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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.
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
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
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
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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