Electoral Reform in Canada

Before his successful election on October 19, Justin Trudeau stated that if a Liberal government came to power, 2015 would be the last time Canadians took to the polls in a first-past-the-post (FPTP) election.

Prime Minister Trudeau made a lot of promises during the 11-week campaign, but few match the ambition of his vow to replace the current electoral system. While many Canadians are dissatisfied with the undemocratic elements of first-past-the-post, proponents of FPTP argue that the system produces stable governments that offer the personal touch of local Members of Parliament. Furthermore, cynics assert that after getting elected to a majority government with only 40% of the vote, the Liberals are extremely unlikely to change the system.

In order to evaluate this ambitious promise of the current government, let’s examine the current first-past-the-post electoral system and consider some of the alternatives that would be available to the Liberal government, should it attempt to change the system. We’ll describe each system by listing the pros, cons and some other jurisdictions where each voting method is practiced.

The Current System: First-past-the-post (FPTP)

How it works: In first-past-the-post, voters cast ballots in hundreds of different ridings across the country to elect a Member of Parliament who will represent the constituency. The party that forms government is almost always the party that receives the most MPs in parliament.
Pros: FPTP has a greater potential to result in stable majority governments that can accomplish a lot for the country. FPTP governments are also composed of MPs who can provide a personal, local touch that allows ordinary citizens to participate in government.
Cons: FPTP can result in false majorities. In 2011 and 2015, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau received majority mandates with only 39% of the vote. Furthermore, wasted votes are an issue with FPTP. In situations where a party is guaranteed to win a riding by a significant margin, any votes against the winning MP are irrelevant, as are the excess votes for the MP. FPTP also discriminates against small or alternative local parties that receive very little presence in parliament because they do not win any ridings, despite receiving a modest proportion of the popular vote.
Where it’s used: Canada, United Kingdom, United States

Proportional Representation (PR)

How it works: There are lots of different PR variants out there, but PR systems essentially award parties the same percentage of seats in parliament that they received in the popular vote. If a party receives 30% of the popular vote, the party will receive 30% of the seats in parliament.
Pros: PR directly represents the results of the popular vote, meaning that every ballot counts. PR can also strengthen consensus-building because alliances and coalitions are often required to govern in a PR system. Proponents argue that PR is the simplest and most democratic electoral system.
Cons: In traditional PR systems, parties fill their seats with members chosen from a list. This means that MPs often cannot provide voters with a direct, local link to government. In addition, the shifting alliances and coalitions of PR can weaken parliament and cause government instability.
Where it’s used: The Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden

Single-transferable Vote (STV)

How it works: STV operates with a preferential ballot, meaning that instead of electing one member from their district, voters rank candidates from their favourite to least favourite. As the ballots are counted, candidates with the least amount of preferred votes are eliminated and the votes for these candidates are transferred to the voter’s second-favourite candidate. This process continues until a sufficient number of candidates are elected.
Pros: STV minimizes the number of wasted votes. At the end of the day, everyone’s vote contributes to electing an MP.
Cons: STV is a relatively complicated system. It can take a long time to count the votes, and STV often requires very large constituencies. In 2005 and 2009, STV was proposed in British Columbia and ultimately rejected because many voters thought the system was too confusing and complicated.
Where it’s used: Ireland, Malta

Mixed-member Plurality (MMP)

How it works: MMP combines FPTP and PR. In MMP systems, half of the parliament is filled with elected MPs, like FPTP, and the other half is filled proportionally by the parties, as with PR. Citizens cast two votes, one for a representative and one for a party.
Pros: MMP provides voters with a local candidate who can represent their interests in parliament while also minimizing wasted votes and more accurately reflecting the results of an election. MMP also allows voters to elect a separate candidate and party, so a voter could hypothetically support an excellent Conservative candidate in their riding while voting for the Liberal Party.
Cons: MMP can be complicated and confusing for voters. Additionally, half of the parliament is accountable to party leaders rather than the constituents.
Where it’s used: Germany, Mexico, New Zealand

Electoral reform is a major issue and one of the most ambitious promises of the Liberal government. While there certainly are alternatives to FPTP, the Liberal Party may not have the support or political will to dramatically change the Canadian electoral system. However, it’s important to be aware of major electoral system pros and cons because elections help governments come to power and sustain Canadian democracy.

