London Free Press by Margaret Hoff 10 August 2013

It’s Aug. 1, byelection day in London West. I am a scrutineer, volunteering for my political party. I have three responsibilities.

I check the bubble list numbers to find who has already voted so when the outside scrutineer arrives he or she can ask party supporters who haven’t yet voted to come to vote.

My second responsibility is to ensure the deputy returning officers, poll clerks and election officials are fair and impartial. That is not difficult. They are well trained. The system is clear and they work to ensure that elections are fair and impartial.

My third responsibility is to observe as the ballots are counted and deliver those numbers to my candidate’s office.

I have always wondered why Canada, the nation with the longest undefended border in the world, has a national anthem that says, “We stand on guard for thee.’’

I realize scrutineers and election staff are the ones standing on guard for Canadian values. Our election standards are known throughout the world. We are known for being fair, honest, and impartial. We can celebrate that proudly.

Why, one might ask, “If our elections are so fair, why don’t more Canadians vote?” The percentage of voters in federal elections has dropped to 61% The problem is not the voting process. The problem is that Canada has not updated its electoral system as have most countries in the developed world. Starting in 1878, countries in Europe, South America and Africa modified their parliaments to make them proportional.

The system we have in Canada and the United Sates, served a two-party system. We have grown to a five or more parties since, so we also need to update our old fashioned way we do things. Our current electoral system has a much greater chance of a minority of voters electing a “majority” government. Since political parties love control, they have chosen to put off moving to a proportional system as most world democracies have. “Majority” governments can be dictatorial, and do not necessarily serve the public. Our current system maintains opposition, that is antagonistic and wasteful, with opposition parties trying to sabotage those governing. The best interests of the country can be lost in this process.

Proportional systems ensure their parliaments represent more of the voters then our system does. For instance, in New Zealand, which adopted mixed member proportional representation in 1996, voter turnout was 74% in 2011. Eight parties are represented in the New Zealand parliament, governed by a coalition of the National, Act New Zealand and Maori parties.

This is somewhat like a minority government in Canada, except there is no threat of sudden elections as we have. Elections are fixed term, every three years. Another exception is that the New Zealand cabinet is composed of people from all the governing parties. That means the New Zealand government is focused on the good of the country, rather than the benefits for a particular party. Co-operation becomes more important. New Zealanders know their votes are more likely to be represented in their parliament, unlike Canada where our system can reward a minority of voters.

Canadians are realizing the inadequacy of our traditional winner-take-all system and educate themselves about alternatives. As we look at the 86 countries using proportional voting systems, we can adopt an updated voting system to serve Canadians better. Standing on guard can mean creating a unique Canadian electoral system where the people we elect to govern, will actually be representing the majority of us.

Margaret Hoff is a retired Fanshawe College professor.