Faith and the way we vote

By Citizens for Public Justice

From the Catalyst, Winter 2016

A similar version of this article was published by ChristianWeek.

The Liberal government is now a year old. Canadians are eager to see changes to our electoral system – and soon.

That was the promise made by the Liberals during the last campaign. They committed to ensure that the 2015 federal election would be the last one conducted under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

And so they embarked on a consultation process on electoral reform. There are a lot of strong opinions on this issue. Some people believe reform is absolutely critical. Others say the status quo serves us just fine. And still others think that nothing should move ahead without a referendum.

But what does our Christian faith have to say about the way we vote in Canada?

As Christians, God calls us to live out our faith by loving our neighbours, caring for creation, and working towards the common good.

And for many Christians our political participation is a crucial part of our faith. The idea of public justice encapsulates the political dimensions of working toward the common good. From a public justice perspective, then, our citizenship is very important. As citizens, we have a responsibility to be engaged.

But the common good is about each one of us. And so it requires that everyone has an equal voice.

That’s why voting is so fundamental to public justice. We need to make sure everyone’s voice is heard in our government. And we need to be especially mindful of the marginalized in our society and those often under-represented, such as recent immigrants, 18 to 24-year-olds, and unemployed individuals.

For Christians that believe in public justice, electoral reform makes sense. Our current system of FPTP simply doesn’t do a good enough job of making people’s voices heard.

The major problem with FPTP is that it is disproportional in its results. In the 2015 election, the Liberal Party won a majority (54 per cent) of the seats and arguably 100 per cent of the power with just 39 per cent of the vote. Meanwhile, the Green Party won 3.5 per cent of the vote and got just one seat.

FPTP can also discourage citizen engagement, giving some voters the perception that their votes are wasted. Under this system, it seems that the votes that tip the balance in a very tight race are more powerful than those cast in blow-outs. Why bother voting when my preferred candidate will lose (or win) by a double digit margin?

And it’s no better that some of these same voters then stifle their actual opinion and vote strategically for the ‘least bad’ candidate that might have a chance of winning. This isn’t consistent with trying to have everyone’s voice included.

CPJ has recently endorsed a system of mixed-member proportional representation (MMPR). In this system, citizens cast two votes: one for their preferred candidate in their riding and one for their preferred party. They still have one MP that represents them in their riding. But there are also additional seats that are distributed proportionately to the parties based on total votes cast in the election.

This is important because it maintains a strong connection between voters and local representatives. And compared to other alternatives, the voting process is simple; citizens cast two votes instead of one.

But MMPR also alleviates many of the problems listed above because it yields electoral results that match the will of the people. So the Liberal’s 39 per cent of the vote would give them 39 per cent of the seats, and the Green Party would have won 12 seats. This in turn encourages high participation because voters know their votes are not wasted. Each vote cast for a party has the exact same impact on the make up of the House of Commons.

In this way, MMPR does a much better job of ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard.

There are a variety of possible alternative systems, and people of faith will undoubtedly find value in other options. That’s what democracy is all about. Samara Canada offers a great resource that explains a number of these alternatives, including single transferable vote and alternative vote.

At CPJ, we believe that MMPR would provide the best way forward. But whichever system Canada adopts, what’s most important is that it be one that ensures that the diversity of perspectives among citizens is represented when public policy is made.

Read Faith in Our Vote, CPJ’s recommendations to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform.

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