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  1. Robert Coutts says:

    Why does everyone who offers a suggestion for election reform always want to muddy the waters and make things more complicated? The entire exercise is to put small p politics back into Politics.

    The Direct Party and Representative Voting (DPR) http://www.dprvoting.org/ will both allow Parties to emphasize their influence and the Popular Vote to have it’s proper share of voice. Rather than partially explaining DRP here and then contending with responses that are under informed, please check out the website before reading further.

    As for how many seats and where they should be, I have (perhaps) a novel idea:
    The original purpose was to distribute votes in a politically correct weighted fashion, basically gerrymandering … and that is the system that is still in place … it sticks to promises that pre-date many of the provinces’ existence. The DPR system of Voting system (which you have read all about now, right?) eliminates the need for this method of seat distribution.

    So, now that we have finished the expansion of the Canadian geographical area, perhaps we should be looking at distributing the seats a different way. I would suggest using the missing practical link: who’s actually contributing financially to the (so called) Confederation. This way, the numbers of seats are not important at all. They are simply distributed based on who is contributing the most value to the Canadian federal pocketbook.

    How would this work? … well, it needs to be simple. Each province gets the number of seats proportional to their contribution to the GDP. In order to keep the swings out of the system, a (three year?) running average of Provincial GDP/Canadian GDP would dictate the number of seats each Province would get. The total number of seats available, I would suggest, is an arbitrary number … maybe something very practical like how many can comfortably sit in the House of Commons. The distribution would likely change from election to election but it would never be perceived as being gerrymandering like it is now.

    Summing up these simple and easy changes, in logical order:
    1) Redistribute the seats based on financial contribution to Canadian GDP.
    2) DPR based: Vote for governing Party and local Representation separately but at the same time.
    3) DPR based: House of Commons voting with 100% voter representation (To quote the ironically truthful Homer Simpson, “computers can do that”, although Homer’s was a question.)

    In other words, quit putting forth all these complicated systems as was the case through the Election Reforms Survey that was designed to suggest that any changes from FPTP would be so confusing that the status quo would be the default outcome … just so it could be said “Well we tried and you didn’t want to change”

    If my above suggestion was offered as the reasonable alternative to FPTP, you would find that the only ones that would be up in arms would be those who have had unreasonable representation advantages from the beginning. Keeping the status quo cannot be considered reform … so just do what is right starting today … just like a former Trudeau did by bringing the Constitution home.

  2. Richard Lung says:

    Dear Ashton College,

    Your article on electoral systems, you must realise, is too simplistic. Yet it is by no means as misleading as some. A false impression is fostered of an exclusive choice between preferential and proportional systems. That is not truly the case.

    Reading Canadians posts about what kind of an electoral system they would like, the two most common prerequisites were firstly that it should be proportional and secondly that it should put an end to strategic voting to avoid wasting ones vote.

    A preference vote, for first, second and third et cetera choices, means your first choice is not wasted because that candidate is too popular to need all their votes, or not popular enough to secure an elective proportion of the votes.

    Strategic voting applies not only to individual candidates in first past the post elections, but also to Party list systems or Mixed Member Proportional systems. People may not vote for their favored large party. Instead, they may vote strategicly for its partner party to better its chances of forming a coalition.
    In short, the so-called Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation, as the proportional count of preferential voting, is essential for “effective voting.” (Term used for STV, by the nineteenth century Australian reformer Catherine Helen Spence.)

    STV, on nearly 58% of the votes, easily would have passed the first BC electoral reform referendum, had not the provincial government moved the goalposts with a double 60% barrier.
    The second referendum allowed a disingenuous campaign of fear mongering to put off British Columbians, who naturally have no expertise. This undid a good years work, summarised in the BC Citizens Assembly report, the population had previously trusted.

    I have written two books on the subject!
    Please consult for your interest, free from Smashwords:

    Peace-making Power-sharing:
    https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/542631

    Scientific Method of Elections:
    https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/548524

    Amazon charge their discretionary fee.
    Peace-making Power-sharing:
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00XM3CE2O

    The second book also out at Amazon now:
    “Scientific Method of Elections”
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00Z4QIAPC

    Thankyou for your time.
    Richard Lung.

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