From Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up.

Chapter 3, 'Better Ballots'. (This chapter explains the six benefits of proportional systems: equality, diversity, civility, creativity, stability and simplicity)


Elite voices have become quite adept at using fear to slow reform. In particular, politicians and traditionalists in the media have tainted public opinion of proportional representation with two particular myths: instability and extremism. These accusations are not only untruthful but actually the opposite of reality. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that Canada should keep first past the post because it provides us with strong, stable governments. But a quick analysis of PR countries reveals they often have longer government terms, fewer elections and more stability. (Both Germany and Ireland, for example, which use MMP and STV, respectively, have had fewer elections than Canada during the last fifty years.) Another way to assess stability, beyond frequency of elections, is in terms of legislative consistency. In Canada, which has occasional wild electoral swings between left and right, new governments often spend their first year undoing much of the work of the previous government. So what may seem like a series of consecutive “stable” governments is actually a flailing policy fishtail. This legislative instability is caused by the artificial distortions directly resulting from first past the post. Under PR, the shifts of power from coalition to coalition are more likely to be incremental and organic, reflecting gradual shifts of public opinion more accurately. If you want stability, PR is for you.

As for the fear-mongering claim that PR would give a voice to radicals and racists, this, too, is completely backwards. While European parliaments do contain a few anti-immigrant radicals, it was the United States (using first past the post and a two-party oligopoly) that put an angry loose-cannon racist in the White House. In other words, a proportional system may give seats to an extremist party, but only a plurality system gives them absolute power. And while some claim that even a few seats can lead to power—since larger parties may be forced to form coalitions with extremists—this is a distortion of how those processes work. First of all, no party is forced to work with any particular fringe element. If a party wins 45 percent of the seats, they need to find just 6 percent more to form a governing coalition. Surely they’re not going to pick the most extreme party to work with. Secondly, the negotiations that lead to coalition governments are complex and require compromise from all parties, as well as calculations about how their decisions will look to their own supporters—and to future voters. This moderates any deals that are made, even with extremists.

“But what about Israel and Italy?” Ugh. This is the most tire- some, overused and ridiculous question when it comes to voting systems. Opponents of fair voting often point to these two countries as examples of how PR can create unstable governments and give rise to extremist voices. The correlation is absurd. Yes, both of these countries suffer from volatile governance, and yes they both use forms of PR. But so do Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland. In fact, more than ninety other countries use PR, and it’s working just fine for most of them.

What Italy and Israel have in common isn’t their voting system but their turbulent histories—both are top contenders for “most invaded country in history.” Lying in the middle of critical Mediterranean trade routes, Italy has suffered centuries of wars, assassinations and rebellions. More recently, Italy has served as the birthplace of both fascism and the mafia, neither having any- thing to do with the country’s voting system. In fact, most of Italy’s elections haven’t even used PR! Out of forty-one elections since the unification of Italy, only fifteen have actually used a proportional system. And the worst crises they’ve seen, including devastating poverty that triggered the largest documented emigration in world history, have taken place under governments that weren’t elected using PR.

Israel too has an unparalleled history: a narrow slice of desert inconveniently considered holy by three religions. Muhammad ascended to heaven on a horse just a few yards from where Jesus was crucified and around the corner from where Abraham tried to kill his own son. That’s messy. Then you’ve got decades of violent terrorism triggered by two displaced peoples: Jews escaping a genocide in Europe, and Palestinian refugees who were pushed out of their own homeland. Italy and Israel indeed have problems, but pointing the finger at their voting system is misleading and foolish—in biblical proportions. If we’re going to have public discussions about voting reform, let’s at least get our facts straight.

...For more than a century, our archaic voting system has delivered distorted, polarized, unrepresentative and unstable results. Switching our elections, both national and provincial, to a proportional system using transparent party lists and/or clusters of ridings would liberate our political marketplace and transform our political culture with six clear and distinct benefits: equality, diversity, civility, creativity, stability and simplicity. It can’t come soon enough.


Excerpted from Teardown. Copyright © 2019 by Dave Meslin. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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