Barack Obama And Proportional Representation

barack.jpgOver the last several years a number of Canadian provinces have flirted with implementing proportional electoral systems. These systems award seats in legislatures to political parties based on the support they receive in elections. For example, say a political party wins 30% of the vote in a Canadian election. Under a proportional electoral system that party would be awarded about 30% of the seats in the House of Commons.

Currently, every election at the provincial and federal level in Canada is conducted using the antiquated single member plurality electoral system (SMP). Unlike proportional electoral systems, under SMP the candidate who gets the most votes in each electoral district (aka constituency, riding etc.) is elected to represent that district. Unfortunately, this means representatives are often elected with less than 50% of the votes cast since only a plurality is required. A review of the last Canadian federal election reveals a stunning number of Members of Parliament who effectively represent less than 50% of the constituents in their riding. It also means political parties tend to be over- or under-represented in legislatures.

Efforts to overturn this patently undemocratic method for electing lawmakers have been thwarted by established interests worried their political dominance will be threatened by opening up the electoral process to smaller parties. For example, in both B.C. and Ontario governments held referenda about switching to proportional electoral systems. However, in order to switch, both governments required the ‘yes’ vote to reach 60%, an impossibily high threshold by any standard. Ironically, MMP (the propotional system proposed for Ontario) was discarded and considered a dismal failure after it only garnered the support of 37% of voters. Yet in the provincial election held concurrently to the referendum, the Ontario Liberal Party was re-elected in a ‘landslide’ to form a majority government after only receiving 43% of the vote. Does a 6% gap really make the difference between a dismal failure and a landslide victory?

In the United States general elections are also conducted using the SMP system. However, the Democratic Party uses a proportional electoral system to conduct its presidential primaries. This, perhaps more than any other factor, has allowed Barack Obama to virtually clinch the Democratic presidential nomination. After all, Hillary Clinton has won the bigger states, including California and New York.

Based on Wikipedia’s tally of Democratic primaries to date, 1,270 delegates are currently pledged to Clinton and 1345.5 are pledged to Obama (including superdelegates, but not including the results of the penalized Michigan and Florida primaries). However, based on my own calculations, had the primaries and caucuses been conducted under the SMP system Clinton would currently have 1,360 delegates while Obama would have only 1,317.5 (again, including superdelegates but not Michigan and Florida). This is despite Obama having won more states (25 to Clinton’s 14) and having received more votes overall (about 9.9 million to Clinton’s 8.9 million – not including caucus states that do not release vote figures).

Under this (nightmare) scenario, Clinton victories on March 4th in Ohio and Texas (likely even in this reality) would see her wrap-up the nomination. Indeed, the 334 delegates Clinton would gain from those two states would make her nearly unbeatable heading into the Convention.

Proprtional electoral systems are thus better at accounting for candidates and parties whose support is geographically diffuse. In other words, the Democratic Party’s decision to employ a system of proportional representaion means it will nominate a candidate who has demonstrated his electability in both red and blue states in every region of the country. It also means it will have avoided nominating a candidate who has proven support only in traditional Democratic strongholds like the Northeast and California.

So, for all you Obama supporters out there, just be glad the Democrats have moved beyond the centuries-old, undemocratic SMP method and have embraced proportional representation. I just hope Canada decides to do the same.

2 Comments

  • Steve Withers
    February 20 - 5:17 pm | Permalink

    The MMP referendum in Ontario was further hampered by the misdirected public information campaign. Voters were told there was a referendum, but the substance of the recommendation for change from the Citizen’s Assembly was effectively suppressed – available on the Internet for those who had the initiative to hunt for it.

    Proportional representation is one person, one vote….as it should be. The parties are held to account directly in ways that SMP makes impossible or very difficult.

  • February 20 - 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comment Steve. I completely agree, the public information campaign ahead of the Ontario referendum was poorly managed and ultimately failed in its efforts to educate the public about both the pros and cons of the proposed MMP system.

    In BC, the government has promised to provide more funding to both sides in the run up to the 2009 BC-STV referendum. Hopefully this will ensure the proposal reaches the (ridiculous) supermajority required for it to be implemented.

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