fell to 39 per cent. What’s striking here is that Liberal voters, who split 50/50 on the question in 2005, abandoned STV in droves in the 2009 referendum. Only 20 per cent of Liberal voters supported STV this time—a 30 per cent drop. Liberal voters, like their MLAs in the lead-up to the 2005 vote, had warmed to the dominant single-party governments the SMP system had delivered them.

Predictably, neither of the two current largest parties in Alberta, the PCs and the Wildrose, supports changing the electoral system; the other opposition parties except the Alberta Party have said they support electoral system reform, with the Greens and the NDP endorsing proportional representation. Parties that believe they have a realistic chance of benefiting from SMP are likely to, as Stewart observes, “accept short-term loss for full power in the future.” He and Jansen both note that it’s tempting to look at Wildrose’s position through this prism.

Is there a perfect storm in our forecast that would push the PCs or Wildrose to reconsider their positions? The 2012 election has led to a political situation more complex, more fragmented and more regionalized than we’ve seen since the PC dynasty began in 1971. If that fragmentation intensifies in the next election, Jansen says we might “get some very odd results.” If either the PCs or Wildrose emerge as a “wrong winner,” the other party might well endorse electoral reform. But the chance of forming a majority government in the future will always remain a powerful aphrodisiac for the biggest parties.

Could citizens force change? Possibly. The Lieutenant Governor in Council can require the government to hold a plebiscite under s. 128 of Alberta’s Election Act, which would elicit “an expression of opinion” from electors about amending or introducing new legislation. A perfect storm could be a catalyst for such a plebiscite and give government the opportunity to look like it is at least willing to consider electoral reform. If Alberta’s future contains a Wildrose government, that party’s 2013 policy supporting citizens’ ability “to call for a binding referendum on a matter of significant public concern” might be used to trigger change.

I applaud former BC premier Gordon Campbell’s statement: “The rules of the democracy should be designed by the people they serve, not by the power brokers who may wish that the democracy worked in their interests.” I also know enough about politics to foresee the tremendous challenge in getting Alberta’s current largest parties to embrace those words and put this province on the path to a more democratic future.

Ian Urquhart teaches political science at the University of Alberta. Do you support electoral reform?


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