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The backroom, part two: First past the post and the in/out scandal

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In "The backroom: How federal elections work in Canada" (March 2010), I looked at how first past the post elections are really 308 separate elections. In many elections, up to half of the votes are "wasted," i.e., they don't go toward electing anyone. I have never voted for a winning federal candidate in my life and I'm 50-plus. In a typical election, the fate of the ruling party is often decided by a very small group of undecided voters in "swing ridings." Polling, advertising, pork-barreling, campaign promises and sometimes, dirty tricks, play a big role in winning the hearts and minds of those voters.

The Toronto Star printed a full list of the Conservative campaigns that allegedly took part in the 2006 "in/out" scam which has now resulted in charges against the masterminds -- four senior Cons, including two Senators -- charges so serious that if convicted, they could see jail time. The basic idea behind in/out was that because the Cons' central campaign had more money than they were legally allowed to spend on national advertising, they would transfer some money to local riding campaigns which had not reached their cap and then transfer the money back to use the money for so-called "regional" media buys. Elections Canada found these regional ads to be nothing more than a form of national ads.

So what does any of this have to do with Canada's antiquated, 19th century voting system? A lot. Why? Because while there are a few familiar names on the list (Cannon, Bernier, Boucher, Blaney, Paradis, Day and Hill), a lot of the ridings where money was transferred were races that the Cons had no chance of winning. Many of them were safe opposition seats. First, there are probably less donors in such ridings. Second, why spend a lot of money for a lost cause? While we have not done a detailed study of these ridings, it's safe to assume that most of them were not in play for the Cons. 

The key to success in first past the post elections is to identify the issues that are important to swing or undecided voters and hammer away. The more they hammer, the more likely they are to succeed. Of course vote splitting also plays a big part because a winning candidate only needs to get more votes than anyone else. Every party benefits from it and every party does it. If a voter's not going to vote for them, then it's hoped that they'll either stay home or vote for a party that will bring down the votes of their greater rival and let them squeak through. In 2008, the Cons won one riding by just 17 votes in a four-way split. Candidates do not need a majority of the voters in their riding to win.

And to form a government, including so-called "majority" governments, a party does not require a majority of the voters to support them because it's ridings, and not voters, that are the basic unit that's counted in first past the post. They require just enough to squeak through. In 2006, Harper won his "minority" government by 4,502 votes in 11 ridings across Canada. That's it. Having an extra $1.3 million to throw around helped cinch the election for them. Abusing the advertising rules by using no-chance ridings to divert money and bolster their advertising in competitive ridings is illegal when the party's reached its cap. It is more than an accounting or administrative error. It is yet another deliberate manipulation of the voting system to achieve an undemocratic result.

Related to this are the third party campaign rules which are in place to strike a balance between free speech and the outright buying of elections. Keep in mind that when Stephen Harper was at the National Citizens Coalition, he challenged third party spending limits all the way to the Supreme Court -- and lost. In the HarperCons world, limits are for losers. The rich ought to be able to buy whatever they want -- including elections.

First past the post provides such a powerful framework for political parties, that no provincial government in recent history has ever dared changed a system that helps parties win elections, while denying voters the representation their votes should earn them. It hurts voters from all parties, including the Conservatives. Just look at Canada's major urban centres where hundreds of thousands of people vote Conservative but get no representation in Ottawa.

Canada needs a new voting system in which all voters have an equal vote and where negative, divisive, "anything goes" campaigns are a thing of the past. Isn't it about time for proportional representation?

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Cross-posted from Catch 22 Harper Conservatives

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