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Fighting for Fairness: Teaching Proportional Representation

Cindy Spackman

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

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