the politics of fair representation

posted on July 14, 12021

Québec’s CAQ government has admitted that they will fail to meet one of their core campaign promises: bringing proportional representation to the National Assembly. Although they continue to insist that fair representation is important to them, Québec’s provincial elections will continue to use a vote-counting system which yields disproportionate results.

For those paying attention, it’s a callback to 5 years ago, when Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the same thing. After years of repeating his tagline: the 2015 election will be the last election using first-past-the-post, his government eventually decided not to.

Now Premier François Legault has done like Trudeau, after saying he would not do literally that. It’s becoming a pattern. So why does this keep happening?

background

how simple plurality works

Québec and Canada both use a system of elections known as simple plurality.

It works like this: each region of the province (or country) is allocated a single member to represent that region in the National Assembly (or House of Commons). The winner of each district is determined by a single election in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

There is no run-off or second count to make sure the winner is actually popular in the district. If there are 9 candidates and 8 of them receive 10% of the votes each while the other receives 20%, then that candidate wins — even though 80% of the voters preferred somebody else.

This means that across the entire province or country, it is theoretically possible for a single party to win every seat, representing every region, while winning only 20% of the votes in every region and therefore 20% of the votes overall. Although this is incredibly rare, it is much more common — downright normal — for parties to occupy seats disproportionately to how many votes they received.

That’s why this system of elections is a form of disproportionate representation. Everyone gets a vote, but some votes count more than others.

Some people feel that this is unfair. These people, such as everyone over at fairvote.ca, advocate for the opposite: proportional representation.

power structures within political parties

Over time, politicians campaigning to win one of these seats found it lucrative to lend a hand to like-minded candidates and receive their help in return. People with similar values coming together helps not only during the campaign (for example, sharing resources and giving public endorsements) but also in passing legislation (such as by writing bills together and agreeing on votes). For these reasons, political parties have formed in nearly every democratic or quasi-democratic system of government in history.

In modern times, political parties like to have a “face” or “brand” which they express by choosing a party leader. Practically, they need to, because most voters are not much interested in their local representative; they tend to vote based on party allegiance or preference of the current party leaders.1 That’s why most politicians are willing to trade their independence in decision-making for membership to a political party, and also why nearly all election winners come with the endorsement of one of the major parties.

So, at least in Canada, power in the party is concentrated at the top.

This means that members are going to have to bend to the will of the head office. If François Legault (as leader of the CAQ) instructs his party’s caucus to support or oppose a bill, they will obey — to do otherwise would risk expulsion from the party. Without the endorsement of the party, they will almost certainly not win re-election and lose their job.

That said, there is a limit to how much the party can whip its members to vote, especially against their own interests. In Ontario, one member of the the current Conservative government decided to leave the party instead of supporting legislation that was enormously unpopular in her region. The legislation would eliminate the commissioner for French-language services and defund a French-language university. Her district was predominantly Francophone. It was unlikely that she would keep her seat come next election if she had been seen to support such a bill.2

how Prime Ministers are elected

Although voters, in their minds, often look at the party leaders available and ask themselves whom they would prefer as Prime Minister, that’s not how it works. The head of government is never directly elected in Canada.

Instead, the elected representatives sent from each of the many districts gather and choose among themselves who is to lead.3 Typically, this will be the leader of one of the parties with the most seats; after all, putting similar goals behind a single leader is half the point of a political party.

The Prime Minister needs the support of a majority of the Members. If a single party has won a majority of the seats, this process is nearly automatic. That party’s Members will vote to install their leader as Prime Minister. It doesn’t matter how the remaining minority of the Members vote; the result is inevitable. This is called a majority government, and it’s how Legault came to lead Québec.

If no single party has won a majority of the seats, then the various party leaders with the best hope will each vie for the support of the remaining Members. Sometimes the Members cannot agree and reach deadlock, but since that reflects badly on everybody involved, they really prefer not to. Most of the time, a leader of a smaller party will direct their Members to support (temporarily) the leader of a larger party. This is called a minority government, and Justin Trudeau currently sits atop of one.

All of this implies that a Prime Minister who steps down, or is ousted by any means, can be replaced without an election. The other Members of Parliament may simply decide on a new one. A Prime Minister only lasts for as long as they have the confidence of the Members of the lower house, and votes of confidence occur at regular intervals to ensure that they do.

change is hard

We now have all the background information we need to understand why elected leaders like Legault and Trudeau find it so difficult to change unfortunate election systems.

Their position is not an enviable one: they ran on platforms which included bringing fair representation to future elections. This platform was popular with voters; Legault’s Coalition received 37% of the votes; more than any other party. Through the magic of disproportionate representation, this 37% of the votes translated into a majority of the seats in the National Assembly (nearly 60%).

With his party controlling a cozy majority of the seats, he can pass any legislation he wants.

Well, almost. He might have brought them a big victory, but he is still answerable to his own party. If the CAQ decides that they don’t like his leadership, they can choose somebody else as leader. Failure to keep their support could lead to a quick ending for his career.

Suppose he approached them and instructed them to support a new bill which would change the election system to a proportional one, guaranteeing that a party getting 40% of the votes would win exactly 40% of the seats.

Hang on. His party got 40% of the votes! And 60% of the seats!

1/3 of them are going to be putting themselves out of a job. And depending on the specifics, they might not even know which third.

That’s too much. The caucus would rebel. They would choose a new leader — one more amenable to unfair elections which benefit the party.4

a self-perpetuating system

And so the Prime Minister gives up. More likely, he considered the brownie points it would cost him within the party, and never even tried. Maybe they even foresaw this before ever winning an election — whether either Trudeau or Legault ever intended to keep their campaign promises is not knowable to us.

Which puts us in a hard position, if we care about fair elections.

The disproportionate system is inherently self-reinforcing. Whoever currently suffers can’t change it; whoever currently benefits can’t either.

It’s a weird sort of stability.

Maybe the system was designed specifically to perpetuate itself. Or maybe it evolved naturally — less stable systems that were tried didn’t manage to stick around.5

Either way, I don’t know that there is any path toward a fair election system. Maybe via a minority government?


  1. In my anecdotal experience, few can even name their local member of Parliament. I have met people living in Papineau unaware that their representative in Parliament was the Prime Minister himself.↩︎

  2. Amanda Simard eventually joined the province’s Liberal Party.↩︎

  3. I gloss over some details. This is basically what happens, modulo some weird traditions and conventions.↩︎

  4. This phenomenon is also described in The Dictator’s Handbook, also presented in abridged video form by CGP Grey.↩︎

  5. This does not mean that those responsible are off the hook. They still, at some point, stopped trying.↩︎