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.

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. Most people who voted in Canada’s last federal election did not want the Conservatives to come into power, but because they could not agree on which party they did want, the Conservatives ended up winning. In a democracy, the electoral system is supposed to translate individual votes into political power. How well has that worked in Canada?

The history curriculum for grades 7 and 8 students lends itself to an exploration of our voting system and the current proposed changes to it. Many of the conflicts in our fledgling nation, such as the rebellions of 1837-38 in Upper and Lower Canada, resulted directly from perceived unfairness in government.

The School Dance
To illustrate the FPTP system, a simple exercise helps students understand how our voting system works right now. After they had considered some of the historical issues surrounding our political system through their history unit, I told my grade 7 class that they were going to develop their explanatory writing skills. By exploring Canada’s current voting system and a proposed change to it, we would be able to explain to others how elections work right now, why some people think our electoral system is unfair, and what change has been suggested. I began by asking the class to vote on whose music to play at a school dance.

This was the result:
Justin Bieber: 5 votes
LMFAO: 10 votes
K’naan: 3 votes
Taylor Swift: 11 votes

The discussion that followed went like this:

Me: “Who has the most votes?”

“Taylor Swift.”

Me: “Did the majority of you vote for Taylor Swift?”

Some said yes, others said no. I asked one of the naysayers to explain his reasoning.

“There are 29 of us, and only 11 voted for Taylor Swift, so no.”

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. There were four candidates, each representing a different party. The candidate who won had only one more vote than the person in second place. We had a chair marked “SEAT,” and that person got to sit in it. It represented one of the 308 seats in our House of Commons. The students were asked to imagine this election taking place in 307 other classrooms.

In the final analysis, we discussed which system seemed more fair.

Writing it out
After brainstorming the success criteria for explanatory writing, students were provided with an organizer. We filled it in together, making sure to include key vocabulary. A final section at the end of the organizer was left for them to add anything that they felt was most interesting, or a detail they believed was important, or any other ideas that had occurred to them they felt they would like to include. A word wall was begun on the SMART Board which we added to as necessary while they used the organizers to write the first draft of their explanations. The title suggested was “A Proposed Change to Canada’s Voting System” (or they could make up their own). The hope, of course, was that students would express and organize what they had learned about the electoral system.

Each student next wrote an explanation to show an understanding of our voting system. Although my class is typical of many, with a wide variety of abilities and challenges, I had some concern that the explanations would be very similar, based heavily on the organizer. But despite the somewhat lock-step scaffolding, I was surprised by the variety of the explanations. Students 

. Most people who voted in Canada’s last federal election did not want the Conservatives to come into power, but because they could not agree on which party they did want, the Conservatives ended up  winning. In a  democracy, the electoral system is  supposed  to  translate  individual votes into political power. How well has that worked in Canada?

The history curriculum for grades 7 and 8 students lends itself to an exploration of our voting system and the current proposed changes to it. Many of the conflicts in  our fledgling nation,  such  as  the  rebellions of 1837-38  in  Upper and  Lower Canada, resulted directly from perceived unfairness in government.

The School Dance
To illustrate the FPTP system, a simple exercise helps  students  understand  how  our voting system works right now. After  they had considered some of the historical issues surrounding  our  political  system  through their history unit, I told my grade 7 class that they were going to develop their explanatory writing skills. By exploring Canada’s current voting system and a proposed  change to it, we would be able to explain to others how elections work right now, why some people think our electoral system is unfair, and what change has been suggested. I began by asking the class to vote on whose music to play at a school dance.

This was the result:
Justin Bieber:
 5 votes
LMFAO: 10 votes
K’naan: 3 votes
Taylor  Swift:  11 votes

The discussion that followed went like this:

Me: “Who has the most votes?”

“Taylor Swift.”

Me: “Did the majority of you vote for Taylor Swift?”

Some said yes, others said no. I asked one of the naysayers to explain his reasoning.

“There are 29 of us, and only 11 voted for Taylor Swift, so no.”

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. There were four candidates, each representing a different party. The candidate who won had only one more vote than the person in second place. We had a chair marked “SEAT,” and that person got to sit in it. It represented one of the 308 seats in our House of Commons. The students were asked to imagine this election taking place in 307 other classrooms.

In the final analysis, we discussed which system seemed more fair.

Writing it out
After brainstorming the success criteria for explanatory writing, students were provided with an organizer. We filled it in together, making sure to include  key vocabulary. A final section at the end of the organizer was left for them to add anything that they felt was most interesting, or a detail they believed was important, or any other ideas that had occurred to them they felt they would like to include. A word wall was begun on the SMART Board which we added to as necessary while they used the organizers to write the first draft of their explanations. The title suggested was “A Proposed Change to Canada’s Voting System” (or they could make up their own). The hope, of course, was that students would express and organize what they had learned about the electoral system.

Each student next wrote an explanation to show an understanding of our voting system. Although my class is typical of many, with a wide variety of abilities and challenges, I had some concern that the explanations would be very similar, based heavily on the organizer. But despite the somewhat lock-step scaffolding, I was surprised by the variety of the explanations. Students  emphasized certain aspects over others, and many added their own examples. One student managed to explain the concepts so succinctly that I suggested he should write for Elections Canada!

RELATED STORIES

etfo staff or volunteers sorting papers in office

ETFO's planning for the 2011 provincial election began last year. Our goals were to elect an “education-friendly” government and raise the profile of education issues.