Sanjay Ruparelia holds the Jarislowsky Democracy Chair at Ryerson University in Toronto. His major publications include Divided We Govern (OUP 2015), The Indian Ideology (Permanent Black 2015), and Understanding India’s New Political Economy (Routledge 2011). Ruparelia serves as a co-chair of the Participedia network (participedia.net), associate editor of Pacific Affairs, and as an expert for V-Dem: the Varieties of Democracy Project (Sweden).
The sweeping victory of the Coalition Avenir Quebec in the recent provincial election has renewed public debate over the distortions generated by our first-past-the-post electoral system. Attempts to introduce some form of proportional representation have failed to win enough support in several provincial referendums over the past two decades. Yet the drawbacks of first-past-the-post, dismissed by Premier François Legault as simply the concern of “a few intellectuals,” should worry us all.
Winner-take-all elections, designed to produce majority governments, are likely to deepen executive overreach, political frustration and social polarization – key elements of democratic backsliding that are intensifying around the world today.
In theory, our system of electing a single representative who amasses a plurality of votes to serve a constituency has many advantages. First, it often rewards a single party with a majority of seats in the legislature, producing stable governments that have a greater chance of implementing their programmatic agenda. Second, first-past-the-post creates incentives for parties to court the “median voter” who reflects the middle of the ideological spectrum, which encourages moderation. Finally, electing a single representative to serve a particular riding creates a strong tie with its constituents, bolstering democratic accountability.
Yet these virtues, which our electoral system often fails to achieve in practice, co-exist alongside significant drawbacks. The political stability enjoyed by majority governments can encourage them to ignore or be less responsive to the preferences, values and interests of citizens who voted for other parties. That is the point of majority rule – winners earn the right to govern. Yet parties that capture less than half the vote clearly do not represent the views of the majority of voters, let alone citizens who did not vote because their ballots may have little impact in uncompetitive ridings. The willingness of our elected leaders to heed this fact, to exercise political self-restraint in pursuing their partisan agendas and tolerate opposing views, has arguably diminished in many democracies in recent years. Small vote swings can lead to massive seat changes and policy lurches over time, hardly a recipe for stability.
In addition, first-past-the-post does not automatically push aspiring politicians to pivot to the centre of opinion to gain broader electoral support once they have captured their party leadership. A fragmented electoral field with several parties contesting for power, which increasingly describes many established democracies around the world, lowers the threshold for winning. And in many democracies, the centre of gravity has arguably shifted to the right of the ideological spectrum in recent years, pulling nominally centrist parties with it. A mechanical rule that disproportionately rewards and punishes winners and losers in an election often fails to induce political moderation or represent voters’ preferences.
Finally, although the members of our Parliament and provincial parliaments are elected to serve particular constituencies, they are disciplined foot soldiers far more accountable to their parties. In recent years, the vast majority of candidates seeking party nominations in federal elections ran uncontested. Many elected representatives stress in private that robust political debates regularly take place within their party caucuses. Yet citizens would be hard pressed to know given how easily most of them submit to their party whip. Public dissent is rare for anyone who seeks greater political influence or a cabinet appointment.
The shortcomings of first-past-the-post increasingly apply to Canada. Our democracy already concentrates political authority to a far greater extent than other Westminster systems, given the disproportionate power of the prime minister, provincial premiers and respective party leaders.
Suffice to say, electoral systems based on proportional representation have their own limitations. Backroom intrigues and internal hierarchies can determine who is selected to represent the party in the legislature (yet this clearly happens in our system too). Fractured electoral verdicts frequently compel parties to stitch together ruling coalitions capable of winning a numerical majority that may not have campaigned together. And proportional representation is not a simple antidote to the erosion of democratic norms, institutions and practices. Many countries that use proportional representation electoral systems, from France and Italy to Sweden and Germany, have witnessed growing social polarization that reflects and fuels the rise of far right parties that threaten minority rights.
But the fact that we describe a first-past-the-post electoral system as winner-takes-all underscores its majoritarian character. In an era of growing executive overreach, social discontent and ideological polarization, where many citizens feel their votes do not count in the end, political majoritarianism poses a genuine hazard for our democracies. We should take it seriously.