Imagining Political Science Prof. Dennis Pilon in his first career as radio DJ is not difficult. For one thing, his attire—tight cut blazer, narrow-collared shirt and skinny black tie—reflects a ’60s fashion sense that he calls “Kennedy administration meets the Beatles.” And then there is the way he talks. Pilon speaks with energy and ease about his research on electoral reform, articulating his points about different voting systems with punchy epithets. As he sits at his office desk for our interview, the only thing needed to complete the “Pilon-as-DJ” picture is a broadcast-quality microphone.
“I loved being on the air,” he says. “I like being a performer, and my students know that; they get a charge off that enthusiasm.” Indeed, in his third-year course, “Representation and Electoral Systems,” two or three students are often waiting at any one time, hands in air, to participate in the discussion. But working as a DJ at age 18, Pilon learned two things about the commercial radio industry: it doesn’t share his love of music, and it’s homophobic.
“As a young gay man, I thought, ‘I don’t want to live the rest of my life in a closet.’ So I decided it wasn’t really the career for me.”
After working various jobs, Pilon moved to England in 1987 for a pivotal year that sparked his enduring interest in voting systems and electoral reform.
“It was an interesting time to be in England, because you had the Clause 28 debate where the Thatcher Conservatives were trying to make it illegal for educational authorities to say positive things about gays and lesbians. So there were some really important political issues going on.”
Pilon became acutely aware of what he sees as a discrepancy between the promise and delivery of democracy. He began researching the mechanisms that translate votes into representation, earning a PhD along the way.
Does the Canada’s voting system deliver? “No, it fails miserably in the most basic things that it promises. So I’m saying, ‘Hey citizens, let’s start here, and make sure the building blocks of our system are sound.’”
Pilon’s 2007 book, The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System, written for the general public as well as an academic audience, systematically tests the claims made about both Canada’s current “first past the post” voting system and an alternative, proportional representation.
“It seems to me that PR [proportional representation] validates [democratic values] and first past the post violates them, in terms of our analysis of how the systems actually work. Not their theories, not what’s claimed for them, but their actual results in western industrialized countries.”
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