LETTER: Many western democracies have ditched the first-past-the-post system

Dear editor,

In opposing any change to the way we vote, correspondent Norm Blondel (Record, 9 January) describes the existing first-past-the-post method of casting ballots as “a workable system, given to us and most of the world’s democracies by the British Parliament.”

While that may be true, many western democracies have long since ditched the old winner-takes-all system because it does not adequately or fairly represent the true views of voters, especially in places where there are more than two parties on the ballot.

And while Britain itself still uses first-past-the-post for its Westminster elections, it has progressively changed the voting system used for several other levels of government. For the past 20 years, it has used proportional representation nationally for the election of UK members of the European Parliament, and has also switched to fairer voting systems for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, all municipal elections in Scotland, the London Assembly, and the election of city mayors in England.

Interestingly, six different voting systems are used in different parts of the UK, but all the systems make people’s votes count in more effective ways, and — contrary to a popular myth put about by opponents — voters are quite comfortable voting in different ways than simply marking a single X.

When Ireland was on the cusp of switching to proportional representation, objectors argued no one would understand the system. Voting was (and is) as simple as 1,2,3 — putting candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper. The complication comes in the counting, but as independent election officials are trained to do that, it is not something that bothers voters.

It is true that a UK referendum to change the voting system for Westminster elections failed in 2011, despite opinion polls suggesting a clear majority wanted to scrap first-past-the-post. In my view, the problem was there was only one question on the ballot, alongside which voters had to write Yes or No. Many supporters of proportional representation could not bring themselves to vote for a half-way house of the proposed Alternative Vote system, and opted to live with first-past-the post until the opportunity arose for a second go round (which has yet to happen).

The new B.C. Government seems to have learned this lesson by proposing two elements to the provincial plebiscite this fall. First, a decision for or against first-past-the-post, followed by a second question about alternatives. That sounds like a fair and even-handed approach to me.

Philip Round