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April 17, 2003 — 1 PM

The Horse Race

The elections results in Quebec were clear enough. The Parti Libéral won 76 ridings, the Parti Québécois (PQ) won 45 and a meagre 4 went to the Action Démocratique (ADQ). The Liberals won “a decisive victory,” or so said just about every story from every news outlet.

The real story: the Liberals didn’t win this election, the PQ lost it. What? Well, the Liberals received 46% of the vote, which is only 2.5% more than they got in the 1998 election. Yet in 1998, the result was the exact opposite: the PQ won 76 and the Liberals won 48.

The difference is that in 1998, the PQ received 43% of the vote, but in 2003 they fell to 36%. The 7% discrepancy came from voters who switched to the ADQ. And that’s all it takes to swing 30 seats from one party to another.

Doesn’t that seem crazy to anyone besides me? This is what we get when we use a political system of pure regional representation with more than two parties. The solution, although it never suits the party in power, is to mix regional with proportional representation. Time for a political lesson…

* * *

In a representative democracy, there is more than one way to skin a ca—er, elect a government. In most places not governed by Robert Mugabe, it is very difficult for one party to win 50% of the vote. Yet in theory, a democratically-elected government should represent the intentions of a majority of voters. Different countries overcome this paradox with different methods.

In a proportional system, political parties win seats in a legislature according to the percentage of the total vote they garner. This usually results in no party winning a majority, leading to the formation of a coalition government. Coalition governments work if everyone can handle compromise, or else you get 58 governments in 14 years like Italy. Another problem with proportional representation is that a small fringe party, say an Ultra Orthodox party in Israel, can gain disproportionate power because a coalition depends on its votes to stay afloat.

To avoid these problems, many countries mix proportional representation with regional representation. The country is divided into roughly equal divisions, and each division elects a representative. This is also called “horse race politics”, because it gives everything to the winner, and nothing to the losers. Whether you win your seat by five votes or five thousand votes makes no difference to the overall result. In the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and not too many other places, we only use regional representation — a party’s share of the total national vote is meaningless to the result. In the US, this system works fairly well (or it would if everyone actually voted) because there are only two significant parties. A winning candidate needs at least 50% of the votes because there is generally only one challenger. I’m not talking about presidents and Ralph-Nader-vote-splitting here, just the House and Senate, those cornerstones of the American system many people both in and outside the US seem to forget. A president may have veto power, but he can’t force any legislation through if the House or Senate won’t have it. Honest. I checked.

Here in Quebec, a similar arrangement existed with power alternating between the Parti Libéral and the Parti Québécois, but the recent election results show that has changed. There is a third party (the ADQ) that has enough support to affect the election outcome, but not enough to win a meaningful number of seats. The one-in-five voters who chose the ADQ effectively lost their democratic say. And don’t even get me started on how Quebec’s bureaucrats have neutralized Montreal’s influence in Quebec elections through gerrymandering (the rural vote has absurdly disproportionate power even though Montreal has half the population).

It doesn’t have to be this way. Democracy can be more democratic. A purely proportional system isn’t the answer either, because regional concerns are important, but a mixed system is not only possible, it happens to be the way they do it all over Europe. Who knew!


Previously: Voter avec votre cœur

Subsequently: Honda Gets Everything to Work Just Right

April 2003
the Archives