Electoral Reform in Canada

2015 has come to an end, and it has been an up and down year for me. I plan on elaborating on this in another post, but I’ll just say for now that posting more on my blog will be a part of what I hope will be a better 2016.

2016 is here, and for the Canadian federal Liberal government, electoral reform is on the docket. Indeed, if the Liberals are serious about this issue, they could make a lasting impact on our democracy, and change how politics are done in our country. However, electoral reform is not really something that is advocated by entrenched parties that have benefited from the current electoral system. So why is electoral reform being pursued? Let’s have a look.

What is wrong now?

This is a good question. Currently, Canada has a electoral system known as first-past-the-post (FPTP). This is a system of government that has its origins from the Westminster system in Britain. In FPTP, the country is split into districts (ridings) that generally try to encompass reasonably equal amounts of people, while taking into consideration demographics. In Canada, the district boundaries are generally drawn up by the non-partisan Elections Canada. The most recent redrawing of the boundaries was seen as an attempt to fix some of the problems that existed in the past few elections, such as the city of Saskatoon being split in half and included with large rural areas (thus not really taking into account demographics). In FPTP, a candidate who gets a plurality of votes, regardless of their share of the vote, wins. So what are the problems?

  1. Plurality can sometimes be far less than 50% of the vote. In many ridings, particular in suburban areas, there can be three, or even four way races. Candidates don’t have to win by consensus, only prevent the other parties from overtaking them. This is why the robocall scandal should have been a much bigger deal – it was aimed at reducing turnout.
  2. The results can be, and usually are, highly skewed. The past two federal elections bare this out, where the Conservatives and Liberals have both gained majority governments without coming close to achieving 50% of the vote nationwide. An example of FPTP distortion in the last election was the fact that every seat in Atlantic Canada went to the Liberals. However, this is not the worse example of FPTP is Canada. A good example is how the Progressive Conservative party was reduced to 2 seats in the 1993 election, despite coming a close third in popular vote with 16% of the vote. The Manitoba NDP won a huge majority in the 2011 election with double the seats of the PC Party, despite getting only 2.5% more of the popular vote. Perhaps the worst example is the 2001 British Columbia election, where the Liberal Party won all but 2 seats.
  3. FPTP was designed for a two party system – something that has not realistically existed in Canada since the earliest days of confederation. Canada is a widely diverse country where regional issue parties can come to dominate due to the concentrated effect of FPTP. Parties that represent widespread, but not concentrated support are not well represented. This can result it destabilization in federal politics, where single issue parties (recent examples – Quebec separatist Bloc Quebecois and western populist Reform) can sabotage efforts to maintain a strong, centralized federal government. Due to the fact that the norm in Canadian politics is for long periods of majority rule, it is pretty rare for coalitions to even be discussed without outright hostility.

These are the three main reasons I think that FPTP is a weak system for maintaining a strong, accountable democratic state. FPTP rewards parties that are able to discourage people from voting when their base is highly motivated. It causes extreme distortions in representation, where entire regions can be dominated by single party. Conversely, FPTP can damage the strength of the centralized state when the two-party dichotomy breaks down, which happened in Canada in the early 90s.

Reform, but how?

Proportional representation

In Canada’s Westminster system, there is little recourse for accountability when parties are able to gain a majority government, due to the tradition of party unity. MPs are expected to toe the line, or face getting removed from caucus, and have little chance at winning the next election. Although there are plenty of people who say that they appreciate the ability of directly electing members, realistically, the vast majority of people vote for a party. This is borne out by the complete lack of independent MPs in parliament.

So the question is, why do we need need direct representation at all? Let’s kill the majority problem with proportional representation. In a proportional representation system, it would be nearly impossible to gain an outright majority, and it would force the ruling party to gain at least one coalition party in order to rule. Now, people who are against reform usually cry out “look at the mess of countries like Italy and Israel, that is caused by proportional representation!” It would be a gross simplification to say that those countries’ problems are a result of the voting system. In the case of Italy, it has an extremely decentralized and weak state, where parties gain votes by handing out rents. The strength of the Canadian state is more similar to Sweden and Norway, countries that have stable governance under proportional representation systems.

Should Canada go with proportional representation? I’m not so certain. I think this system works best in countries with relatively uniform demographics. In Canada, I think that broad-based parties would be punished, and there would be a rise of single-issue regional parties, moreso than what we saw in the 1990s. It would all depend on the cutoff threshold needed to gain representation. In Sweden, that cutoff is 4%. Maybe such a high threshold would be sufficient to stop regionalism from dominating a Canadian proportional representation system, but I am not an oracle. It might take a while for the parties to come together and form alliances, and in that time it could mean costly elections.

