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Myths About Fair Voting and Proportional Representation
Rather than defend the glaring problems with Canada’s winner-take-all voting system, critics usually spend more time trying to frighten people about change. Let’s look at some of common myths they promote, compared to the facts.
Myth 1: There are trade-offs between good democracy and good government.
The Facts: In his landmark study, Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Democracies (1999), internationally-renowned political scientist Arend Lijphart assessed and compared the performance of majoritarian democracies (associated with winner-take-all voting systems) and consensus democracies (associated with proportional representation systems).
He concluded: “the overall performance record of the consensus democracies is clearly superior to that of the majoritarian democracies” and “the good news is that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is no trade-off at all between governing effectiveness and high-quality democracy – and hence no difficult decisions to be made on giving priority to one or the other objective.”
Fair Vote Canada has prepared an 8-page summary of Dr. Lijphart’s key findings.
Myth 2: Proportional representation means coalition governments and that’s bad because it requires deal-making.
The Facts: Governments formed under any voting system are coalitions of different groups who negotiate and make deals. That’s the way democracy works.
In Canada, the two largest “big tent” parties are coalitions of factions which are generally hidden from public view except during leadership races. These internal factions compete with one another and then negotiate and compromise on the party platform and policies.
The primary difference between this and the formation of multi-party coalition governments under fair voting systems are: 1) transparency - coalition negotiations among parties are generally more visible to the public and the compromises are publicly known; and 2) majority rule - under fair voting systems, the resulting coalition or governing group represents a true majority of voters.
Myth 3: Parties will multiply like rabbits.
The Facts: If every Canadian had an equal vote, the range of parties would have to reflect what voters want. Some new parties may be formed and old parties may have to restructure.
The experience in other countries indicates the introduction of fair voting would likely result in a very small increase in the number of parties that can win seats and affect legislation.
For comparison purposes, political scientists often refer to the effective number of parties. In his book, Arend Lijphart describes the most widely used calculation, which considers the percentage of seats held by each party. In a nation where two parties each holds exactly half the seats, the effective number of parties would be 2.0. If one party held the great majority of seats, the effective number of parties might drop to 1.5 or so. If a competitive third party won seats, the effective number of parties may jump to 2.5, and so on.
Lijphart’s findings based on elections between 1945 and 1996 were interesting. During that period, the effective number of parties was 2.37 for Canada, 2.40 for the U.S. and 2.11 for the UK. That compares to 2.93 for Germany with its mixed proportional system, and only 4.65 for the Netherlands, which has the most proportional voting system in the world, and 4.55 for Israel.
Proportional voting systems allow more parties to win seats, but comparing the effective number of parties provides some much-needed perspective. Most voters want to support parties that can play a role in law-making, rather than support tiny parties sitting on the sidelines. In addition, some countries also set thresholds in their voting systems (e.g., 3% or 5% of the popular vote) before parties can win seats in parliament.
Myth 4: Fringe parties get too much power.
What about the tail wagging the dog? Won’t small parties be able to force the big parties, who need their support, to adopt radical policies?
The Facts: Consider one very practical safeguard. Any party adopting an agenda that offends its own support base would be severely punished at the next election. (Just ask the New Zealand First Party, which in 1996 entered into a coalition that shocked its supporters, and the party subsequently lost 75% of its votes in the next election.)
The logic of coalition-building is the opposite of the tail wagging the dog. It's more like the dog choosing the tail that fits. Generally, two or more like-minded parties, who together represent a majority of voters, agree to form a coalition government. Their compromise agenda will generally focus on areas of policy agreement. If two parties representing a majority of voters have common policy interests, that often indicates majority public support for those policies.
Myth 5: Chaos Theory: The Two "I's" (Israel and Italy).
Another frequent scare tactic is to point to the unstable political systems in Italy and Israel, both of which use forms of proportional representation.
The Facts: Let's apply some perspective. With more than 80 nations using proportional systems, critics can find only these two extreme examples. Italy and Israel are as typical for proportional representation as Zimbabwe and Rwanda are for first-past-the-post voting systems.
Opponents of fair voting don't like to talk about the long-term stability and prosperity of Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, or about most of the other 81 countries using proportional systems. In the last half of the twentieth century, many of the large European countries had about the same number of elections as Canada.
Coalition governments created under fair voting systems tend to be stable and productive for two reasons. First, the parties know that a fair voting system makes it highly unlikely any party will gain a majority of seats, because seldom do a majority of voters support any one party. The parties understand the only way they can ever govern is by creating constructive partnerships with other parties. Second, because election results reflect the way people vote, the parties have no motivation to force frequent elections because of small shifts in public opinion. With Canada’s first-past-the-post system, a small shift in votes can trigger a huge swing in seats – something that cannot happen with a fair voting system.
Far from creating chaos, Lijphart’s study on effective government demonstrated that countries using fair voting systems readily match and often exceed the economic and social performance of nations run by single party governments (usually false majorities). As Dr. Lijphart concluded, there is no trade-off between good democracy and good government. In fact, it is good democracy that leads to good government.