Electoral reform for Prince Edward Island.

Author:Cousins, John Andrew

Lopsided electoral results have become commonplace in Prince Edward Island politics. In three of the four provincial elections since 1989, the Opposition has been reduced to one or two members. In these three elections, Opposition parties received about 40 per cent of the votes but only about five per cent of the seats in the Legislative Assembly. Recognizing that it is difficult for democracy to thrive in these conditions, many Islanders are considering rather fundamental changes to the electoral system. In particular, some propose that the Island should consider adopting some form of Proportional Representation, a method of election that has become the norm in democratic states in Europe, and most recently ill New Zealand and Scotland. In response to this public dialogue, the Institute of Island Studies commissioned a research paper to look at possible alternative electoral systems for Prince Edward Island. This is an abridged version of that report.

Recent Prince Edward Island elections have revealed very pointedly the flaws in the present electoral system and have raised the possibility that PEI would very likely benefit from adding an element of proportional representation to its electoral system. Such a change would make the Legislature reflect more accurately the way Islanders actually vote than do the distortions produced by the existing plurality system. It would ensure that democracy is not weakened by the long-term absence of an effective legislative opposition -- a state of affairs that has become the rule, rather than the exception, since the late 1980s. It would minimize the disproportional effects of small shifts in the popular vote, while allowing the political culture to respond to long-term changes ill politics and society, such as the emergence of new parties. Finally, it would allow PEI to set an example by reforming a plurality system that, like many others in North America, is seriously flawed.

Prince Edward Island's electoral system follows the British model, often called the "single-member plurality" (SMP) system, or the "first-past the post" system. Each of the Island's 27 electoral districts is represented by a single Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). A member of the assembly is elected by a plurality of votes, that is, more votes than any other single candidate in the constituency or district. The party winning a majority of seats in the legislature forms a government. If no party wins a majority, the party holding the greatest number of seats governs as a minority, or several parties may govern in a coalition.

These are the essentials of the plurality system. The tenacity with which North American jurisdictions cling to this "first-past-the-post" arrangement might lead some voters to assume that it is the only way to conduct democratic elections. In fact, a few ex-British colonies -- principally Canada, the United States and India -- remain wedded to the plurality system, but few others do. A cursory survey of world electoral systems reveals that systems of proportional representation (PR) are the norm in advanced democracies such as those of northern and western Europe. Proportional representation systems are those "by which political parties hold a percentage of seats in the legislature that approximates their percentage of the popular vote in the election."

Proportional representation can potentially remedy certain flaws of the plurality system. For instance, under plurality, the number of seats a party holds in the legislature often bears little relation to its share of the popular vote. This comes as a surprise to some of plurality's advocates. The plurality system exaggerates the support for the leading party and minimizes that of other parties, leading to election results that do not mirror the popular vote. On Prince Edward Island an obvious effect of this distortion is, the virtual elimination of opposition parties from the Legislature. Recent elections have been winner-take-all affairs, resulting in exaggerated majorities for the leading party.

The plurality system allows small shifts in the popular vote to rearrange drastically the face of the government and the legislature. The "landslides" to which the press often refer are often created by these minor shifts. The Liberals carried the 1943 PEI provincial election with 20 of 30 seats; a shift of fewer than 100 votes across the province would have given the Conservatives a majority.

Electoral Politics on Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island's first Assembly met, according to legend, in a Charlottetown tavern in 1773. The 18 members, elected by the male protestants of the colony, were called "a damned queer parliament" by the Sergeant-at-Arms, who was reportedly fined five shillings for the comment. The Assembly grew to 24 members by the Election Act of 1838, and to 30, in 15 dual constituencies, in 1856. The Upper House, called the Legislative Council, became elective in 1862, with six dual-member constituencies and one with a single member.

The houses were merged by the Legislature Act of 1893. Henceforth there would be a Legislative Assembly with 15 dual-member districts, each electing an assemblyman and a councillor. The function of the Assembly, as Frank MacKinnon wrote in his seminal 1951 book The Government of Prince Edward Island, was (and is) "to enable the representatives of the people to make the laws by which the province is governed, to express ideas mid opinions upon public business, and to praise and criticize the actions of the executive."

The Assembly retained the complexion provided by the Legislature Act until the 1960s. In 1962 the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform called for a revision of the voting system. The property-based franchise for electing councillors was abolished, though members continued to be designated as councillors or assemblymen. The Assembly grew to 32 members representing 16 dual-member districts.

The system changed once again after the 1994 report of the Election Act and Electoral Boundaries Commission. The Commission recommended a new electoral map, with 30 single-member districts. The Legislature opted for an alternative map proposed in a Private Member's Bill. There are now 27 single-member constituencies. Their representatives are elected, as they have always been, by the plurality system.

While being cautious about generalizations, it is possible to say that Island political culture has been marked by partisanship and party loyalty, and that close acquaintance between MLAs and their constituents has been a normal feature of the landscape. Political partisanship was historically strong enough that "changing one's party politics was akin to treachery or betrayal, an act of dishonour almost like changing one's religion."(1) The small size of the Island helped to shape this culture. Close links between voters and their representatives are encouraged by the low ratio of residents to MLAs, presently providing a population of about 140,000 with 27 representatives (nearly one MLA for every 5,000 people). Islanders typically feel little reluctance to phone their MLAs, and are likely to get through. MLAs, for their part, cultivate durable personal links with constituents.

It has been said that between the federal Parliament, the provincial Legislature, and local governments the Island possesses "perhaps more formal government than anywhere else in the world."(2) The population is small -- less than one-half of one per cent of the Canadian population, barely twice what it was in the 1850s -- and fairly homogeneous. Post-Confederation Island politics have not, for the most part, been driven by ethnic or linguistic rivalries, though such conflicts certainly existed beneath the surface. The dual-member electoral system survived into the 1990s partly in order to accommodate religious differences.

Island elections have always been marked by disproportionality between the distribution of legislative seats and that of the popular vote. This was not a serious problem until recently, when small differences in the popular vote between the winner and loser became wide and unpredictable swings, and a viable third party, the New Democratic Party, became competitive with the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives. In 1996, for only the second time since 1923, the winning party did not win a majority of the popular vote. The Progressive Conservatives won with only 47.7 per cent of the vote.

The emergence of a third party, and the ever larger swings in the popular vote from election to election, suggest that Island political culture is changing. This makes the flaws in the plurality electoral system more visible, and more troublesome for the functioning of democracy, than ever before.

Varieties of Electoral Systems

It is a mistake to consider an electoral system a technical mechanism without influence upon day-to-day political life. The electoral system influences the outcome of every election, often decisively.

As well as affecting the way votes are translated into seats, the electoral system can influence how people vote. The Canadian plurality system, for instance, may encourage electors to vote "strategically," for the candidate who seems to have the best chance of winning, in order to ensure the defeat of another candidate whom they oppose. When voters do this, they often do not vote for the candidate they actually support, if that person seems unlikely to win. Proportional representation, on the other hand, may encourage people to vote for small parties that are more likely to gain representation under such a system than under a first-past-the-post plurality system. It is important to be mindful of the influence wielded by an electoral system when deciding which one is most appropriate to the circumstances of a particular jurisdiction.

The designers of an electoral system must account for several important considerations. Among...

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