PEI·Analysis

Voting options: First past the post

P.E.I. has had some electoral blowouts, including the first-ever electoral sweep in the entire Commonwealth. But it’s just this propensity of first past the post to deliver majority governments that proponents cite as its greatest strength.

Current electoral system provides stable majority governments, but can come at opposition’s expense

In 2015, under the first past the post system, voters on P.E.I. sent a Liberal majority government to the legislature. (CBC)

Between Oct. 29 and Nov. 7, Islanders will be asked to weigh in on electoral reform in a provincial plebiscite. This week, CBC will explain each of the five systems presented on the ballot.

Last week Joyce Dewar came across an old newspaper clipping while going through a box of family photos — an article from the Summerside Journal-Pioneer showing an historic moment not just in Island politics, but in the electoral history of the entire Commonwealth.

In 1935 P.E.I. became the first Commonwealth jurisdiction to experience a complete electoral sweep.

This article in the Summerside Journal-Pioneer looks at the complete electoral sweep in 1935. (Submitted by Joyce Dewar)

Under the first past the post electoral system, the Liberals on P.E.I. — including Dewar's grandfather Walter Jones, who later became premier — won all 30 seats in the legislature while the Conservatives were completely shut out.

Dewar delivered the clipping to CBC, saying it holds an important message for the current debate over electoral reform.

How first past the post works on P.E.I.

First past the post is lauded by some for its simplicity.

In P.E.I.'s current version of the system, voters in each district mark a single X beside the name of the local candidate they're supporting.

A sample ballot under a first past the post voting system. Voters are asked to mark a single X beside the name of one candidate. (Submitted by Elections P.E.I.)

The candidate with the plurality — that is, the one with more votes than any other candidate — wins. They don't need the support of the majority of voters.

In fact, in the 2015 provincial election, only six out of 27 MLAs received a majority mandate. The Liberals formed a majority government with 41 per cent of the popular vote.

In 1935, the Conservatives were shut out entirely even though they won 42 per cent of the vote.

Critics of first past the post talk about "wasted votes," in particular any ballots cast for a losing candidate, because they don't influence the outcome of the election.

In the 2015 election, 8,994 Islanders voted for the NDP — 11 per cent of those who turned out to vote — without electing a single member.

'First past the post has been good for Prince Edward Island'

P.E.I. has had some electoral blowouts — including more recent examples of single-member oppositions in 1993 and 2000, and a two-member opposition elected in 1989.

'You need a majority government to do good things,' says MLA Richard Brown, who supports the first past the post electoral system. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

It's just this propensity of first past the post to deliver majority governments that proponents cite as its greatest strength.

"First past the post has been good for Prince Edward Island," said P.E.I.'s Minister of Workforce and Advanced Learning Richard Brown, the longest-serving MLA in the current legislature.

"A lot of good things have been done under first past the post, and you need a majority government to do good things."

Brown said the current system keeps MLAs accountable to their constituents because they have to face voters in their district during every election.

Get a majority, toss them out in four years

If anyone would be justified holding a grudge against the current system it could be Pat Mella. She served as the only member of the PC opposition from 1993 to 1997.

Pat Mella served as the only member of the PC opposition from 1993 to 1997, but doesn't believe the current electoral system needs a complete overhaul. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

While she admits the current system could be tweaked, she said most of the options on the ballot for P.E.I.'s plebiscite go too far.

"I guess that I don't agree we're in such a bad space," she said. "It's not like we have high levels of corruption and everything is going to hell in a hand basket. So the idea we must change, that's up for debate."

Mella also said P.E.I. needs the majority governments first past the post serves up election after election.

"If they have a majority, they can make a decision — and you can toss them out in four years."

Time for change?

UPEI history professor Ed MacDonald believes it is time for a change.

Ed MacDonald, a history professor at UPEI, believes the current electoral system is due for a change. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

"The issue is the functioning of our democracy, and the legislature effectively doing its job and being a real sort of forum for real debate," he said, speaking not as a faculty member, but as a private Island citizen and voter.

"For that you need a House that represents more accurately a cross-section of our electorate."

Joyce Dewar agrees. After reflecting upon her grandfather's government in 1935 — with 30 seats on the same side of the house — she said, "It's not the way a parliament's supposed to work."

About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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