This question is often much more complicated than it first appears – and perhaps that’s part of the reason for low voter turnout. The Americans have separate votes for local representatives, state senators, and the nation’s president – and this gives them somewhat more of a sense of control. But here, in Canada, with our single vote to cast, perhaps our most pertinent question is:
What are you voting for?
There are basically five ways people vote, and all have their merits:
1.) Voting for the Individual Candidate
This is the original intent of our parliamentary system. In rural Britain, local townspeople would send one from their own area to represent them in London. This person would ideally be of good standing in the community, well-educated, and somewhat financially independent.
Today, especially in commuter-oriented suburbs, we often lose a sense of neighborhood and community. We don’t even know our local representatives. Yet, in the end, our vote is for an individual person in our local riding. That is who it directly affects. The winner is a real, live person who gets a salary and pension for their new job of voicing the concerns of your community in Parliament.
Perhaps our ignorance of our local candidates has led to the pragmatic formation of parties. In many ways, this is helpful. It simplifies the process. We learn a little about political ideology: right wing likes low tax, big military, lots of economic freedom to develop, and strict morals; left wing loosens up moral restrictions, supports unions, compassionate social programs, education, healthcare, environment…and pays for it with higher taxes. No doubt you have some idea of this model in your mind as you vote:
But the party system has another affect: it essentially thins out the competition. We all know that there’s only one winner in each riding. Our “first past the post” system means that you don’t need a majority of votes to win – just more than anyone else. And with the party system, almost all attention is focused on candidates who are part of major parties. Sadly, voters come to the realization that if their vote is going to actually make a difference, they need to vote for someone who has a chance to win. I have lived in ridings where the winner is a foregone conclusion, and my vote actually makes no difference. We realize that individual candidates often subscribe and submit to the agenda of a party, and the winning party rules the roost. Many candidates seem to tow the party line, and show very little individual thought or local concern.
It is somewhat surprising that people employ this method, considering the fact that, unless the leader is a candidate in your riding, you have no control over who leads. We vote for individuals who support parties who select their own leaders. Parties allow votes for their leaders at different times, but in a general election, the leader of the winning party becomes Premier.
Yet, we may realize that, in our Parliamentary system, a majority is a dictatorship. We realize that if a party wins the majority of candidates, then a leader’s control of his or her party means a leader’s control of the whole government. And, interestingly, party leaders often exercise a great deal of control over their parties. They select their cabinet of ministers, and sometimes even authorize its members. This leads the various candidates to sing the praises of the leader for their own benefit.
4.) Voting for an Issue:
Sometimes, people become confused or disillusioned by parties and politicians. One party may care for the elderly, poor, and students, but doesn’t care about morality or debt. Another party may care about working families, prosperity, and opportunity, but not about its effects on vulnerable people and ecosystems.
It can all get really confusing, and discouraging when we’re looking for the perfect party or candidate. In light of this, some may focus on one particular issue that they care most about: the value of life, tuition rates, environmental care, tax rates for businesses, immigration policy, infrastructure plans, etc.
Last federal election, I was left with a strong desire that my next vote would not be for a party, but for a new system. Unfortunately, this idea seems to be only discussed by losing parties, and not by the public in general. There are some great ideas out there that follow the idea of “Proportional Representation:” that parties receive a percentage of representatives that is proportional to their percentage of overall votes.
Don’t we already do that?!?
No! In federal elections, our recent Conservative and Liberal majority governments over the past few years have had 35-40% of the overall vote. In a multi-party situation, our “First Past the Post” system over-rewards the biggest party, and sells small parties short. Basically, with many parties, if your party gets 35% of the vote in every riding, you could get 100% of the representatives with 1/3 of the vote!
Did you know that British Columbia has twice had a referendum on this issue?
Yes, it’s called “Single Transferable Vote.” It is a hybrid idea that groups local ridings into clusters of 5-7, and then awards a proportional number of local representatives to each party, according to their percentage of the vote. Here are its advantages:
- It preserves a sense of locality. A group of 5-7 ridings could unite places like the City of Vancouver, the Eastern Fraser Valley, or the Okanagan region into single clusters. This seems more preferable than lumping us all into one big provincial bowl.
- It makes your vote count! As of now, a vote for a losing party is thrown out. I have lived in ridings that are such strongholds for certain parties, that I am left with no sense of “choice” on voting day. With STV, your vote could count towards the first, second…or seventh place candidate!
- It gives other parties a chance. Currently, a party only gets a representative if one of its candidates can get first place in a local riding. With STV, with clusters of 5-7 ridings, a party could earn a candidate with 15-20% of the local vote (1/5th or 1/7th).
- It prevents chaos. Some countries, like Italy and Israel, have adopted Proportional Representation on a national level. This has led to an endless multiplication of parties, who all feel they have a chance, if they just get a minimum percentage of votes. And this is the key – it is important to have a minimum requirement, or you will get some union, corporation, or cult winning a single candidate with the minimum percentage (1-2% of the province). With STV, you still need a decent chunk of votes to be in the top 5-7 of your riding.
Saturated yet? Discouraged? Where is faith in all of this?
I hope that the options that I have presented have provided you with a path forward for voting with conscience.
Informed by our faith, you can consider:
- when voting for a party, which issue are you standing for, and why?
- when voting for a leader or local representative, what qualities are you looking for and why?
I hope that, in the least, this has helped you to question your approach to voting, to avoid falling into surface-level reasoning, and to consider how to make your vote count.
Let’s remember that while these politicians are in positions of power, they are entrusted with by God. We must always look to Christ as our King, and respect those who God has put in place (Romans 13:1-7).
Let’s also remember that these politicians are people. We may feel anger or annoyance toward them, but they need our prayers:
1 Timothy 2:1-6: I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.