In conventional political terms, Doug Ford won a landslide victory Thursday night, earning a second straight majority government.
But the 83 seats won by Ford’s Progressive Conservative party came from just 41 per cent of ballots cast. The Liberals, meanwhile, were held to just eight seats compared to the NDP’s 31, even though each received roughly 24 per cent of the vote.
Those discrepancies have some political observers wondering whether it’s time to scrap the first-past-the-post voting system, which has been in place since Ontario first started holding elections. Critics say it’s an antidemocratic anachronism which doesn’t reflect voters’ preferences. Defenders say it provides some stability, and keeps extreme fringe parties from getting a toehold.
But a historically low turnout of just 43 per cent of eligible voters has even some first-past-the-post backers questioning the system.
“Look, I’m a big fan of first past the post, but it does bother me when I do that math. Forty-one per cent support and 43 per cent turnout gives you just under 18 per cent of the voting population giving 70 per cent of the seats and 100 per cent of the power,” said veteran pollster Quito Maggi, CEO of Mainstreet Polling.
“I don’t care which party it is, but when 43 per cent of people vote and you do the math, it just seems silly.”
For Ted Cragg, an activist with Fair Vote Canada, a voting reform organization, Thursday’s results were par for the course.
“It again reflects a distortion of the popular vote,” said Cragg. “It’s the same kind of narrative in any election.”
Fair Vote Canada supports proportional representation, a system in which parties’ shares of seats in a legislature are closely aligned with their shares of the popular vote. While there are several different versions of proportional representation, they all more accurately reflect the will of voters, Cragg said.
The first-past-the-post system rewards parties that have deep support in a concentrated area, rather than parties with shallower but geographically broad support, Cragg said. And while the Liberals typically have a more “efficient” vote when it comes to winning seats, this time, they saw the system’s biggest flaw up close.
That, Cragg added, actually gives him hope there could be broader support for changing the voting system.
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“The Liberals should feel pretty disadvantaged by the system,” said Cragg. “That should give some momentum within the party to say, ‘To avoid this happening again, we should change the system — and if we had changed the system this time around, then maybe we would’ve been in a position to take the lead in a coalition with the NDP.’”
Still, Cragg said ruefully that parties that have voting reform as part of their official platforms might actually not mind the current system.
“It’s remarkable how the parties are willing to put up with the thought that in the next election cycle it will be their turn,” said Cragg. Now that the shoe is on the other foot for a party that was in power from 2003 to 2018, it could force a Liberal reckoning, Cragg said.
“How much longer are they willing to wait, and how do they feel about it the day after the election, when they didn’t get anywhere near the number of seats they should have?” Cragg said.
Steven Del Duca — who resigned as Liberal leader on election night — had said he would introduce a ranked ballot system, which he argued would reduce partisanship. The provincial NDP backs so-called mixed member proportional (MMP) representation.
“Six in 10 Ontarians voted for hope, not cuts. The NDP is strong and we’ll be there to hold the Conservatives to account, but support electoral reform for future elections,” said NDP spokesperson Erin Morrison.
But University of Toronto political scientist Mel Cappe argued that support for electoral reform is more a function of a party’s results than any broad democratic principle.
“That’s why the NDP has always been in favour of (proportional representation) or versions of it — because they’re the perpetual non-governing party, at the federal level anyway. In some provinces, they’re very satisfied with first past the post,” said Cappe, a distinguished fellow at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
And, said Cappe, proportional representation systems have a tendency to give extremist fringe parties a greater platform than they’d get otherwise, pointing to Israel, where ultra-Orthodox or ethnically based parties frequently make up part of governing coalitions in a country which uses proportional representation.
The big advantage of first past the post, Cappe added, is it provides more stable governments, which aren’t constantly at risk of being toppled by skittish coalition partners. What some see as a bug — one party earning a majority of the seats with less than 50 per cent of the popular vote — is also one of first past the post’s benefits.
“It’s inadequate, but it gives us some stability and ability to govern,” he said. “It might take us four years to throw the bastards out, but it happens, and we’ve seen it. We see it at the federal level, we see it at the provincial level.”
Josh Rubin is a Toronto-based business reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @starbeer
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