The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vote swapping

In a true multiparty country using the first-past-the-post electoral system, the reality is that the majority of votes will almost never count toward representation. In most ridings, at least five different candidates and sometimes ten or even more will be on the ballot. In a riding where five different candidates are vying for a position, the winning candidate could potentially do so with only 21% of the vote. Although this is an extreme, results where the winner has carried only a third of the vote are fairly common.

Some have found a possible stopgap solution in the practice of vote-swapping, where two voters from different ridings where their own desired party has no realistic chance of winning agree to vote for each other's parties instead, so as to increase the chances of their desired party gaining a seat in the other riding. The net effect is that of a diluted proportional representation at the grassroots level.

As of today, Elections Canada has deemed this practice legal, but warns that there is no way for a vote swapper to verify their counterpart's vote. (Ballots which have any kind of identifying mark on them are considered spoiled, and not counted toward the final vote tallies.) This reduces the basic question to one of integrity: do you trust your fellow Canadian?

As a modern species, we seem not to be doing too badly in the sphere of trust. With all its foibles and edit wars and consensus controversies, Wikipedia still contains no more errors than its much more venerable predecessor, the Encyclopaedia Britannica: even though it is built entirely upon trust. Keys and wallets continue to be turned in at customer service desks on a regular basis. I have asked and been asked for directions, I have been offered rides by total strangers in the middle of ice storms. One time I left my credit card accidentally behind on a restaurant table and at once it was turned in: I was asked properly for photo identification in order to retrieve it, and there have been no complications as a result of its temporary truancy.

Of course there are those who seek to take advantage of trust. There always have been, and there always will be. That, too, is in the nature of the human being.

Yet I think there are far fewer of these than there are of people just like you and me, people who simply see no reason why they should abuse another's trust. For every break-in I have experienced, there have been a score and more of decent people who have helped me in large ways and small. Look beyond the dramatic headlines, and perhaps you will notice just how many of them there are out there: the ones who helped, very visibly or very quietly, when help was needed, be it saving a life or turning in a wallet.

Perhaps the most telling argument in favour of extending trust in a vote swapping situation is that of those few who do seek to take advantage of a one-on-one trust, the vast majority are opportunists: acting only insofar as the opportunity presents itself. Most of them, like most of us, have a powerful lazy streak. Why would they work so very hard for so little gain, and none of it even personal?

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