What is first-past-the-post?

Canada is divided into 338 ridings – 338 geographical areas that each elect one Member of Parliament.

While we talk about a “federal election”, what we really have are 338 separate riding elections.

Let’s see what this looks like locally, then examine the effect of first-past-the-post on the overall national results and governance.

In the picture below, we have the results from what we’ll call “Example Riding”.

As explained above, in each riding the voters who choose the most popular candidate elect an MP. In this case, the candidate of the Blue Party.

The ballots of the other voters do not elect any representation.

Now let’s pretend our Example Riding is in a city. In this city, there are four ridings, each of which elects one MP.

In this overly simplified below, let’s look at how the same results in our Example Riding might look beside the results from other three ridings in the same city.

You can see that in each riding, Blue Party voters formed the largest group. In each riding, they elected an MP. Therefore the entire city is represented by MPs from the Blue Party.

However, a substantial number of voters in each riding – and the city overall – wanted a representative from the Purple Party, Yellow Party or Salmon Party to represent their views.

The blue party won all 4 seats in CityVille, despite the fact that 60% of voters (the majority) did not support that party.

Who represents the values and policy preferences of voters who did not choose the Blue Party in Parliament?

The Example Comes to Life in the 2019 Federal Election

There are 40 riding seats in the Greater Toronto area (GTA), Halton, and Peel.

In the 2019 election, about 56% of voters in those regions chose the Liberals to represent them. However, because each riding is a one-winner-takes-all vote (first-past-the-post), and the Liberal candidate won the plurality in every single riding,  the results do not represent the political diversity of views at all.

Every other point of view is shut out.

As seen in the picture below, 2019 election results in Alberta and Saskatchewan were just as stark.

Despite political diversity in both provinces, voters of parties other than the Conservatives received almost no representation. Only one non-Conservative MP was elected – despite 30-35% of voters choosing other parties.

These kind of extreme results with first-past-the-post are not uncommon. Provincially, in 1987, 60% of New Brunswick voters chose the Liberals. However, since the Liberals won 58/58 riding seats, there was no opposition. Nobody to even ask questions of the governing party in the legislature.

Sometimes first-past-the-post even produces a “wrong winner” election – when one party receives more popular support, but another party gets to govern with a majority. This happened in BC in 1996, when the Liberals received more votes than the NDP, but the NDP won a majority government (which gave them all the power).

The distorted results of the 2019 federal election in Alberta and Saskatchewan had the unfortunate consequence of meaning that no MPs of the governing Liberal were elected from either province, so voters in those provinces will have no representation at the Cabinet table. This lack of representation is fueling divisiveness and “western alienation.”

If we look at the popular vote versus seats won province by province across the whole country, the image below shows the contrast.

Results on the National Level in Parliament

The basic problem with first-past-the-post is that the overall results have little relationship to the popular vote. 

First-past-the-post is a majoritarian system, which is not designed to create a Parliament that reflects how people voted. As we can see below, the overall results in Parliament are not what voters wanted.

Some parties got many more seats than their popular support warranted. Others got far fewer seats.

1.8 million people voted for the Green party.  The system rewarded them with three Green Party seats.  2.1 million people voted for the Bloc Quebecois.  The system rewarded them with 32 Bloc seats.  These results have an effect on whose voices are heard and who has power in over policy decisions in Parliament.

Although Canada currently has a minority government, it is not uncommon for a single party to form a majority government with far less than 50% of the vote.

The Liberals formed a majority government in 2015 with 39.5% popular support.

The Conservatives formed a majority government in 2011 with 39.6% popular support.

A majority government means the governing party has 100% of the power. After almost every election, the majority of voters have NO SAY in government decision making. 

With one party having 100% of the power, it often appears that the government is run by one person and some backroom party strategists.

Polling over decades shows that most Canadians do not feel that a majority government elected by far less than 50% of voters is fair or representative.

In addition to single party sweeps of entire regions or provinces, first-past-the-post has other difficulties, including:

Swing Ridings: A few voters in a few “swing ridings” can decide the results – so politicians focus most of their time and efforts there.

Safe Seats: Many seats are “safe seats” where the same party could run a lamppost and win, allowing parties to routinely ignore voters in those ridings.

Strategic Voting: Many voters feel compelled to vote “strategically” for the “lesser evil” rather than their sincere preferences

Policy Lurch: When governments flip back and forth from one 39% majority to another, policies can shift drastically, with one party undoing the work of the previous party.

Adversarial Politics: Since elections are a winner-take-all contest in each riding, and the attainable goal is a majority government where a single party in power doesn’t need to listen to anyone else, elections can be nasty and cooperation in Parliament is the exception rather than the norm.

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