Ranked balloting

In Australia, they solved the problem #1 on my list by introducing a ranked ballot system. In this system, you place a number beside each candidate, in order of who you prefer to be your MP. If no candidate reaches the 50% threshold, the last place candidate is removed, and those votes are redistributed to the second choice. This process continues until one candidate reaches over 50%. This system was introduced in Australia when the ideologically aligned Country and Liberal Parties kept getting defeated by the Labour Party due to vote splitting.

The problem with ranked balloting is that it does not fix #2 on the list – the tendency towards a two party system that can lead to grossly disproportionate results. In Australia, they always talk about the “two party preferred vote”, basically what happens if you remove the third parties out of the equation. The largest third party, the Greens, have only succeeded at winning one district, despite usually getting between 10-15% of the first preference vote. Although it might seem plausible for the Greens to be able to get more seats using ranked balloting in areas where they have high support, realistically it won’t happen because the Labour and Liberal parties have a practice of preferencing each other to prevent this. There have also been highly disproportionate majority governments in Australia, most recently the 2011 Queensland election, where the Liberal National Party won 78 and the 89 seats.

It is easy to see why the Liberal Party of Canada would prefer this option – it will result in them having a much easier path to victory. During the past 10 years, there has been a vote split between anti-Conservative vote – assuming that Liberal voters would naturally pick the NDP as their second choice and vice versa (something that I would say is not assured). However, the NDP and Green Parties overwhelmingly would pick the Liberals as their second choice, which would basically mean that the Conservatives would not have any chance in a close riding. The end result would likely be a Liberal-NDP two party system, with the Liberal Party initially dominating, but the NDP eventually making gains when it becomes apparent that third parties will be unable to win in such a system. If the Liberals push for this system, I truly believe that their intentions are nefarious.

Mixed Member Systems

Mixed member systems take the advantages of FPTP – namely direct representation on a per-district basis, and proportional representation – where there is a top-up to ensure that the regional or national party vote is respected. This is a system used in Germany, and I would say that it has been effective because of the top-up. The ruling party generally has to rule in with a coalition partner, but generally has a strong enough base that they can push forward most of their agenda with legitimacy (unlike in many places with a purely proportional system).

I think the effectiveness of a mixed-member system is largely dependent on how the representation is split up. In Germany, I think it works because there is an equal split between the directly elected members and the proportional seats. In Japan, it is not effective because there are far more directly elected members than proportionally selected members (not to mention the anemic opposition and the ridiculously high threshold required for legislation to pass, but that is another story).

The benefits to over pure FPTP are obvious – it would prevent the formation of a two party system, it would end the possibility of disproportionately large majority governments that lack opposition parties. It would represent a balance between regional parties that do well in single member electorates and broad-based parties that do well in proportional representation systems.

If the Liberal government is serious about fair electoral reform, I would suspect they would select a mixed member system.

Mandatory voting

This is another idea that gets bandied around a lot in the electoral reform circles – that every eligible voters should be forced to vote. Honestly, I think that it is sad that in a free country like Canada, that turnout generally is below 70%.

Would making voting mandatory improve politics in Canada? My experiences in Australia would suggest otherwise. Voter turnout in 2013 was 93%, and they elected… the Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott, a Prime Minister that was so tone deaf to the issues facing the country that he was turfed by his own party after less than two years. Also, the Labor Party, which was in chaos at that point after several years of internal bickering lost a grand total 4.6% of their first preference vote over the last election. Why didn’t Australians punish these parties, when everyone was forced to vote? It is especially bizarre given the ranked balloting system, that does not punish you for voting for a third party.

I think rather than outright forcing people to vote, there needs to be a larger effort to educate people on the importance of the vote. That starts in high school civics and history classes. It obviously isn’t working well at the moment, since turnout amongst young adults is usually abysmally low. There also needs to be a well balanced media that presents the issues, rather than the egos behind politics.

