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Proportional Representation or First Past the Post?

17 Nov 2018 10:21 AM | Anonymous

By Dr. Carole Christopher, SPEC President

We’re told that sharing our intentions with friends may influence their decision about whether to vote and how to vote in the referendum on Proportional Representation.  With that in mind, and knowing that good hearted people can disagree, I’d like to ask you to vote for Proportional Representation.  

The easy question is Question #1 – choosing between Proportional Representation (PR) or First Past the Post (FPTP.)  PR distributes seats in the legislature according to the proportion of the popular vote and FPTP is the familiar “winner takes all” system of voting.  My friend Bob Bossin says the choice is proportional representation or disproportional Representation.  That sums up my perspective as well.

Question #2 is the harder question that asks you to rank the three options for how to implement PR.  It’s important to understand that you can skip the second question.  Some people are not participating because they find the options hard to differentiate and make a choice. Don’t skip the opportunity to vote for Proportional Representation.  

Perhaps there is no single good answer to the question of which option is best.  The easy answer is, “they’re all ice cream, just different flavours,” meaning they’re all 'better' (more fair) than FPTP and they all have the same basic intention and some similarities.  But there are differences, and, because they’re unfamiliar, they're not that easy to explain.  


We need a system that allows voters to bring their values and not just their strategic concerns into the voting booth.  We need a system that forces parties to bring their best ideas into coalitions that balance views and focus on good governance. 


Another friend, Patricia Lane, devised a metaphor that helped me reflect on the options.  Here is my tweaked version:

Imagine you’re going to buy a car.  What kind of car do you want?  If you want an older, used model that's familiar but a gas hog, First Past the Post is your choice.  If you want a more modern, sustainable, and neighbourhood friendly model, Proportional Representation is your choice.  Obviously my bias is showing but you knew that already.

Assuming you choose Proportional Representation as the voting system, do you want: 

a) A model that’s theoretically very good but not as widely used and is still being tested?  That’s Duel Member Proportional (DMP - Option #1)

b) A model that’s widely used and accepted and has proven qualities?  That’s Mixed Member Proportional (MMP – Option #2)

c) A model that’s adaptable to the terrain of rural areas but also economical and flexible for city driving?  That’s Rural Urban Proportional (URP – Option #3)

You can get a lot more detail about each of these through the voters’ guide you got in the mail and online at Elections BC, but the details may be less important than a general sense that they are all aiming at the same outcome – proportional distribution of seats according to the proportion of votes. 

There’s an on-line survey that matches your values with the different systems, including the choice between PR and FPTP. I took it an at the end it matched my voting choices exactly so I recommend it. Here’s the link for that survey.

Arguments Against

The major arguments launched against Proportional Representation are:

1. Party bosses will choose the candidates. Well, actually, isn’t that pretty much want happens now under FPTP where candidates are vetted by parties?  That’s not a bad thing and parties will continue to vet candidates under proportional systems. Independents are still independent.


2. The door will be open to a government take-over by extreme parties.  CCPA research shows that, “Historically speaking, whenever we have seen the emergence of far right and neo-Nazi parties, it is clear they are a product not of the electoral system but of neoliberal policies and austerity.”  Consider the Trump administration in the US, the Ford Administration in Ontario, the Duarte administration in The Philippines, or the previous Thatcher administration in the UK, or the Harper administration in Canada.  All have/had an extreme neoliberal agenda and all are FPTP systems. 


3. It’s too confusing.  Essentially this is an argument to play it safe and avoid uncertainty.  Yet, the most compelling fact I heard in the very unedifying debate between the leaders was that, in all the Provincial elections we’ve had, only one has produced a majority government with a majority of votes. Wow!! The rest are false majorities giving 100% of the power to parties that typically have 35-40% of the vote.  That's the clear unfairness of FPTP.


Remember, the proposal for PR allows us to road-test it for two election cycles before there's another referendum to re-decide.  That's meant to reassure hesitant voters that there is an "escape clause."  No system is completely fail-safe but PR addresses the worst grievance of FPTP, the 'false majorities' that entrench political parties that; a) depend on splitting the opposition as their means of maintaining power, and b) use their non-majority power to promote only their own view of how the world should operate.  We need a system that allows voters to bring their values and not just their strategic concerns into the voting booth.  We need a system that forces parties to bring their best ideas into coalitions that balance views and focus on good governance.  

Thank you for reading this.  I hope it's been useful.

Society Promoting Environmental Conservation

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Vancouver, BC  V6K 1Y4

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