Electoral Reform for Prince Edward Island

By Cousins, John Andrew | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Electoral Reform for Prince Edward Island


Cousins, John Andrew, Canadian Parliamentary Review


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.

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