The Australian experience shows, I think, is that even though everyone knows that they have to vote, the media landscape prevents the proliferation of alternatives to the Labor/Coalition duopoly. The Greens were there, but their vote went down even as the other two parties wallowed in a pit of negativity. Most of the media coverage was focused on the drama of the Labor party between Rudd and Gillard faction. However, after Abbott was in power for a while, people seemed genuinely surprised and how bad he was, which indicates that people were not really paying attention. Abbott offered no positive vision for the future of Australia during his time in opposition, but rather reveled in the infighting that was going on in the ruling Labor Party. I’d like to think that anyone who votes in a non-mandatory system is at least knowledgeable on what the parties actually represent. In addition, in places where the seats are safe (such as in Canberra, where the Labor Party was assured to win), the parties didn’t campaign at all, because they don’t have to mobilize the voters.

How should this happen?

The impetus for my writeup is a recent editorial in the National Post by Rex Murphy:

The Liberal government does not have the right to change Canada’s voting system without first holding a referendum. The notion that we can fundamentally alter our democracy without subjecting the change to a full public consultation is simply wrong, as voting is not a privilege granted by a political party to the people — it is the people who vest power, for a limited time, in a political party. It is up to the voters to decide how they shall choose which party to give that power to.

I’ll grant that there should be full public consultation before any change to the voting system. However, I think that any referendum on the issue is doomed to failure. I’m not the only one who thinks that:

Trudeau could save time and forgo a referendum. And electoral reform initiatives in Ontario, B.C. and P.E.I. in the past have gone down to defeat.

“I think that would tell us how committed [Trudeau] is to it. Because if he goes the referendum route, it pretty much says he wants it to fail,” said York University political science professor Dennis Pilon, an expert in electoral reform.

Past changes to election law have not needed to go through a public referendum, and I don’t see why replacing the current FPTP system with something else would also require one. Rex Murphy’s editorial is mostly a bizarre attack on people who voted for the Liberal Party (the money shot it is when he says “It must be charming to look in the mirror, or an iPhone on a stick, and see Canada staring back”), rather than giving a good reason why changing from first past the post to another system is somehow unconstitutional.

If anything, first past the post is harmful, because it does not give an incentive to people who live in so called “safe seats” a reason to vote. Another current is how people vote “strategically” in a misguided hope of preventing a certain candidate from winning. The latter method may have helped the Liberals with their landslide, after it became apparent that the NDP was not going to win all of Quebec again. In previous elections, it actually caused a split in the vote, when people chose the wrong party to strategically vote for. Changing the voting system would mean a more honest vote and a better reflection of what people really want.

Past referendums on voting reform in BC and Ontario failed. For BC, there was a clear reason – the Liberal Party rigged it to fail, by setting the threshold of success to a 60% majority (which was an even higher margin than what they got in the 2001 election where they won all but two seats), and requiring a majority in all of the districts. In Ontario, the reason it failed was because the Ontario government failed to give adequate resources to advertise the choices, and therefore the people who voted had no knowledge about what they were voting on. Without understanding the choices, they voted overwhelmingly to keep the existing system.

How much would such a referendum cost? I have read that estimates of the cost of the last federal election cost somewhere between $300 and $400 million dollars. I don’t really see how a referendum on electoral reform would cost less than that, considering the amount of resources that would be needed to educate the public on the issue.

And let’s face it, if you asked a person  on the street “which voting system is better: First past the post, mixed member proportional representation, single transferable voting or instant runoff”, you will probably get a blank stare. Any referendum would require a massive collaborative effort by the government and the press to have success. I also think that the result of a referendum would be highly influenced on whether the ballot question was “do you want a new voting system (and if so, choose a system) or keep the existing system” or “here are the different choices of voting system, pick one”. If the question is set up as the sooner, I truly believe that people will vote for the existing system.

We elect members of parliament to make decisions on our behalf. This is because few people have the time or interest to study every issue in adequate detail, and having referendums on issues is costly and divisive. The average person isn’t going to have the experiences of living in different countries that have different voting systems like I have, and I certainly doubt they would spend the hours researching them. I think the later would would be required of all voters who vote on a referendum issue.

Concluding remarks

In 2015, the accessibility of the Internet and the rise of immigration as a means to stabilize Canada’s population means that Canada is more diverse than ever. In practice, FPTP does not really allow for this diversity to be properly represented within our government. However, entrenched interests will campaign against any change to the system. If you look at Rex Murphy’s article, it is seething with animosity, but has absolutely no defense as to why first-past-the-post is such a great electoral system. Similar articles appeared in other newspapers for this and other issues, and I think it fails to accurately depict the diversity in Canada and present a balanced view.

