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Electoral reform is not about revolution, it's about evolution

Guest blog by Jesse Hitchcock 

In ecology, we talk about ecosystems - groups of organisms living together and interacting with their environment. Ecosystems are perfectly engineered to balance the needs of many. Ecosystems are a continuous and artful dance between stresses and solutions. They are always evolving. The communities we live in are no exception. We are constantly interacting with each other and our world, and finding ways to make our communities as meaningful and effective as possible.

I was inspired by Michael Chender’s submission last week that described our democracy as a complex system. It is indeed complex. Our democracy is one in a long list of complex strategies we have developed to suit our needs as communities and as people.

Public transportation is a complex system. Universal healthcare is a complex system. These are all systems with the explicit purpose of working to serve our communities, our provinces and our country. Democracy is defined as government by the people. Democracy, not unlike any of these systems, must adapt to suit the needs and interests of the people.

Adaptation requires change, and we are not strangers to change where democracy is concerned.

In 1919, Canadian parliamentarians decided that women should vote in federal elections. Two years later, a woman was elected to Parliament for the first time in Canadian history. In the 1950’s and 60’s  Inuit and First Nations people obtained the right to vote and run. In 1970, the voting age dropped from 21 to 18. In 1992, voting became more accessible for people with disabilities. And in 2002, inmates in Canadian penitentiaries were given the right to vote in elections. 

Electoral reform isn’t a radical overhaul of our democratic system. It’s just another step toward optimizing the system that we already have - toward making sure our democracy truly is by the people.

We are not alone in wanting to update our electoral system. In the 1990’s, New Zealand introduced proportionality to their voting system. Australia adopted compulsory voting in 1924. Denmark revised its constitution in 1953 to include a suite of new electoral regulations. We can see examples closer to home, too. The Prince Edward Island government struck a multi-party committee to examine democratic renewal and the resulting plebiscite proposal was adopted in Legislature just last week. These are signs of a healthy democracy that is responding to the changing needs of the people it represents.

To assume that our priorities and values have remained the same since our current First Past the Post electoral system was adopted - in 1867 - is nothing short of outrageous. We hadn’t yet invented cars, it was considered proper etiquette to always wear gloves in public, and you could buy 160 acres of land in Western Canada for $10.

Things today are clearly quite different. We can wear whatever we want, for the most part, and property costs a lot more than a crisp John A. Macdonald. Our country has lead the way in many progressive fields. Canada was the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. We promptly banned chlorofluorocarbons because science told us that they were harmful to the ozone layer, and We were one of the first countries to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Democracy is ‘government by the people’.

People are constantly revisiting their ideas, values, and priorities. If we can think of a single truth about ourselves, it might be that we are relentless in our pursuit of tools and opportunities to do things better. To be better. We innovate. We create.

Changing our voting system is no exception. Electoral reform is simply the next step in our constantly evolving democracy.

Canada tends toward inclusion. We are constantly learning more about our environments and about each other, and we adapt. We have grown accustomed to extending rights, not restricting them. We become more aware and accepting as we attempt to bring others into our national mosaic. This is highlighted by the many progressive accomplishments listed above. Our social and political climate is constantly changing - we are changing - so why wouldn't our democratic institutions?

Our current system excludes many. More than a third of Canadians don’t vote. In 2015, nearly 5 million Canadians cast ballots for parties who collectively got only 55 seats in the House of Commons. That’s 30% of voters whose voices only ended up electing 55 of our 338 Members of Parliament. In contrast, fewer than 40% of voters voted for a party who now holds 184 of those seats (54%). The math can be cumbersome, but the fact is simple: the will of the Canadian electorate is not represented in the makeup of our government.

Provinces aren’t exempt, either. In PEI, 25% of voters chose parties who collectively received only a single seat in Legislature in 2015. The current government in Alberta holds 62% of the seats, despite only earning the support of 4 in 10 voters. In Nova Scotia, almost a third of voters cast ballots for a party who only has only 7 seats in Legislature. You get the point.

Voters are disconnected from government. They’re disenfranchised. This complex system that we've created may have suited our needs when we had only two major parties. Today, though, Canadian values are less binary. The system needs to adapt to include those who are voting for parties that are underrepresented. It needs to reach out to young people and to first nations. It needs to become palatable to those who don’t vote at all.

So, what’s next?

Canadians are craving an electoral system that fosters collaborative, inclusive and less partisan politics. Truly a government by the people - the many, and not just the few. These changes don’t require a revolution. They are simply the next steps in our ongoing - and always exciting - democratic evolution.

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Jesse Hitchcock attends grad school in PEI where she studies how agriculture might be impacting our oceans. She co-founded the grassroots group Young Voters of PEI and is a core member of the Proportional Representation Action Team which is actively educating islanders about Proportional Representation heading into the upcoming provincial plebiscite on voting reform this November.  Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseHitchcock

Got something to say about voting systems? We're inviting your contributions to the Springtide blog over the months of May and June on the topic of better voting systems as a part of our Better Choices project. Email mark [at] springtidecollective [dot] ca if you're interested in contributing, and we'll share our contribution guidelines with you.

The views expressed in guest blog posts are those of the contributors, and not the Springtide Collective. We invite a diversity of commentary and opinions encourage those who wish to express theirs on the Springtide blog to get in touch.