Published in the Montreal Gazette on March 10, 2014
The first election in which I ever voted was in 1966. It was also the provincial ballot with perhaps the most distorted result in modern memory. For those who don’t remember, or were not here at the time, the Liberals of Premier Jean Lesage were defeated by the Union Nationale of Daniel Johnson, Sr., even though the former received 6.47% more in the popular vote than did the ‘winning’ party. To add insult to injury, the Union Nationale formed, despite the discrepancy, a majority government.
The presence of two additional parties in the 1966 race – the Rassemblement pour L’indépendance Nationale and the Ralliement National – complicated somewhat the election outcome in our ‘first past the post’ poll system. On the other hand, the real culprit was an electoral map riddled with inequity. Sadly, that phenomenon persists still today in the Province of Quebec.
Back then, the 1966 Quebec chart included ridings such as Terrebonne with 69,301 electors (this rose to 79,792 in the 1970 provincial election!) juxtaposed with counties such as Huntingdon with only 8623 electors, or one-eighth the number of Terrebonne. Despite this, each county elected one member to what was then called the Legislative Assembly of Quebec.
At the time, several of the least populated provincial ridings were found in the Eastern Townships. Their status was protected by Section 80 of the British North America, a feature designed in 1867 to reassure the English-speaking community in that region. This safeguard for the purported ‘protected counties’ was abolished in 1970, thereby eliminating some of the worst examples of inequitable representation in the provincial parliament.
Nevertheless, even today, Quebec has one of the least democratic electoral maps in all of Canada, a situation that greatly favours the outlying areas of the province at the expense of Montreal.
The other irritant in the current manifestation of the ‘first past the post’ system is the presence of third and fourth parties, and sometimes more. Originally, the scheme was meant to accommodate two political parties, one of which would obtain 50% + 1 in an election and would be declared the winner. The format came from Great Britain (like most of the rest of our parliamentary system) where for much of the nineteenth century the two competing parties were known as the Whigs and the Tories.
The difficulty in changing the system is that in reality no government is really motivated to alter a voting arrangement that elected them. The impetus usually comes from the parties in opposition.
For instance, the first election in which the Parti Québécois participated (1970) saw that political formation take 23.06 % of the popular vote but winning only seven seats in the Assembly. This perceived injustice was even invoked as one of the reasons for the October Crisis of later that same year.
In the provincial ballot of 1973, the situation created an even greater discrepancy what with the P.Q. increasing its popular vote to 30.22% but still losing a seat, reducing its number to six in the Quebec parliament.
Between 1973 and 1976, the Parti Québécois, entrenched in opposition, spoke incessantly about the need for electoral reform, particularly the inclusion of some form or another of proportional representation. All this talk stopped, however, when the P.Q. itself was elected, under the old system, with a very strong majority government in 1976 with only 41.37% of the popular vote. Virtually all-serious speculation of electoral reform in the Province of Quebec ceased from that moment on.
Some political scientists have pointed out that, in 2014, with such an antiquated system still in place at both the federal and provincial levels, a majority government can be fashioned with as little as 37% of the popular vote. Jean Chrétien formed one in 1997 with 38.46% and in 2005, Tony Blair won a majority administration in the United Kingdom with only 35.2% of the popular vote. Furthermore, the data from some CROP surveys of Quebecers’ voting intentions seem to suggest the possibility that Premier Marois could indeed form a majority government with as little as 34% of the population’s vote.
These unacceptable anomalies should be corrected, despite the reluctance of complacent governments. In fact, many democratic countries, including Ukraine, require a 50% + 1 majority for any candidate or government to claim victory. This sometimes necessitates run-off contests a week or two later. In my judgment, this approach would prevent many of the odd electoral aftermaths we have seen in Quebec, and other parts of Canada, in recent decades.
Below, front page of the 1956 report of the Chief Electoral Officer, in days when Quebecers were not afraid of official bilingualism –