The Liberals have said that they will not hold a referendum, while the Conservatives have vowed to block any attempt at reform without a referendum. This is an unfortunate thing, because it would be essential to get all of the opposition parties on board as soon as possible to try and make the best system. I honestly don’t see why the electoral system is so holy that it must not be changed without a costly referendum, but it might have to happen just to get the Conservatives on board. One thing that is certain is that the politics of the nation will change dramatically with a different voting system. That may be that is the best case for reform of all.

One thought on “Electoral Reform in Canada

  1. Evan, thanks for your very thoughtful blog. I note that you are now in Sweden and have also lived in OZ. That certainly gives you a broad perspective on electoral systems. I would be interested in your comments on how electoral systems in those countries work.

    I have been quite involved in electoral reform advocacy for a few years. I have probably looked more closely at OZ and recently had the opportunity to meet with ABC’s electoral analyst, Antony Green.

    I would make a few comments for your consideration:

    1. The fundamental problem with winner-take-all systems is that electoral district boundaries create silos which lock up votes. A vote that does not elect an MP, drops off the table and elects no-one. In the last federal election, 9MM+ (51%) votes elected no-one. So where one lives and whose one’s neighbours are determines how effective one’s vote is. This video on the US electoral college demonstrates nicely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wC42HgLA4k

    2. The problem with regionalism in Canada is exacerbated by FPTP for the reasons above. Only proportional representation can provide representation for all major parties across Canada and heal some of the regional divides. Stephan Dion, who was tasked with fending off the Quebec separation referendums, frequently makes this point. Harper has also made this point in the past. http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/what-stephen-harper-was-writing-in-1997/

    3. A homogeneous society is not needed for PR. In fact, PR is the prescription to heal broken societies that have been war-torn and have competing factions. Under PR, no-one faction can lord it over the others. They must keep talking until they reach a resolution. Being heard, even if one does not always get what one wants, goes far to increase satisfaction with governance. Many Belgians will say that PR allowed them to save their country without violence after the 2010 election.

    4. We should not fear single-issue parties under PR. Any party with significant popular support should have representation. Extremism is better dealt with diplomatically than allowed to fester. PR encourages moderation and results in representing the median views of citizens. The purpose of vote quotas (either built-in or explicit) is to ensure a reasonable # of parties that coalitions can stick together. Small parties that do not get onside with the agenda of major coalition parties sit on the bench and lose their support.

    5. OZ has both an elected, proportional Senate and mandatory voting which greatly impact the performance of AV (ranked ballots in single-mbr rdgs) in its House of Reps. AV is winner-take-all and has the same results as FPTP 90% of the time. It’s only saving feature, that it reduces vote-splitting and strategic voting, is offset by the fact that it squeezes out smaller parties. Smaller parties may get more votes, but not more seats. In OZ, AV has effectively resulted in a duopoly, with smaller parties providing feeder votes for the major parties.

    AV also results in more contrived majority governments. OZ’s proportional Senate often blocks legislation from the AV-majority in the House. So Green considers OZ to have a federal proportional voting system. https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/TheAlternativeVoteBriefingPaper.pdf

    IMHO, AV would be very dangerous in Canada because we do not have effective protections against 1-party rule. Fortunately, I do not expect that it will be adopted by Parliament.

    6. Mandatory voting has led to more socialist policies in OZ but favours the larger parties who advertise heavily to disengaged voters. AV is not thought to have any moderating effect on govt policies on its own. http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/westminster_model_democracy/files/fowler_compulsoryvoting.pdf

    7. I agree that a premature referendum would not likely serve Canadians well in delivering electoral reform. Both citizens and MPs would be irresponsible in letting opposing factions bully them into a referendum just to avoid electoral reform without the broad consultations and consensus-building that Parliament needs to undertake.

    8. Extensive work has already been done on electoral reform in Canada. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. 10 studies/commissions all recommend PR, most often a form of MMP. The 2004 Law Commission recommended open list MMP. But, IMHO, any well-designed proportional voting system would be much better than FPTP or AV. http://campaign2015.fairvote.ca/reports/

    9. Ranked / preference ballots are just one element in a voting system. They may be used effectively in proportional voting systems too. Models here: http://campaign2015.fairvote.ca/suggested-videos/

    10. How we elect our politicians has a great impact on how they behave. PR will change the incentives that will result in more accountable, representative governance that provides better policies to the satisfaction of most Canadians. In that, PR will be transformational. But our democracy is not so fragile that electoral reform will be some risky experiment.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share!


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