Fighting for Fairness: Teaching Proportional Representation

Cindy Spackman


Me: “So, you’re saying that the majority of the class voted for someone else, not Taylor Swift.” Another student jumped in. “Right. She got the most of any one kind of vote, but most people wanted someone else.”

Me: “The one with the most votes was Taylor Swift. She got 11 votes. But the majority of you didn’t vote for her. Eighteen of you voted for someone else. So if we play only Taylor Swift’s music, the majority of you will be unhappy with the choice, even though she got the most votes.”

With the school dance question, students begin to perceive the problems inherent in the FPTP system when there are more than two choices on the ballot. A discussion about how to solve the problem of whose music is played at the dance revealed interesting things about  students’  perceptions of  what a  fair vote is, and opened the door for discussion about how we resolve conflicts. At this point I showed the class examples of actual Canadian election results.

Winning a seat
Once  students  saw  the  flaws  with  FPTP, I   introduced   the   idea   of   proportional representation. Proportional representation (PR) is an idea that has been around since the mid-1800s, though  it  didn’t  catch on in a big way until the 1940s. Over 90 countries use some form of PR. In Canada, there have been referendums to adopt a PR system in three provinces; none were successful because there was confusion and conflict over which form of PR to adopt. PR basically means that the number of votes a party receives ties  directly to  the  percentage of seats that party is awarded in the House of Commons or legislature.

This simple school dance example does not help students understand the way that our current electoral system turns votes into seats, but it gets them thinking about what is fair. From there, with the use of examples and graphics, students can see how our electoral system works and how PR would change it. Because we use the riding or constituency system, the first-past-the-post winner in each riding wins a “seat” in the house, but a FPTP winner might have won the riding with as little as 30 percent of the votes, depending on how many candidates there were on the ballot. Take this example of a fictitious riding in Quebec, with a voter turnout of 100,000.

Here are the result:
Green Party: 
 5,000 votes conservatives: 20,000 votes nDP: 30,000 votes
Liberals: 20,000 votes
Bloc Québécois:  25,000 votes

The NDP candidate wins the riding with only 30 percent of popular support.
Because  some  students  were  confused about  how  the  riding  system  works,  we held a mock election in the “riding” of our classroom.


etfo members watching a speaker

Donna Dasko is uniquely positioned to talk about women and politics. She is the senior vice-president of public affairs at the Environics Research Group, one of Canada’s best known and most highly respected public opinion research firms.

ETFO president Sam Hammond

Earlier this year ETFO leaders took a bold step: we approved a controversial public relations campaign  to run during the provincial