Canada’s first-past-the-post voting system has contributed to 157 years of stable democratic governance in Canada, a track-record few countries can match. Yet calls for “electoral reform” have been increasing, based on the claim that FPTP is fundamentally undemocratic. Because candidates in a constituency need only a plurality rather than an outright majority of votes to win a seat, a party can win a solid majority, form a government and impose its will on the country with only a minority of public support.

Two activist groups, Fair Voting BC and the Springtide Collective for Democracy, argued at the Ontario Superior Court last year that FPTP was unconstitutional, that its failure to provide exact parity in the impact of each individual vote violates Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And last month, a group of MPs brought a motion in the House of Commons seeking to re-examine electoral reform. Both the lawsuit and the parliamentary motion were unsuccessful – but the issue is not likely to die.

Opponents of FPTP say a simple, more democratic option is available: proportional representation, or PR. Under PR, the number of seats allocated to a party reflects as closely as possible the percentage of the popular vote it received. As the activists argued before the court, “The adoption of a PR system in Canada would produce governments that represent virtually all voters.”

The problem is that there’s no evidence Canada’s democracy suffers because of FPTP, and plenty to suggest that PR would be worse.

Critics of FPTP often cite the work of the mid-20th century French political scientist Maurice Duverger. In particular, the so-called Duverger’s Law holds that FPTP tends to result in a two-party state, as in the United States, because it pushes people to vote “strategically.” Strategic voting means that people avoid supporting small parties regardless of how closely they align with their own views because such a vote is wasted. A vote for a “big tent” party that’s more likely to win, by contrast, makes a person’s vote “count” for more.

Duverger, like Fair Voting BC and the Springtide Collective, believed the remedy to strategic voting is replacing FPTP with PR. This makes sense at first glance since PR countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, do have more parties elected to their legislatures than, say, Canada or the UK. Individuals are voting for both small and large parties, which suggests an absence of strategic voting.

Once you begin to study the voting behaviour of a PR country, however, this theory comes apart. Levels of strategic voting are effectively the same in a PR country as in one with FPTP. This is because PR makes it nearly impossible for a single party to win an outright majority of votes, and so a coalition of several parties is generally required to form government.

Under such a scenario, voters will often abandon their favourite party for one that’s more likely to become part of a multi-party government. And research has shown that the odds of strategic voting are actually elevated in a PR system, given the greater number of parties and the volatility of coalitions. Allocating votes proportionately is thus no more or less democratic than allocation by plurality, at least where strategic voting is concerned.

A related argument – that coalition governments promote compromise among parties and hence foster broad public approval – may sound appealing, but it too fails on closer inspection. Coalition governments actually tend to be less accountable and less predictable than governments elected under FPTP because voters have no control over which parties are included in any coalition, how they sort out their internal differences or which party’s elected members are named to the governing cabinet.

As a result of such messy compromises, a small party can end up with an outsized role. After all, negotiating parties will embrace unpopular ideas if it means forming a government and remaining in office. Germany’s Green Party, for example, last year forced its coalition partners to back environmental legislation opposed by a majority of Germans.

PR can also allow fringe parties to find a way into parliament which, in turn, can give a greater public voice to extremism. It is much easier to win a few seats if they are allocated proportionally across an entire country than if seats must be won individually on a riding-by-riding basis as is the case under FPTP. In this way, small, radical parties can work their way into government once they establish an electoral foothold.

FPTP’s strength lies in its predictability and clarity. Canadians have historically been mainly governed by majority governments. The people know what to expect as the dominant party is free to implement its campaign promises. Once the public become dissatisfied, they can eject the governing party from office decisively, as shown in the 1993 federal election which saw the Progressive Conservatives virtually erased from their comfortable majority of seats to just two MPs. This sort of electoral punishment is impossible with PR as a party that loses representation can continue to participate in the next coalition.

The supposed benefits of PR are illusory. PR would not solve the dilemma of strategic voting and it would mean less accountable government, not more. Canada has thrived for over a century-and-a-half not in spite of its first-past-the-post way of voting – but because of it. The assumptions and rhetoric of “electoral reform” advocates are fundamentally wrong.

The original, full-length version of this article recently appeared in C2C Journal.

Nolan Albert is a political science student at the University of Calgary.