Feature

Fighting for Fairness: Teaching Proportional Representation

Cindy Spackman

The notion of what is fair resonates deeply with the students in my grade 7 class at Algonquin Avenue School in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Students clamour for fairness  in a wide range of situations. But what does “fair” mean? Why does “fair”  matter? These are some of the questions we explored when we looked at Canada’s current First Past the Post (FPTP) and proposed Proportional Representation (PR) models of electoral politics, as part of our history and language arts classes.

In the last federal election, the Conservatives won 54.22 percent of the seats with only 39.62 percent of the votes. How does this happen? It comes down to the voting system we use. “First Past the Post” (a term used in horse racing) works reasonably well when there are only two candidates or two parties running for election. As soon as you have more than two, FPTP leads to democratic trouble.

Here’s an example. My adopted city of Thunder Bay used to be two cities, Fort William and Port Arthur. In 1969, the  Ontario Ministry of  Municipal Affairs decreed that the two cities would amalgamate into one. But what to call it? Citizens were split on the issue. A vote was held in 1970. The choices on the ballot were Lakehead, The Lakehead or Thunder Bay. Thunder Bay won by a narrow margin, the majority of citizens clearly preferring a variant of Lakehead and splitting their vote between the two choices that included that name. Was that a fair vote?

Three-way races in a FPTP voting system often show similar results

The notion of what is fair resonates deeply with the students in my grade 7 class at Algonquin Avenue School in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Students clamour for fairness in a wide range of situations. But what does “fair” mean? Why does “fair” matter? These are some of the questions we explored when we looked at Canada’s current First Past the Post (FPTP) and proposed Proportional Representation (PR) models of electoral politics, as part of our history and language arts classes.

In the last federal election, the Conservatives won 54.22 percent of the seats with only 39.62 percent of the votes. How does this happen? It comes down to the voting system we use. “First Past the Post” (a term used in horse racing) works reasonably well when there are only two candidates or two parties running for election. As soon as you have more than two, FPTP leads to democratic trouble.

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