Recent political history in Manitoba and Canada demonstrates it's time to rethink and reform Manitoba's -- and Canada's -- antiquated, unrepresentative and profoundly undemocratic electoral system.

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This article was published 5/10/2011 (3710 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


Recent political history in Manitoba and Canada demonstrates it's time to rethink and reform Manitoba's -- and Canada's -- antiquated, unrepresentative and profoundly undemocratic electoral system.

In 1999, Gary Doer's New Democrats won 31 seats with 44.23 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives captured 25 seats with 40.58 per cent. Less than four more percentage points in popular vote translated into six more seats. Voter turnout was 70.6 per cent.

In 2003, the NDP's seat count rose to 35 with 49.2 per cent of the vote, the highest level in 50 years. The Conservatives slipped to just 20 seats with 36 per cent of ballots cast. A 13-point margin in the popular vote translated into a 15-seat spread. Voter turnout plunged to just 54 per cent.

In 2007, the NDP's seat count rose by one to 36, although its vote dropped one percentage point to 48. The Conservatives slipped a seat to 19 despite increasing their vote by almost two percentage points to 37.9. Turnout rose slightly to a still dismal 56.75 per cent.

On Tuesday, a popular-vote squeaker -- 45.8 per cent for the NDP, just 1.6 per cent higher than the Conservatives' 44.2 per cent -- rewarded the New Democrats with a massive 37 to 19 seat victory and the biggest majority in Manitoba's modern political era. Meanwhile, a near-seven point rise in the Conservative vote didn't translate into a single new seat. Voter turnout rose slightly to 57.45 per cent.

Such are the vagaries of our outdated, deceptive and unfair electoral system that long ago should have been consigned to history's dustbin. Manitoba's capricious electoral results join up with the recent equally unrepresentative and unfair federal outcome to cry out for electoral reform. Last May 2, just 39 per cent of the vote (actually only 24 per cent of eligible voters given the all-time-low turnout of 55 per cent) was sufficient to fashion a "strong, stable majority government" of 167 seats in a 308-seat parliament.

Canada's -- and Manitoba's -- laissez-faire, first past the post/stay home if you want electoral system is grossly capricious and undemocratic. Its unrepresentativeness contributes substantially to its growing illegitimacy, creating a downward spiral of less legitimacy leading to ever-lower turnout creating less legitimacy and so on.

Taken together, it builds an ever-stronger case for genuine democratic reform involving some form of proportional representation and Australian-style compulsory voting. Alone among British-origin democracies, Australia has had compulsory voting since 1924. The law is enforced with a modest fine of $20, rising to $50 if the voter cannot supply a valid reason for failing to exercise his or her franchise. It's a penalty akin to a parking ticket, but sufficient, according to one Australian political scientist, not only to get people to the polls, but to ensure a high level of political literacy. Voters determined not to cast a ballot have the legal right to spoil it.

The widely unrepresentative swings and outcomes in Manitoba elections stem from the province's two solitudes of north and south and city and country.

Until 1999, Manitoba politics were fought along a northwest to southeast diagonal line bisecting the province and Winnipeg into two ethnic and economic enclaves. The south and west claim the best farmland, successful agribusiness and light industry in its rural parts while the south and west of Winnipeg boasts the city's most affluent neighbourhoods. The southwest's political culture was shaped by its original settlers -- 19th-century Ontario Orangemen and German Mennonites fleeing persecution in Europe.

The north and east of the province and, increasingly, all of Winnipeg are home to Manitoba's vibrant multi-ethnic mosaic. Within the last two decades, it has expanded past the Ukrainian, Polish, Chinese and Russian immigrants of the early 20th century to embrace people literally from all across the globe as well as a burgeoning aboriginal community.

Today, the province's ethnic-economic divide has roughly flattened along a more or less north-south line marked loosely along the Yellowhead Highway. Tuesday's election not only split the province between a Conservative south and an NDP north, it sharpened the cleavage by rewarding Premier Greg Selinger's New Democrats with 16 more seats than their Conservative rivals with just 1.6 per cent more in popular vote.

Meanwhile, despite increasing their vote almost seven points from 2007 to a virtual tie with the NDP -- 44.2 per cent to 45.8 per cent -- the Conservatives failed to win a single new seat, leaving them with the 19 they had when the writs were dropped. They merely piled up even-bigger majorities in their ever-smaller southern enclave.

Such electoral injustice breeds cynicism, contempt and, finally, anger.


Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and commentator.