Where my vote really counts

I’ve just voted in the third national election in three years and it’s the only one where I feel like my vote matters. I have three citizenships: Canadian, American and Dutch, and I can vote in all three national elections, but I always feel like my votes in the first two countries are a bit of a show without much substance.

Everyone knows a lot about the US system and what a hot mess it is these days, so I don’t need to talk about gerrymandering and the Electoral College and all those fun topics. I vote in New Mexico, where my father lives, in a reliably blue county and state. I know it’s important to vote to make sure it stays that way (Every Vote Counts!) and I dutifully emailed my ballot in, but it really doesn’t feel like it made a difference. Only a few states have that power.

Canada is not a mess, but I still have difficulty feeling like my vote counts. In 2019, the Supreme Court allowed expats to vote, no matter how long they’d been gone, so the federal elections in that year were the first time I could vote since I left the country in 2007. The riding I register in as an expat is my last address, which could be where I last lived, or maybe could stretch to my parents’ address, which I still use for some things. Both ridings, however, are among the 30% of those considered “safe” for the party who holds them. The last riding I lived in is the strongest of NDP (social democratic) strongholds. My parents, on the other hand, live in a staunchly Conservative riding, which does not match their political choices. And in a first-past-the-post system, only votes for the winning party count, just like in the US.

However, also just like in the US, there’s also a difference between what the popular vote says and who’s in power. At the moment, there are five parties with seats in Parliament (the Conservatives (right), the Liberals (middle), the NDP (left), the Bloc Québécois (Québec separatists) and the Greens). In the last election in 2019, the Liberals got 33% of the vote, but 46% of the seats, mostly because of the NDP and Greens got far fewer seats than their popular vote would indicate. Their support is spread over more ridings, while the Conservatives and the Bloc are more clustered.

It is of course also possible the popular vote may not be entirely representative, as some people vote strategically. I chose to register at my last address, but I actually voted Green, knowing that they wouldn’t win the riding but wanting to provide them with visible support. However, if my riding had been anything but super safe, I probably would have voted NDP, just to make sure that vote splitting didn’t allow the Liberals to win.

The Netherlands, now, here I feel like my vote was counted. For those of us used to a district system, it seems like a complex system. There is a lot of choice: 37 parties participated in this last election, each with a list of up to 50 candidates. The ballot is the size of a small tablecloth as it needs to fit the names of up to 1579 candidates. You vote for one of them, filling in a circle with a red pencil. 1

Seats are allocated on the basis of how many votes the party gets. The total number of votes cast is divided by the number of seats in the house (150), to give the number of votes needed to get a seat. Then each party who gets at least that number of votes get one seat for each multiple of that number. You can see a simplified version in this table (which does represent the 17 parties that won seats this time). I won’t go into all the parties here, except to say that A is the party of the current Prime Minister and that overall the right did better than the left. If you want more details, go here.

Of course, in real life things don’t work out that neatly. Parties have extra votes that aren’t enough for a seat, and some parties don’t get enough votes for even one seat. There are complicated formulas to figure out how to distribute these leftover seats. But for the most part, the make-up of the parliament reflects actual voting in a way simply not possible in other systems.

Within the parties, individuals are given seats first based on whether they passed the vote threshold individually (25% of the votes needed for a seat), and then based on their order on the lists. So, party H, for example, got 8 seats in total, but numbers 9 and 10 on the list each got 250 votes for themselves. The party seats numbers 1-6 of their list, plus 9 and 10.

Of course, not all is rosy when it comes to representation. A government still needs to be formed, which is difficult when that requires a coalition of at least four parties to get a simple majority. The biggest parties now see who they can come to a coalition agreement with. The parties within the coalition hammer together a comprehensive package of agreements, which bind the parties to voting certain ways on certain subjects. While it would be difficult to govern without that, it does make debate on the subjects somewhat limited. The parties in the coalition are bound by their agreement and those outside it can’t get a majority. This limits the democratic principles of the government after the election.

However, the problem of a lack of meaningful debate with the parliament is shared by all three systems. We’ve definitely seen it the US, with the Republican stranglehold on the Senate. In the UK-based parliamentary systems like Canada, the governing party usually has a majority and the party controls the vote on important topics with party whips. I’m not sure if there is a system that combines effective governance with free debate on issues – I’d love to hear about it if there is.

So, despite the problems inherent in a coalition government, the Netherlands is still my favourite place to vote. Oh, I’ll keep sending in my other ballots, as I do believe in doing my part in a democracy, but will especially relish the more direct influence I have on who is in the government here.

  1. It’s important that the pencil is red, so many of us ended up with souvenir red pencils this year due to Covid precautions.