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PECKFORD: On elections and voting

Larry Peckford and his wife, Dianne (née LeRiche), have lived in Ottawa for the past 10 years, but keep a seasonal residence in the Codroy Valley. Larry has worked as a NL public servant and community volunteer. An occasional blogger, he also writes other pieces of personal interest. You can e-mail him at:

Newfoundland and Labrador has finally wound up its provincial election and a winner is declared. Forty-eight per cent of voters cast a ballot, down 10 per cent in voter turnout from the previous election. Despite some controversy on how the voting was conducted, a majority government takes office. Overall there were some 178,632 people who voted and slightly more people did not vote at all. The election had the lowest voter turnout in history.

In all of Canada’s federal and provincial jurisdictions the system used to elect legislators is called “first past the post.” A candidate wins a seat as long as he/she gets the most votes among the candidates running. A member does not have to get the majority of votes cast.

In ridings where there are multiple candidates running, the split in votes can get a result that leaves the winner with more people who voted against him/her, and so the member can be in a minority position when you look at the overall votes cast.

As strange as this may seem, that is the “first past the post” system at work. There is often more than one riding where this occurs especially where there are three and four candidates running.

When looking to form a government things evolve differently. The government that takes its place in the legislature needs a majority or demonstrate that it can get majority support from sitting members. At a minimum it must have elected more members than anyone else.

This was easy in the Newfoundland and Labrador election as the Liberals got 48% (86,180) of the votes cast compared to the PC’s at 38% (69,314). This gave the Liberals 22 seats and the PC’s 13. With much fewer votes, the NDP got 2 seats and there are 3 independents.

In Canada’s last federal election in 2019, there was a different situation.

The Liberal party that formed government actually got less votes overall than its nearest rival – the Conservative party. The Conservatives got slightly more votes (34%) than any other party but only won 121 seats. The Liberals at 33% managed to elect 157 MPs. Regional voting patterns and split votes in districts that had multiple candidates yielded the Liberals a greater number of members. Without a majority of seats in Parliament, the Liberal party wound up in a minority situation and looks to other parties to get things done.

In a pandemic no one is rushing to another election.

To see an example of another voting system you only need to look at Israel. It just finished its fourth election in two years. Israel’s system is different from Canada and, in its simplest terms, the parties who fail to get a majority of seats need to form coalitions with others in order to demonstrate they have a majority. Without a majority of seats, a government is not possible and another election is required. The need for repeated elections can lead to years of any real government action. The country is in an never-ending elections mode. It is here that our system looks better when back-to back elections are avoided.

While we are on elections there is something I want to talk about. It comes up from time to time and I get pretty worked up about it. We all have heard that expression that you “lose your vote.”

The story goes that if I vote for a candidate who is not elected, somehow I “lost’ my vote! So I am only successful with my vote if I cast it with the winning candidate.

How do I lose my vote when at the outset of the process no one knows for certain who the winner will be? What kind of loser am I that I take my responsibility seriously and vote? Thank God we are not all preoccupied with losing or no one would vote.

My grandfather, (a fisherman and sealer) had his own view on this. He is quoted by my father as saying that in one pre-confederation election, the Prime Minister at the time was elected by just one vote. My grandfather thought that was a good thing. He was glad he voted. He thought his was that one vote and without it the Prime Minister would have lost. Here’s how my father tells it:

And every man who voted for the Prime Minister felt he had won the election. The person who votes for a candidate who is not elected does not lose his vote. He registers his opinion. He declares his belief. He adds something to the strength of his cause.

My father was always interested in watching candidates for election visit the seniors home where he worked. Those politicians knew that, like with all voters, here was an important group to canvass. There was no taking chances as the people there were equal to all others in voting. The residents were sought after because among them might be that one vote which could win the candidate the election

Do the votes for the other parties who do not form government count less than those who are elected and form government? Are they losers? Of course not.

All elected representatives speak for the many who voted for them. They will contribute to the democratic process that many countries around the world heroically seek through protest and often die for.

As imperfect as our system is, we are lucky. We should never, ever, take it for granted.

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