Claim: “But proportional representation systems allow parties with extreme positions of the right or the left to be elected with a tiny percentage of votes – and then use that validity, legitimacy and platform to further their cause”.
NOTE: For the claims about “extremist” parties, see here.
The claim that parties with a “tiny” percentage of the vote will be elected is mostly false in the context of the proportional systems recommended for Canada.
Proportional systems for Canada usually have thresholds of support a party must meet to win seats.
For example, in the recent BC referendum the Attorney General’s report guaranteed a 5% threshold that a party must reach before being able to elect MLAs to proportional seats. 5% is a the threshold used in Germany and New Zealand. Those countries have no more parties elected than Canada.
In addition, the way proportional systems for Canada would likely be designed – on a regional basis, with a limited number of seats to fill in each region – the natural threshold to win a seat in many regions would be much higher than 5%.
(For an evaluation of that same claim for “extremist” parties who may not be “fringe” parties see here – the evidence does not strongly support that claim either).
How Likely is it that “Fringe Parties” Win Seats with the Proportional Systems Proposed for Canada?
5% is a common threshold in proportional systems. To put that in perspective in the context of Canada’s “fringe parties”:
If all 14 “fringe parties” which ran candidates in BC’s 2017 election who did not get anyone elected combined all their votes, all those votes together would still add up to less than 1% of the total votes cast.
In Canada’s last few federal elections, all 15-20 “fringe” parties put together didn’t get 1% of the vote.
How Many Parties Can We Expect with Proportional Representation Models for Canada?
Proportional Representation is associated with an increase in the number of parties represented in legislatures. It undeniably makes it easier for voters for smaller parties to achieve representation.
Lijphart’s (1994) comparison of advanced industrialized democracies in 1945-90 found the “effective number of parliamentary parties” (ENPP) – which takes account not only of the number of parties but also the relative size of each – was 2.0 in plurality systems (first-past-the-post), 2.8 in majority systems (like Alternative Vote/Run-Off) and 3.6 in proportional systems.
Norris (1997) looking at elections in the 1990’s found that the effective number of parliamentary parties was 3.1 in majoritarian systems (first-past-the-post and Alternative Vote), 3.9 in mixed or semi-proportional systems, and 4.0 in proportional systems.
However, the number of parties depends on the political culture, the particular election, and the design of the system.
No-one has proposed a pure “List PR” system for Canada with a low threshold – the type of proportional system that would be most likely to facilitate many more parties. What is proposed is almost always a “mixed” system (Mixed Member Proportional) or a Single Transferable Vote based system that both maintain local representation. See picture at the right for how many parties are elected with these types of systems.
In addition to a 5% threshold being common, the size of the regions or districts (the number of MLAs elected per region or district) will vary with geography. That will mean that the natural threshold to win seats may be significantly higher than 5% in some regions. If a region elects 8 members, a party will need about 12% of the vote to win a seat.
Do any of the proportional systems in Fair Vote Canada’s submission to the federal Electoral Reform Committee make it even possible for a “fringe party” candidate to win a seat?
Since Single Transferable Vote elects all local MLAs, there is no party-based threshold to apply. It is a candidate-based system.
In a 5 seat district, a local candidate would be guaranteed one of the local seats with about 17% of the vote. Obviously, this is a strong level of local voter support and would not be considered “fringe” by voters in that district.
In Ireland, which uses STV, representatives from a few small parties (such as “People Before Profit”) have a seat in their legislature because their popular local representative was elected by local voters, even though nationally, support for that party is in the range of 2-3%. Similarly, Ireland also elects many independent representatives.
Ireland’s elections are more locally-focused than most countries with proportional representation. Tasmania and Malta, which also use STV, have no representatives from small parties or independents.
Would “fringe party” MPs be able to use their few seats to “further their cause”? (How much power would they have?)
This would assume that an MP from a “fringe party” would be elected – as stated above, it’s difficult.
This claim is difficult to evaluate objectively as there is no research available.
Take a practical example. The 50PLUS party in the Netherlands got 1.9% of the vote and 2 seats (because the Netherlands, an exceptional case, has almost no threshold). Has this allowed them to “further their cause” of benefits for people age 50+? They’re not exactly driving the national agenda.
Remember the two MPs from the Strength in Democracy Party in Canada’s 2011-2015 Parliament? Most readers may not even remember they existed – which speaks to how much power they had.
Lijphart, Arend. (1994) Electoral Systems and Party Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Norris, Pippa (1997). Choosing Electoral Systems – Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed. https://sites.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Acrobat/Choosing%20Electoral%20Systems.pdf
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