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ARMCHAIR ARCHIVES – Don’t be fooled by the hocus locus of pro rep math

The following column was originally published Oct. 6, 2018. It’s specific to the B.C. referendum on the electoral system but it outlines the fundamental flaws of proportional representation, an electoral system I criticized again this week in a different context. 

THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS wrong with the referendum on proportional representation, it would take as long to cover it all as it would to explain the convoluted and foggy alternatives on the ballot.

So let’s just talk about the hocus pocus of proportional representation (also known as prop rep, pro rep or PR) math. This one giant flaw should be enough to make us run, not walk, away from prop rep.

Throughout the months leading up to this vote, prop rep boosters have relied heavily on a simplistic abracadabra formula to convince us their system makes sense.

Their favourite line is “40 per cent of the votes should equal 40 per cent of the seats,” or variations thereof.

With the current First Past the Post, they say, “39 per cent of the votes = 54 per cent of the seats = 100 per cent of the power” but with PR “39 per cent of the vote = 39 per cent of the seats = Compromise, cooperation, collaboration.” This is labeled “Proportional Representation Math.”

I once called it “voodoo math.” It’s magical, catchy and easy to understand. “It’s that simple,” they say. No need to think about it, just have faith that under prop rep “every vote will count.” With prop rep, everyone will surely sit around singing Kumbaya as they compromise, co-operate and collaborate. Sure, that’s what politicians do.

In reality, of course, it’s just spin. The subtext of prop rep math is a different story.

The myth of prop rep is that it’s more democratic. But by definition, an “at large” or total-popular-vote system — which is what prop rep is — centralizes electoral power at the expense of local communities.

It works from the top down rather than from the bottom up. FPTP is a ward system that does the opposite. That’s the fundamental difference between the two.

The grade school algebra used in the pro-PR campaign is designed to divert attention from the shortcomings of the at-large system, as well as from the ridiculously complicated and largely untested algorithms of the prop rep alternatives we’re being asked to choose from in the referendum.

PR puts the power base in big population centres. The at-large system of government is inappropriate for a major jurisdiction like B.C. In order to retain ridings at all it must resort to complex combinations of elected and appointed representatives.

One of the PR options on the ballot even proposes combining completely different systems — one for urban and semi-urban centres and another for less populated “rural” British Columbia. Want cheese on that?

Two of the three PR options have never even been tried before.

Though electoral maps for these various PR systems have never been released, boundaries will be moved, ridings combined, or ridings grouped into regions, some MLAs elected and others assigned higgledy-piggledy by parties, all in aid of attaining the electoral grail of “40 per cent of the votes must equal 40 per cent of the seats.”

The First Past the Post ward system is straight-forward. Wards, of course, are called ridings, constituencies or electoral districts at the provincial level. We usually associate ward systems with civic elections and I’m not a fan of them for any but the largest cities. In the case of a sprawling province with widely diverse economies, cultures and aspirations, however, FPTP works and here’s why.

The best explanation I’ve heard of FPTP is that it’s actually 87 mini elections. That’s how many ridings there are in the province.

The people of each riding get to choose who will represent them in the Legislature without anyone else interfering. Some ridings have more or less population than others, bigger or smaller turnouts and different priorities. Some might elect their MLA by a huge margin, and others might elect their MLA by a smaller margin but in The Ledge they’re equals.

The winning party may or may not get more than half the popular vote with FPTP but the people who represent us will get the most votes here at home, and there will usually be a majority government.

If I elect Joe or Josie Schmotz I want to see him or her in Victoria, not eliminated because of some complex PR formula that decides they’re not from the right party. If Bill or Beckie Blotz and the other candidates from their party get 10 per cent in every single riding it doesn’t mean they should get 10 per cent of the seats. Sorry, but you should have to win somewhere.

In other words, FPTP works close to home by focusing on electoral districts first. PR tries to fit a size 10 foot into a size 7 shoe by bastardizing electoral districts.

Forty per cent of the votes should equal 40 per cent of the seats? Mathematical nonsense is not what’s needed here. In fact, prop rep isn’t needed at all, except by the Greens.

No vote is ever wasted when we take the trouble to use it. But don’t be sucked in by this “40-40” stuff. Don’t vote for prop rep just because the slogans sound good. Something this important shouldn’t be decided with slogans, it should be decided by substance. Go to the Elections BC website and try to figure out the three PR alternatives on offer.

If you do, you’ll see that the mathematics of proportional representation doesn’t add up.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops, former TNRD director and a retired newspaper editor. He is a regular contributor to CFJC Today, publishes the ArmchairMayor.ca opinion website, and is a recipient of the Jack Webster Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. He can be reached at mrothenburger@armchairmayor.ca.

About Mel Rothenburger (9358 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

1 Comment on ARMCHAIR ARCHIVES – Don’t be fooled by the hocus locus of pro rep math

  1. 6 AM read, good morning to you all!
    The wasp nest has been vigorously disturbed…can’t wait for the vigorous replies coming from the “compromisers, co-operators and collaborators”. Since we no longer need to extensively forage for sustenance we need other things to keep us busy and occupied…PR versus FPTP is a good topic for that it seems.

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